Christopher Shay

Will Cristal's college dream survive the summer?

Many low-income high school graduates who intend to enroll in college succumb to 'summer melt' and fail to matriculate

NEW YORK — It was late July, midway through a remedial writing course for incoming freshmen at City Tech, a public college in Brooklyn. Cristal Pantaleon, a reserved 17-year-old with long black hair, waited for the professor to return her graded essay. At the top of the first page, in purple ballpoint pen, were two circled letters: “R” for rewrite and “F” for fail. “Cristal, please see me to explain your work to me,” the professor added in neat, descending script.

Just a month earlier, Pantaleon had stood in front of hundreds of people to collect her high-school diploma. Her mother, three younger stepsiblings and eight other relatives traveled from upper Manhattan and the Bronx to attend the ceremony in a sleek theater downtown. Pantaleon, first in the family to graduate, received a community service prize and the Phoenix Award, for most-changed student. In her acceptance speech — partially in Spanish for her mother — she thanked the school’s college counselor for making higher education seem attainable.

Yet as the summer rolled along, amid swelling anxieties about schoolwork, tuition and the hour-plus commute to and from campus, Pantaleon began to doubt whether she would end up at City Tech.

The gap between senior year of high school and the start of college can be a treacherous one for low-income students. Twenty to 40 percent of public-school seniors who intend to enroll in college “melt,” or fail to matriculate in the fall. According to Ben Castleman and Lindsay Page, authors of the new book "Summer Melt," the students most at risk are the poorest, the first in their families to advance beyond high school and often, like Pantaleon, those headed to community college. In the weeks following high-school graduation, without the help of guidance counselors or parents knowledgeable about college, they face a “distinctly ‘nudge-free’ time” — unmarked by deadline reminders and other academic cues.

For Pantaleon, applying for financial aid proved particularly daunting. “Especially because no one in my family went to college,” she said. “It’s like ‘Agh, I’m stuck.’ ” 

'Me, go to college? No way.'

Cristal Pantaleon hangs out in Morningside Heights with her best friend, Shardey Carbajal.
E. Tammy Kim

The first-generation college-goer is a stock character in the theater of the American dream — the dry cleaner’s son who graduates from Princeton, the inner-city youth who gets a full ride to Berkeley. Yet “most poor kids follow the slow, meandering path through college. They’re much more likely to attend part-time rather than full-time and more likely to withdraw,” said Karl Alexander, a retired sociology professor at Johns Hopkins University and co-author of "The Long Shadow," a book based on a 25-year study of poverty in Baltimore.

That Pantaleon made it through 12th grade was an achievement. During her freshman year at Essex Street Academy, her New York City high school, “the staff described me as a very, very angry child,” she recalled. “I yelled, I left school whenever I felt like it.” Things were tense with her mother, who shuttled for a time between the family home and her boyfriend’s apartment and left Pantaleon to care for her stepsiblings. The household was under constant financial strain, making do on food stamps and whichever low-paying jobs her mother and mother’s boyfriend were able to find.

Pantaleon started cutting her forearms, a habit she hid under long-sleeved shirts. In the middle of junior year, her classmate and best friend, Shardey Carbajal, spotted the marks and alerted Susie Kang, a science teacher Pantaleon had started to trust. The crisis drew her close to teachers and staff and produced a dramatic reversal: During senior year, she made up classes and projects. She spent less time at home and more at school, arriving before the 8:20 a.m. bell and staying until 5 p.m. to work on applications with Ingrid Wong, the college counselor, or to help operations manager Nick Tapino with clerical tasks.

She did well enough to wrangle a C average and win admission to the State University of New York at Canton, a four-year college six hours away by car. Once she considered the cost and distance, however, she chose to enroll at City Tech, a school accessible by subway. By attending part-time in the associate's degree program, she thought, she could get a job and pay part of the $3,000-per-semester tuition.  

In her high-school graduation speech, Pantaleon had told the crowd: “What really encouraged me to come to school more was community service with Ingrid [Wong, the college counselor] … I would think, ‘Me, go to college? No way. What a waste of money.’ But Ingrid showed me what college has to offer.”

The motivating nudges that had come every day from Wong and other teachers evaporated in the summer heat. They had their own lives and families, Pantaleon said; she was too proud to “keep bothering them.” 

The kinds of support students need are general. They need adults to believe in them and training to help them know what the heck they’re doing.

Joshua Steckel

College counselor in Brooklyn

The threat of summer melt

As July and August wore on, Pantaleon went back and forth on her plans. Some days, she spoke energetically about college — her ambitions to transition to a four-year university and become a computer programmer or teacher. Other days, she was ready to quit or delay enrollment: What if she didn’t pass her writing test or couldn’t pay? she wondered. Wasn’t it nobler to get a job and support her family?

Logistical details proved vexing. In early August, she didn’t know the date of her final writing exam and wasn’t sure how much her fall courses would cost or how to pay for them. Pantaleon had come to rely on her counselors and high-school teachers for such details and had difficulty getting organized on her own. She also struggled to find time for herself: In the family’s apartment, the only reliable spot to access the Internet was beside the always-blaring TV.

Had Pantaleon chosen to attend a four-year college or even full-time at City Tech, she might have benefited from summer counseling and tuition assistance. The City University of New York, which runs City Tech, offers academic support to students through a program known as College Discovery. And many four-year schools in New York host “opportunity programs” for full-time students from disadvantaged families, most of whom are immigrants and the first in their family to pursue higher education.

Pantaleon’s high-school classmate Deisy Cedeno was admitted to the full-tuition opportunity program at Barnard College; she took a monthlong college-prep course in July. “It was very stressful and intense because of the workload,” Cedeno said, “but it was really nice to have a support group there coming from the same backgrounds, to have people understand what you’re coming to and what you’re going to face.”

I wasn’t a school person. If I stopped, I knew I wouldn’t go back. I would focus on work, nothing more.

Cristal Pantaleon

High schools are also working with nonprofits to combat summer melt. The College Bridge program, run by College Access: Research and Action, or CARA, assigns a cohort of recent graduates from individual New York City public high schools to an alumni “coach” who has completed at least a year of college. The model, which one coach said involves a lot of “Facebook stalking,” blends nudges (“Did you complete your student loan tutorial yet?”), troubleshooting (“I’ll go with you to register for classes”) and empathy. Lower-cost outreach using automated, customized text messaging has also been shown to help, in studies conducted by Castleman and Page. 

Last year, CARA’s program and two others like it reached a combined total of 6,900 seniors at 87 public high schools. The proportion of students in the program who successfully applied for federal financial aid grew by 45 percent between June and September, the nonprofit groups say, and the number of students who put down a college deposit doubled. Essex, Pantaleon’s high school, participated in College Bridge for the first time this summer. But because she was close to Wong and taking the summer writing class, one of a handful offered for free at City Tech, she was not identified as one of the 20 high-risk students (out of 70 graduating seniors) who received mentoring.

In the remedial writing course, guided by much purple ink, she slowly learned to braid thoughts into prose. “Before, I hated talking about emotions,” Pantaleon said. “It got better, but I don’t like putting it in essays, and it’s like, I don’t think anybody cares what I’m feeling right now.”

After class, she took care of her cousins and stepsiblings and worried about paying the electricity bill and buying groceries. She looked after and occasionally tutored her best friend, Carbajal, who had missed much of senior year because of depression and family trouble and was on the verge of dropping out.

To stay connected to her high school mentor, who now works at the New York City Department of Education, Pantaleon volunteered at a DOE event over the summer.
Christopher Shay

As the start of the fall semester drew closer, “I started thinking about not going [to college],” Pantaleon said, “because of the tuition.” College would be expensive — at least $1,000 per semester, even part-time — and give her less time to babysit and assist her mom with chores.

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, with its numerous financial queries, seemed intrusive. It was difficult to account for the food stamps and combined earnings of her mother, her mother’s boyfriend and an adult cousin. Fed up with the process, she declared one day in August, “I’m going to pay in cash. I don’t want to mess with financial aid.” Nor did she want to apply for loans: “I have too much pride in myself to accept things or ask for help from other people.”

A few times over the summer, she texted Wong, her former college counselor, for advice. She also volunteered at events where Wong, now employed with the New York City Department of Education, would be speaking. It made Pantaleon feel reassured and reminded her of someone who’d “made it.” 

“The kinds of support students need are general. They need adults to believe in them and training to help them know what the heck they’re doing,” said Joshua Steckel, college counselor at Brooklyn School for Collaborative Studies and co-author of the book "Hold Fast to Dreams."

Most high schools are not equipped to provide mentorship and counseling of any sort to students in need. The average counselor shoulders twice the recommended caseload, according to the American Counseling Association. In the 2012-2013 academic year, New York City schools had only 1,295 guidance counselors [PDF] for nearly 250,000 high-school students.

Wong, however, gave Pantaleon the tough love she was seeking. “She told me it’s my decision, to stop going back and forth on it, that if I stop now, it will be harder to go back.” This simple advice made sense, Pantaleon said, because “I wasn’t a school person. If I stopped, I knew I wouldn’t go back. I would focus on work, nothing more.”

The students most at risk of summer melt are the poorest, the first in their families to advance beyond high school.
From their apartment stoop, Pantaleon calls out to her mother over the intercom.
E. Tammy Kim

Then, on the August midterm in her remedial writing class, Pantaleon received an A minus, enough to fuel her sprint toward fall semester. “I came to my senses and said, ‘No, I have to go!’ ”

But just days before the start of fall semester, Pantaleon ran into another obstacle: On a visit to check the results of her final exam — which she had passed — she stopped by the registrar’s office at City Tech. The bill for just two subjects came to $2,500, more than twice what she’d anticipated. “I was shocked,” she said.

On her hourlong subway ride home, she came close to giving up, at least for the time being. Maybe she could take out a loan, she thought, or get a job in retail to save up for the following semester or year. Back at the apartment, she told her mother that she planned to drop out.

Pantaleon, who had come to expect little from adults in her family, was surprised and relieved by her mother’s response: “My mom said, ‘I’ll pay for it.’ She said she doesn’t want me to drop out of school.” Newly encouraged, Pantaleon enrolled in two night courses: English and remedial math.

One Tuesday in early September, after babysitting the kids and helping her mother clean the apartment, she got on the subway and headed south toward Brooklyn. When she arrived at City Tech, the evening weather was cooling down, verging on cardigans, and the sidewalk outside the school was thick with backpacks. Pantaleon had just purchased one of her required English books, "They Say/I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing." “We’re learning about language,” she said. “It’s better than high school. Everybody’s more mature — they’re more active, involved in class. They ask questions.”

Next semester, she plans to enroll full-time, per Wong’s advice, and will try once again to obtain federal financial aid, she said. Her best friend, Carbajal, has landed a part-time job at a motel and has promised to finish high school, though she still worried about attending without Pantaleon.

As a full-fledged college student, Pantaleon now sees herself as “a role model for my brother and sister.” Yet school will continue to be just one of many obligations. “If I put myself first, I feel selfish,” she says. “Sometimes I feel like an adult in a teenage body … For [college], I have to be selfish, but I won’t be selfish enough to let go of my responsibilities.”  

Editor's note: This version of the story clarifies the description of City Tech's offerings. While all students start at the college in an associate's degree program, City Tech does offer some bachelor's programs.

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