09/27/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

College Access: The Missing Link

The Obama administration is drawing attention to the hemorrhage of low-income and minority students out of the educational pipeline as a current national problem heading toward a future national crisis. On target are government efforts to expand federal financial aid and community college. These strategies should result in more students with the means and academic support to pay for college and graduate.

Despite these promising directions, the current debate on postsecondary access overlooks a crucial period that derails the college plans of many low-income students who successfully graduate high school and gain college admission. The education pipeline springs a leak at the very last moment: during the summer after high school graduation. This is not a "summer melt," in which admission offices anticipate the non-arrival of a small percentage of their successful (middle-class) applicants who confirmed at more than one institution or were accepted from other schools' waiting lists. Instead it turns out that the traditional straight line of college application-acceptance-choice-matriculation does not hold for a substantial proportion of low-income high school graduates. The period between spring admission confirmation and fall matriculation features a "summer flood" in which graduates continue fundamental decision-making about where--and even whether--to attend college.

The summer flood is coming to light in a climate of accountability in which educational researchers are increasingly following students closely across the transition from high school to college. For instance, Big Picture Learning -- of whose Longitudinal Study I have been director since its inception in 2006 -- has traced the paths of graduates from its national network of high schools. Big Picture Learning is notable for its success in graduating low-income students and helping seniors gain admission to college. Even under this best-case scenario, however, follow-up studies of Big Picture graduates show that at least one-third of Big Picture students seriously reconsider their college plans over the summer following high school graduation. A similar study of urban Chicago high school students shows an identical percentage of pre-college "drop-out" by students who have already been admitted to at least one postsecondary institution.

As wrap-around support from the high school or college prep program fades and colleges wait for their new crop of undergraduates, many low-income students take their new diplomas into a summer of unclear expectations and mixed messages. They struggle to put together money for the first year of college and to envision what it will be like to attend. Personal and family unfamiliarity about college interferes with a smooth transition to higher education. Conditions associated with socioeconomic disadvantage, such as family instability, pregnancy, undocumented immigrant status, and pressure to remain home with non-college friends and romantic partners also arise over the summer to shatter the fragile correspondence between knowledge, support, and will. In many cases, first-generation students serve as a source of income for the family or as interpreters for non-English speaking parents. Claudia, a student from California who played a vital role in her family's day-to-day operation, expressed that when it came time for her to leave home for college, "her family was not ready to see her leave." This dynamic calls for counseling to help students and their families with the transition to college.

When one or more of the college factors slip out of alignment, as is the case for many low-income students over the summer, it is easy to fall off course. The result: Unlike middle-class high school graduates, low-income students do not spend the pre-college summer buying sheets for their dorm room and making college friends on Facebook. Instead, they revisit the very question of whether to go to college.

The matrix of obstacles to college access for low-income students of color is well known in Washington. New here is an emphasis on the summer between college acceptance and enrollment as a vulnerable time. A careful hand-off between high school and college becomes essential in the absence of steady summer alignment among student self-view, supports, resources, and practical knowledge. Programs that help students stay connected to adults and effective structures during the vulnerable summer transition months can enable students to stay on track with their senior year plans. For their part, colleges can start early by working with their admitted low-income and first generation students in the summer before initial matriculation.

The summer flood is low-hanging policy fruit. Targeting attention to existing organizations and the vulnerable summer period will go a long way toward ensuring college access for low-income youth who very much wish to attend.