Each year across the United States, 20-40 percent of high school students accepted into a college or university fail to enroll, a phenomenon known as “summer melt.” And, according to the U.S. Department of Education, “the lower a student’s income, the more likely they are to experience summer melt because they lack the necessary resources and support.”
Yet across College Possible’s six sites, 93 percent of high school students who take part in one of our Summer Bridge programs go on to enroll in the college of their choice. And in Chicago, in collaboration with Thrive Chicago, Chicago Public Schools and the college access community, we have reduced the number of CPS students who fail to enroll in college from 3,000 to 2,000 per year. How do we achieve such success? Through a focus on diminishing the academic, social and financial barriers that so often derail low-income students, a focus achieved with the dedication of transition coaches.
Easing the Transition
Marweh Saleh is one such coach, choosing to serve as an AmeriCorps coach in College Possible Chicago after earning her B.A. in biology from Earlham College.
“I chose AmeriCorps because I wanted a position where I could immediately hit the ground and start gaining experience. I chose College Possible, specifically, because they serve a population that I saw myself in. College wasn’t easy for me for a variety of reasons, and knowing that I could pass on my experience and knowledge as a transition coach really resonated with me.”
In Summer Bridge, College Possible coaches work one-on-one with students to ensure they stay on track to enroll in college in the fall, offering help and reminders about completing financial aid and scholarship paperwork and identifying any financial barriers that remain; solidifying housing plans; reviewing resources available to students and identifying on-campus supports; and, in some cases, acting as the student’s cheerleader and motivator.
Doris Medina, another transition coach in Chicago, notes, “A lot of students get scared during the summer months, or when they see their first school bill. Often they do not tell anyone, just let it go and decide not to attend college. The work that we do helps those students come to us with their doubts or fears because they have come to trust College Possible, and they know we will do whatever it takes to help them out.”
These emotions are ones Doris can relate to. As a first-generation college student, she found herself at the same crossroads: accepted into a college but unsure of the next steps she needed to take to make her dream a reality. By serving as an AmeriCorps coach at College Possible Chicago for two years, Doris felt she could allay similar fears among the students she served.
A Life’s Calling
College Possible’s near-peer coaches make a difference for all the students we work with, from high school juniors to college seniors preparing to graduate. These coaches, near in age and often similar in background to the students they mentor, dedicate one or more years post-graduation to our mission. For some, such as Sarah Dorfman, one year of service is not enough.
“I served as a college coach after graduating from the University of Illinois in 2017, then returned for two summers as a transition coach. My time at College Possible has shown me the systematic injustice stemming from the stark divide between low-income and high-income students.”
Her time with College Possible also led to what may very well be her life’s work: Sarah is now working toward earning her master’s degree in social work at the University of Chicago.
Jerrod Hunter joined College Possible Chicago to help address the divide he saw between the services offered to CPS student and those in his high school, Urban Prep Community Academy.
“My high school had a strong counseling team. Those advisers did all they could to ensure every student could go to college, and their support was instrumental for me. I wanted to follow in their footsteps of service and help the next generation of kids through the process.” For Jerrod, AmeriCorps service with College Possible achieves more than measurable results. “I see how happy these students are to be doing something that they thought they would never do: go to college. I see the confidence developing that will help them throughout college.”
For Jerrod and the other transition coaches who serve in Chicago and across College Possible, their time as AmeriCorps members provides them with friendship, career preparation and personal satisfaction. But most importantly, perhaps, it provides them with the chance to offer the encouragement, mentoring and support students need to remind them that they have not only earned their place on campus, they deserve their place on campus.
by Lisa Guyott