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Mittzy Matamoros, a senior at John Henry High School in Richmond, California, must quickly make some big decisions about her future. She was accepted at several sought-after four-year institutions, such as the University of California, Irvine, and the University of California, Merced, but then the coronavirus pandemic swept the world. Her mom, a restaurant server, and her dad, a plumber and construction worker, lost their jobs. Now her college future is less certain.

Mittzy Matamoros of Richmond, California, planned to go to a four-year college in the fall, but because her parents lost their jobs in the coronavirus pandemic, she’s now leaning toward enrolling in community college. Credit: (Photo courtesy of Mittzy Matamoros)

“They would just tell me it was too expensive for them to afford right now, especially during this time,” said Matamoros. So instead of going to a four-year institution as she’d planned, she’s  leaning toward enrolling at nearby Berkeley City College, a community college.

If Matamoros graduates from college, she’ll be the first in her family with a degree. As a potential first-generation college student, she’s more at risk than peers whose parents have degrees of not making it to her first fall semester or not completing her college journey altogether.

Every year, high school seniors who will be the first in their families to attend college fall victim to what’s called “summer melt,” but this summer, because the pandemic has closed schools and eaten away at household finances, the risk is even higher. Colleges and universities, as well as nonprofit organizations, are scrambling to reduce summer melt by reaching out with virtual summer bridge programs, texting and remote peer-counseling.

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Matamoros is getting help from Richmond Promise, a nonprofit organization that awards college scholarships and offers college guidance. When Richmond Promise launched in 2016, 33 percent of students in the program experienced summer melt, said Jessie Stewart, the executive director. In 2017, it implemented various supports for students to help with their transition from high school senior to college freshman. Now, she said, only about 9 percent of participants fail to enroll in college immediately following their last year of high school.

“We’re texting with 173,000 students through the chat bot.”

Eric Waldo, executive director, Reach Higher Initiative, and vice president for access and equity, Common App

“We want summer melt to go down to zero,” Stewart said. 

Between 10 and 20 percent of high school seniors who are admitted to college and intend to go don’t make it to the first day of school, according to the Brookings Institution.

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Richmond Promise Scholars receive peer counseling from current college students and workshops on topics such as how to interpret a financial aid award package, how to connect to resources on campus and how to plan and use a budget. In past years, these activities took place in person, but now they will happen online. Stewart is expecting around 700 students to participate.

Related: College dreams often melt away in summer months. ‘Near-peer’ counseling is helping keep them alive

Students will also get some help from Beyond 12, a national nonprofit organization that remotely coaches underrepresented students to get to and through college. In April, Beyond 12 announced the launch of its COVID-19 Virtual College Coaching Corps to increase its outreach to current and soon-to-be college students who are low-income, first-generation or identify as an ethnic minority. About 2,500 students in Beyond 12 have virtual coaches – and about 47,000 students in total use Beyond 12’s mobile platforms for help with filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, finding mental health services on campus or visiting their campus advisors. But now, combating summer melt is a top priority, said Alexandra Bernadotte, the founder and CEO.

“There’s a significant population, particularly for the students we serve, that even though they’ve gotten into college, they tend to drop off over the summer,” said Bernadotte. “We’re providing them with reminders and push notifications that are coming either through the app or text messages, to help them understand what are some of the barriers and what are some of the requirements and the activities in which they need to engage over the summer to make sure that they are eligible to actually show up on day one.”

About 2,500 students in Beyond 12’s coaching corps have virtual coaches and about 47,000 students use its mobile platforms for help with filling out forms or finding services

Eric Waldo also hopes texting will help students stay on course. Once it was clear that the pandemic would have a long-term and likely adverse effect on college guidance, Waldo, executive director of Michelle Obama’s Reach Higher Initiative and vice president for access and equity at the Common App, teamed up with the College Advising Corps and AdmitHub to launch a chatbot specifically for low-income and first-generation students. These students can text the bot basic questions about things like the college application process, financial aid forms or campus housing, and quickly get a response. If the question is more complicated, they are put in touch with a counselor from the College Advising Corps.

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“We’re texting with 173,000 students through the chatbot,” Waldo said.

Related: Universities that boost the poorest students to wealth are becoming harder to afford

At the University of California, San Diego, underrepresented students in the now-virtual summer bridge program may participate in virtual dance parties and virtual karaoke, in between learning how to navigate university life and taking two classes. The summer bridge program will run for eight weeks starting in July.

About 500 students will participate, which is on par with years past, said Charles Lu, director of the university’s Office of Academic Support and Instructional Services. Applications for summer bridge have actually increased, he said, which means a few students may be turned down. About 80 percent of Summer Bridge participants are first-generation students and about 75 percent are from low-income households, he said.

“Students have actually been really excited about the opportunity because it gives them something to do,” said Lu.

“We still want to retain that element of community building because that’s been such a huge and pivotal foundation of the program, in terms of building cultural competency.”

Charles Lu, director of the Office of Academic Support and Instructional Services, UC San Diego

They will be divided into groups of 15 to 20 students for certain activities, much as they would if they were on campus and living in residential halls, with mentors, the way past Summer Bridge cohorts did.

“We still want to retain that element of community building because that’s been such a huge and pivotal foundation of the program, in terms of building cultural competency,” Lu said.

Community colleges are also trying to make it easier for students, and their parents, to stay motivated during summer months. The president of Northern Virginia Community College, Anne Kress, has been holding video sessions with parents about financial aid and transfer agreements, said Frances Villagran-Glover, vice president of student services.

In April, NoVa announced it would use money from the federal stimulus package to allow rising high school seniors and those who have just graduated to take two summer classes for free and earn college credit, which can be transferred to other institutions.

“You get a student in the door to try out a class, small classes, the high quality of our instructors who teach the classes. That can’t replace a billboard marketing campaign,” Villagran-Glover said.

Matamoros hopes that after two years of community college at Berkeley, she can transfer to a four-year institution. But for now, she’s working five or six days a week at Baskin-Robbins while finishing her senior year.

“This is a very difficult time,” she said.

This story about summer melt was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our higher education newsletter.

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Delece Smith-Barrow

Delece Smith-Barrow is a senior editor for higher education at The Hechinger Report. She was a 2017 Knight-Wallace Fellow at the University of Michigan, where she spent a year studying how top-tier universities...

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