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Central Texas Schools Fight 'Summer Melt'

A view of UT Austin's campus from the Main Tower.
Jeff Heimsath for KUT News
Barely two-thirds of high school grads in Texas who want to go to college actually make it there.

For many students, that summer between high school graduation and the first year of college is one of anticipation and excitement.

But for others, it can present roadblocks that can lead students to not attend college in the fall. 

Four Central Texas school districts are teaming up with the University of Texas Ray Marshall Center and the Austin Chamber of Commerce this summer to try to get more recent high school graduates planning to attend college to actually make it to the first day of classes next academic year.

“How to navigate enrollment, orientation, signing up for housing, knowing about immunization, those are little stumbling blocks that can come up in the summer,” said Gilbert Zavala with the Austin Chamber of Commerce.

The chamber says that 90 percent of Central Texas high school students plan to directly enroll in college, but only 62 percent will show up to the first day of class. Del Valle High School counselor Susan Mabry says most of those students are low-income or the first in their families to attend college.

“Their parents have not been through the process, so it’s very easy for one little thing to trip them up,” Mabry said.

Parents can also be the reason kids don’t make it to college as well.

“If the parents have never experienced it and they’ve not walked on a college campus, they have no clue what that child is going to have to face,” she said. “Their fears come from the unknown.”

The drop-off is called the “summer melt.” And the Austin Chamber says Central Texas performs 10 percent worse than the national average of students aiming for college who don’t actually make it to campus. 

But this summer, education advocates are joining forces to change that. Austin, Pflugerville, Del Valle, and Hays school districts are working on a pilot project. Throughout the summer, Zavala says, counselors will communicate with students in many ways, including text, mail, one-on-one meetings or social media.

“Because it’s evaluating what the effect of all of these activities and support programs is, students are going to be randomly selected into those groups so we can see what really works,” Zavala said.

They’ll provide answers and insight where parents may not be able to.

At the Ann Richards School in Austin, 73 percent of the 2013 graduating class would be the first family member to attend college. Principal Jeanne Goka says the school is going beyond the Summer Melt program. They’ve hired a counselor to keep in touch with the students throughout college.

“Just getting them to college wasn’t good enough for us,” Goka said. “We have to get them to graduate from college.”

Ultimately, Zavala said increasing the number of college-bound will help the local economy:

“It means that employers looking to expand in our region or locate to our region as we bolster college readiness, direct-to-college enrollment rates, are going to have a deeper pool of students and workers they can draw from to help make their business successful,” he said.

The program will work with 7,000 central Texas students, and the chamber is hoping to increase the number of college-bound graduates in the area by 5 percent.