In a normal summer, up to one-third of students who graduate from high school with plans to attend college never make it, according to the U.S. Department of Education. The phenomenon, called summer melt, can be common in poorer San Antonio neighborhoods with low rates of higher education attainment.

College counselors do their best to combat summer melt. They text reminders about enrollment deadlines, help students with financial aid and scholarship applications, and even take trips with students to college campuses.

This year, with campuses closed until May 4 because of coronavirus, counselors fear summer melt could extend by several weeks, harshening the impact and lessening the number of students who ultimately enroll in college. There’s also concern that younger high school students may be impacted.

The ripple effects of coronavirus have intensified this fear. Coronavirus has brought financial insecurity and job losses to many families, raising questions for some about how to afford higher education. It also complicated regular deadlines and protocol for standardized tests.

“I hate to say it’s on the back burner for so many families, but when the decision is survival versus what are we going to do in the fall of 2020, I know what I would choose,” said Lisa Cunningham, executive director of the San Antonio Education Partnership.

Cunningham’s organization oversees Café College, a center that offers San Antonio students help with college counseling, career planning, and financial aid applications. Since it was founded in 2006, Café College has served more than 53,000 students.

Coronavirus shut down in-center operations at Café College, driving counselors to conduct work online, virtually reaching students in need of help. But it can be a challenge to reach San Antonio’s most vulnerable who have other priorities or lack access to necessary technology.

“All of the gaps that we knew were there. Whether anecdotally or because we have actually witnessed it, [they] are being exposed,” Cunningham said. “It’s almost like this flood and the water has receded and all of the cracks have shown their face and this inequity of access is just shocking. It’s glaringly obvious where our vulnerable need the most help.”

Families don’t always have access to a computer, forcing some students to only use the internet from a phone, she said. That’s not conducive to the college advising process, though. Operating virtually, college advisors need to share screens to walk students through applications or financial aid forms.

Some students are now receiving notifications from the federal government that there might be issues with their financial aid forms. If students don’t know how to fix them and don’t have easy access to an advisor who can walk them through the needed changes, they might not complete the process, Cunningham said.

“We’re not even hearing from our top students, so that’s why we’re worried.”

Lanita Wiltshire, college advisor at Sam Houston High School

For Lanita Wiltshire, a college advisor at Sam Houston High School, virtual advising is no substitute for in-person conversations with students. During the regular semester, Wiltshire works closely with students, pulling them out of class to visit her office, walking with them down the hall, and sitting side-by-side to fill out forms and applications.

She’s one of the counselors that accompanies prospective students on trips in the summertime to visit college campuses around the country. This summer, she planned to take students to California to visit colleges on the West Coast. Now, that trip is canceled, as is her in-person work.

“We’ve not had very much contact I’d say from all of our students, and I’m not just talking about Sam Houston, but across our district,” Wiltshire said. “Getting all their fees, and acceptances, and deciding which college acceptance to take, and all those major decisions that we typically help them with in the room, we have to now do remotely. And right now, for us at Sam Houston, we’re not even hearing from our top students, so that’s why we’re worried.”

Wiltshire and the other SAISD counselors meet daily via videoconference, making plans to reach students at home. Each has a list of their families’ phone numbers and calls them individually. Getting in touch can still be a challenge.

Wiltshire considered adjusting her work hours to nighttime so she could have a better chance of reaching parents once they are home from work.

She hopes that school will be able to return for even a few weeks at the end of this school year so college counselors can work in tandem with students.

She’s found it’s hard to reach students who may not have access to high-speed internet or devices of their own. Normally, these students would go to the library to get online, but those are closed, too.

For the time being, Wiltshire continues to call and send e-mails to her students, reassuring them that counselors are available as a resource and students should reach out with any questions or needs for assistance. She knows that completing coursework for the spring semester can be a challenge on its own and doesn’t want to overwhelm or add to any students’ anxiety, but recognizes that students will have to act fast on some processes already in play.

Financial aid is one of those processes that will likely require more immediate attention from students. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, asks students to fill in financial information from the previous year. Coronavirus may have changed many families’ financial situations, and more aid may be needed as a result. Students can update that information to factor in recent financial hardships, but it’s another step in the process to complete.

Required standardized tests also could complicate admissions for younger high school students. All spring exams for the ACT and SAT have been canceled. The ACT is offering free rescheduling to June or at a future test date. The SAT plans to add additional ways to take the test but foreshadowed concerns that coronavirus might have a longer term impact.

“If, unfortunately, schools cannot reopen this fall, we’re pursuing innovative ways to ensure all students can still take the SAT this fall,” a post on the SAT’s website said.

At least one local school is responding to the changes in standardized exams. On Tuesday night, Trinity University officials announced the school would implement a new test-optional policy in its admissions process. Students won’t have to submit standardized exam scores with their applications for the next three years, beginning with those applying for the fall 2021 semester. At the end of the three years, university officials will evaluate the impact of the policy and decide whether to extend or end it.

Trinity University is turning 150.
On Tuesday night, Trinity University officials announced the school would implement a new test-optional policy in its admissions process. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

“The vast majority of high school juniors in this country are going to be entering senior year, perhaps without having sat for a standardized test,” said Eric Maloof, Trinity’s vice president for enrollment management. “Trinity views these circumstances as much more than an inconvenience. They create the first in a series of hurdles that all of our applicants are trying to navigate through the college admissions process.”

Changes to financial aid and standardized exams make it that much more important for students to reach out to college counselors, who predict the number of students pursuing higher education this year will have a big impact on how the community recovers from coronavirus.

Counselors see higher education as a way out of financial troubles that may have arisen because of coronavirus.

“The degree to which we recover and how quickly we recover economically will be because of our post-secondary strength and collaboration that we have between our school districts and all our higher education institutions,” Cunningham said. “And if we see [the college going rate] decrease, it is going to have I think generational effects. … I just can’t think that that will happen and resign to it.”

Café College asks those in need of help to fill out a form online, and an advisor will follow up within 24 hours.

Are you an educator or do you have a student in your home who now has to learn remotely?

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Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.