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Summer Melt: Why Aren't Students Showing Up For College?

Rates of "summer melt" are highest for students from lower-income backgrounds, especially if their own parents didn't go through the college application process.
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Rates of "summer melt" are highest for students from lower-income backgrounds, especially if their own parents didn't go through the college application process.

Every year, many students who have overcome daunting obstacles in high school receive good news — they've been accepted to college.

These kids represent a success story: through hard work and determination, they've made it into college, and perhaps even on to a better life.

Except it doesn't always work out that way.

"The rate with which kids who are college-intending do not actually get to college in the fall is surprisingly high," says Lindsay Page, an education researcher at the University of Pittsburgh. "In one sample that we looked at in the Boston area, we find that upwards of 20% of kids who at the time of high school graduation say that they're continuing on to college — about 20% of those kids don't actually show up in the fall."

Researchers call this phenomenon "summer melt" — and for universities, it has long been a puzzling problem. Because these are the kids who made it: they've taken the SATs, been accepted to a college of their choice, applied for and received financial aid. Why wouldn't they show up for college on day one?

This week on Hidden Brain, we explore this problem, and how one university is working to fix it.

The Hidden Brain Podcast is hosted by Shankar Vedantam and produced by Jennifer Schmidt, Rhaina Cohen, Parth Shah, Thomas Lu, Laura Kwerel and Adhiti Bandlamudi. Our supervising producer is Tara Boyle. You can also follow us on Twitter @hiddenbrain, and listen for Hidden Brain stories each week on your local public radio station.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Shankar Vedantam is the host and creator of Hidden Brain. The Hidden Brain podcast receives more than three million downloads per week. The Hidden Brain radio show is distributed by NPR and featured on nearly 400 public radio stations around the United States.
Rhaina Cohen is a producer and editor for NPR's Enterprise Storytelling unit, working across Embedded, Invisibilia, and Rough Translation.
Tara Boyle is the supervising producer of NPR's Hidden Brain. In this role, Boyle oversees the production of both the Hidden Brain radio show and podcast, providing editorial guidance and support to host Shankar Vedantam and the shows' producers. Boyle also coordinates Shankar's Hidden Brain segments on Morning Edition and other NPR shows, and oversees collaborations with partners both internal and external to NPR. Previously, Boyle spent a decade at WAMU, the NPR station in Washington, D.C. She has reported for The Boston Globe, and began her career in public radio at WBUR in Boston.
Parth Shah is a producer and reporter in the Programming department at NPR. He came to NPR in 2016 as a Kroc Fellow.
Jennifer Schmidt is a senior producer for Hidden Brain. She is responsible for crafting the complex stories that are told on the show. She researches, writes, gathers field tape, and develops story structures. Some highlights of her work on Hidden Brain include episodes about the causes of the #MeToo movement, how diversity drives creativity, and the complex psychology of addiction.