Post-high school support helps graduates avoid ‘summer melt’

Lisa Johnston | lisajohnston@archstl.org
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Rosetta Bell already had her college plans lined up when she donned a cap and gown last month at her graduation from Rosati-Kain High School.

Rosetta plans to study chemistry at St. Louis University and hopes to be a pre-med student. She earned a scholarship from the university and has applied for federal financial assistance — including grants and loans.

Beyond the funding she already has lined up, the family still needs to fill a gap of about $10,000 to make the cost affordable, said her mother, Florence Bell.

Rosetta and her mother recently visited the High School to College Center, an effort of St. Louis Graduates to help high school graduates finalize their college plans.

While many high school graduates make plans to attend college, Harvard researchers have found that nationally up to 40 percent of students succumb to "summer melt" — a phenomenon in which they never make it to college campus in the fall, despite having some plans in place.

Common reasons for this include insufficient funds to pay the tuition (despite obtaining some financial aid, loans and scholarships) and trouble understanding the process and paperwork involved in making their plans for college. Many times, those students are first-generation college attendees, low-income or minorities.

According to project director Laura Winter, there is a 14-percent gap between degree completion in the overall population in St. Louis and the African-American population. Speaking personally as a woman of faith — Winter attends St. Francis Xavier "College" Church — she noted that she is "compelled to address that gap. It's an inequitable system that we have in this community ... we can make sure all students have equal opportunity to benefit from post-secondary education."

The Bells visited with Wanda Garner, a high school counselor and St. Alphonsus "Rock" parishioner who has volunteered at the center for the past five years. She helped Rosetta set up an account at Scholarship Central, a web-based system that connects students with more than 100 scholarships specific to the St. Louis area. Rosetta also talked with representatives from the Scholarship Foundation of St. Louis, which provides interest-free college loans. She had only heard of the organization just a few weeks ago; despite missing the application deadline for this year, she plans to apply next year.

"The counselors have so many students that they're trying to push through and get to graduation," Florence Bell said. "The big thing is having the step-by-step support. It sounds like it's easy, but a lot of times — like me — you're working, have things going on. There's a lot of information and things pass you by and you don't know about it."

Garner has been an educator with the St. Louis Public Schools for about 30 years. She started as a high school social studies teacher, and then moved into high school counseling, most recently at Cleveland Junior Naval Academy. She joined the center because of a desire to help students through the process of getting into college.

"While they're in school, as counselors we try to prepare them for everything and we think we have everything in place for them to go. But then over the summertime, either they have trouble getting to school or they don't have enough money. So then you'll see somebody working at Jack In the Box, and you're like, 'Why are you here?'"

In other cases, some loans require a quick repayment, which, if left unpaid, can have a ripple effect — sometimes blocking access to transcripts and terminating scholarships. "So if the next year you haven't paid that off, then you can't come back to school," Garner said. "You're paying off something that you never really had a chance to use."

Reflecting on her Catholic faith, Garner said that everybody has a calling from God to be present to others. "When I went to college, I had no idea that I was going to be a teacher, and then end up being a counselor," she said. "But I see that God puts you into places to do what you should be doing. These kids should be given opportunities — they are our future doctors and lawyers ... Sometimes people forget that they're kids and they need a little guidance and someone to care and listen to them." 

>> Increasing access to college

St. Louis Graduates is a network of college access provider organizations, K-12 education, higher education, philanthropic funders and businesses that serve youths. Founded in 2008, its mission is to increase the proportion of low-income, first generation and African American students in the St. Louis region who earn a postsecondary degree.

In the St. Louis region, an adult with a bachelor's degree has median earnings that are 77 percent higher than someone with only a high school diploma. A person with some college or an associate's degree has earnings 23 percent higher than someone with a high school diploma. Approximately two-thirds of jobs will require some form of postsecondary education yet only 41 percent of adults in the region have a postsecondary degree. Among African Americans, only 27 percent have a degree.

The network participates in advocacy in areas that affect students. It also operates the High School to College Center, a drop-in center where students finalize college plans, including seeking funding sources such as scholarships, help with the admissions process and other questions.

The center is open from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays through July 27 (closed July 4). It is located at 618 N. Skinker Blvd. in the University City Loop. For more information call (314) 932-6956 or email info@stlouisgraduates.org. Or visit www.stlouisgraduates.org. 

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