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How to Survive Financial Aid Delays and Avoid Summer Melt

A pre-matriculation checklist can help high school seniors persist with their college dreams
Student checklist illustration

In response to this year’s troubled rollout of the new Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), a number of colleges and universities have pushed back their enrollment and deposit deadlines beyond the traditional May 1 decision date. However, as a result, some seniors may find they no longer have the support they need to complete numerous tasks and successfully matriculate, after they graduate from high school.

Accurate numbers are hard to come by, but every year a portion of college-intending high school graduates don’t show up in the fall because they have been overwhelmed by the many steps needed to get there. Research has found rates ranging from 10 to 40 percent. The phenomenon, known as “summer melt,” is most common among low-income and historically underrepresented students, and some high school counselors and college access advocates are now worried that the problem could be exacerbated because of this year’s FAFSA delays and challenges. Almost 30 percent fewer high school students had submitted the FAFSA form by the end of March, compared with the same time last year, according to the National College Attainment Network

Group text nudges

“Even seemingly simple tasks can become significant barriers to timely college enrollment,” particularly for first-generation students whose families have no prior experience with the process, states the Summer Melt Handbook: A Guide to Investigating and Responding to Summer Melt, produced by Harvard’s Strategic Data Project. Its authors encourage school districts to pursue active outreach efforts and interventions over the summer to help college-bound students, including digital prompts.

At the Academy of the Pacific Rim Charter Public School (APR) in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Boston, members of the college placement team have helped structure low-cost anti-summer melt campaigns to support counselors with high ratios of students. With a “group text nudge you can front-load a lot of information and you can pre-schedule [it] with some of the texting platforms,” using personalized messages for individual students, explains Diane Scott, Ed.M.’97, one of the team’s co-directors.

Scott and her colleagues have found that a checklist can be especially helpful for graduating seniors. Their list includes important tasks that students can be reminded about over the summer, via text messages.

APR’s pre-matriculation checklist:

  • Complete any required verification paperwork. Students need to be prepared to prove the accuracy of any information they listed on their application for financial aid, including income and asset data, as well as citizenship status, explains Scott.
  • Set up student portals and an email account with the college or university you plan to attend.
  • Complete online entrance loan counseling. Scott describes the process, which is designed to help students understand the terms and conditions of any federal loans they have accepted, subsidized or unsubsidized, as similar to taking an open-note quiz. Students are required to sign a master promissory note to acknowledge their understanding.
  • File a financial aid appeal if your family’s current financial situation does not reflect the information that you listed on your FAFSA.
  • Waive your college’s health insurance if you are already covered by a parent/family plan.
  • Take college placement tests, if required. 
  • Attend an orientation session.
  • Request any special accommodations. This is relevant for students who received services in their school districts through a 504 Plan or an Individualized Education Program (IEP).
  • Provide proof of state residency if attending an in-state public institution. 
  • Set up an initial advising appointment. 
  • Complete housing forms if planning to live on campus.
  • Provide proof of immunizations.
  • Get set up with a federal work-study job, if eligible.
  • Try to get connected with a point person or affinity group on campus to help foster a sense of belonging.

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