The issue was raised again last summer in Hechinger's in a story that in turn called back to a book from 2014, so this is not a new issue. But as Benjamin L. Castleman and Lindsay C. Page noted in Summer Melt, we don't just have a problem getting low-income students to aspire to college or apply to college-- we have a problem getting them to show up once they're in.
Back in August, Meredith Kolodner wrote the piece "Why are low income students not showing up to college, even though they have been accepted?" but August is not the time to think about the problem because by August, it's too late.
Students are applying. Students are being accepted. And then, Castleman and Page report, 40% of the accepted students just don't show up at campus in the fall.
This is a problem.
Kolodner reports that financial issues are often a leading culprit. Financial issues can be more than simply not having the money. Navigating the FAFSA is hard. Figuring out the loan system is hard. For a first generation college student, college loans can add up to the biggest amount of money the family has borrowed ever, and that can be scary as hell.
Financial issues for poor families also include just about anything unexpected. An unanticipated medical bill is enough to trash a family's finances and make borrowing five figure amounts seem irresponsible.
And as often noted, many poor and first-time-college families just don't know how to navigate the bureaucratic highways and byways of attending college. Meeting deadlines, knowing what fees are necessary and which are optional, knowing what to expect-- these may all seem like second nature to families with a history and knowledge of higher education, but can leave other families as confused as a yacht club member at a NASCAR rally.
And that's just when things go as they should. Kolodner tells stories of students who get caught up in and frustrated by bureaucratic screw-ups. It takes institutional comfort to deal with these-- in other words, someone who's not used to dealing with this kind of screw-up might accidentally assume that the college admissions office or financial aid office or any other sort of college knows what it's doing all the time. More savvy and experienced parents will tell tales of having to repeatedly call and push and call again until some paperwork snafu is finally fixed. It is the kind of Kafka-esque nightmare that can be hugely irritating for some (the school my nephews attended had better never call my sister and ask for a contribution if they know what's good for them) but completely demoralizing for others. And low-income families that are used to being on the powerless end of the stick can be especially susceptible to just giving up.
Are there things we can do?
Kolodner reports that some colleges and universities have created coaching models and/or peer-to-peer network models that provide a native guide for low-income enrollees. That seems like a good idea, though even better would be work by those of us in high schools. It is easy as college-educated grown-ups who work with plenty of college-bound and college-savvy students and families to stop keeping an eye out for students who just don't know what to do or how to do it. Too much information about the process is framed in a "this makes sense if you already know it" manner.
Listening, watching, paying attention, asking-- we need to be doing all those things. It's January, and in the next month or two, there will be students sitting, looking in frustration at college applications they can't figure out and hearing announcements about things they don't understand. This is not because they're stupid, but because the Going To College culture is one they aren't familiar with. They are no more stupid for not knowing how to navigate the artifacts of college culture than my mother is stupid for not knowing the difference between East Coast and West Coast rap.
It starts today, because yesterday the e-mails went out for PSAT scores, which means that many students are now smack in the center of powerful marketing cross-hairs. This is the other challenge of prepping students for the college transition, one that Kolodner doesn't address-- the vast amount of information aimed at students is aimed at them by people with something to sell. It's like having consumers get all of their information about housing loans from companies that profit housing loans (and that's never ended badly).
It's not our job as high schools to just launch students in the general; direction of college by pulling the slingshot back and blindly letting it rip, then brushing off our hands and saying, "Well, we did our part." And it's definitely not useful to educate them in a no-excuses, follow-orders, keep -quiet-and-do-as-you're-told environment that gives them zero preparation for the independent college life they will have to navigate. We need to give them all the information and guidance, paired with strength and confidence, that we can to increase the odds that next fall, students who want and need to be on college campuses will be there.