Senior prom and high school graduation are two rites of passage most of us have enjoyed, possibly even taken for granted. But this spring, high school seniors might miss out on more than that. Take Amara:  Just like nearly every other senior, she is finishing out her K-12 career remotely — without the traditional pomp and circumstance. Amidst this critical transition from high school to college, the COVID-19 pandemic is forcing students and their families to adjust to a new reality.

Amara is a strong student with the privilege of internet access, familial resources, and support to adapt to this new reality. Even so, she is experiencing high levels of emotional stress as she finalizes her college decision with less guidance and structure than she is used to. College Signing Day, which is generally celebrated May 1, is postponed into June in some cases, but COVID-19 challenges might force a growing number of students to forgo college altogether. That’s why schools and districts have a role to play — now and into the summer — in creating the structured supports needed for students from low-income backgrounds, first-generation students, and Black and Latino students, like Amara, to persist on the path to college.

The pandemic will exacerbate summer melt

For numerous reasons, college acceptances do not always translate to college enrollment. That’s because the work doesn’t end once students receive their acceptance letters. Among other steps, students and their families must complete financial aid forms, such as the FAFSA, apply for scholarships, and submit enrollment forms. In a normal year, many first-generation students and students from low-income backgrounds are vulnerable to financial struggles, inadequate support, and unclear communication the spring and summer before college. This phenomenon, known as summer melt, affects anywhere from 10% to 40% of college-intending students, and first-generation students and students from low-income backgrounds are more than twice as likely than other student groups to fall out of this process and not enroll in college.

But this year, given the pandemic, challenges are exacerbated and inequities may worsen — even if students are on track. High school seniors are currently not in school buildings discussing their college plans with their teachers and school counselors. For first-generation students and students from families with economic hardships, these staff are key resources for understanding the college-going process. COVID-19 also gives rise to disproportionate health and financial impacts on Black, Latino, and family members with health and economic-related hardships. It can also impede their ability to access stable internet to register for classes, to pay for college, and even visit colleges or attend orientation given college campus closures. The resulting stress on parents and caregivers leaves children who are in the most need with even more uncertainty. In Amara’s case, COVID-19 has heightened economic pressures for her family; for example, the pandemic-induced recession leaves her parents’ daycare business vulnerable. In evaluating her college options, Amara has learned that what may be affordable now, may not be a year or even a month from now. Having access to resources and guidance can make a world of difference for her, and other students facing challenges.

What schools and educators can do

Inequities have always existed on the path to college. But this pandemic unearths the already uneven terrain and make it more likely that some students will lose their way. So, it’s important to support Black and Latino students, students from low-income backgrounds, and first-generation students during the high school to college transition. Schools and districts should adopt the following practices to propel students toward college:

  • Provide students distance learning opportunities to recover any pre-pandemic missed credits or make up any pre-pandemic missed courses so students graduate college and career ready.
  • Require regular communication (phone, text, or virtual) between students, families, and school staff, in their primary language, to discuss college plans, financial aid options and appeals, scholarships, and any adjustments to academic requirements that may affect college application or enrollment processes.
  • Address summer melt by creating text messaging campaigns or collaborating with higher education institutions or college access organizations to remind students of key deadlines and college-going tasks. For example:
    • Checking email for communications from higher education institutions
    • Completing the FAFSA and scholarship applications; and
    • Registering for classes
  • Connect families to resources available to support them amid the pandemic (g., microgrants in federal stimulus funding) and ensure that families are aware of how to benefit from new opportunities
  • Communicate changes and practices employed during school closures with higher education institutions, potentially via cover letters attached to high school transcripts, so seniors are not penalized for academic disruptions.

Schools around the country are already thinking creatively and providing continuous college advising to students. By being strategic and intentional, school leaders can help students’ college dreams become reality this fall.