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October 15, 2020

Applying Lessons Learned from the Fight to Curb Summer Melt through COVID-19 and Beyond

This blog post is part of a series of introductions for our College Promise Policy Briefs, which aim to critically analyze Promise related research and program experiences in order to offer recommendations for actions or evidence-based policies to leaders of the College Promise movement.

This week, Jessie Stewart, Executive Director of the Richmond Promise, writes on Meeting the Moment and Raising the Bar: Applying Lessons Learned from the Fight to Curb Summer Melt through COVID-19 and Beyond.

This spring and summer, the threat of summer melt was magnified by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has generated additional economic instability, heightened general uncertainty, and exacerbated existing inequities within higher education that we know far too many students face. This brief discusses how the Richmond Promise coupled a foundation of near-peer support to mitigate summer melt to keep students on the college track with swift, rapid COVID-19 relief. Because of these interventions, as of September, the organization has seen an increase in cohort size and has kept enrollment numbers largely consistent despite the pandemic. It also highlights how the pandemic has pushed the Richmond Promise to reconsider and expand what is “Promised” to its Scholars to achieve long-term equitable supports. Finally, this brief outlines proven, scalable, and translatable programmatic innovations, lessons learned from this unprecedented summer of 2020, and how the Richmond Promise is translating this short-term action and lessons learned into a plan to reach its longer-term equity and transformation goals with extended support for Scholars through and beyond the COVID-19 pandemic.

Up to one-third of high school seniors who intend to go to college the fall immediately after they graduate high school never make it to their first semester of college classes. Many of these students are low income and the first in their family to go to college. Due to this phenomenon, known as “summer melt,” summer is one of the most programmatically crucial times of the year for many Promise initiatives and college success programs across the country to provide a home-base of support for students to navigate through steps to successful college enrollment.

The COVID-19 pandemic has cultivated an unprecedented environment that is much bigger than any one program or organization. The continued struggles of students across the country have shed a spotlight on many challenges facing students around meeting basic needs: far too many students are one emergency away from having to stop out; many students begin college without a personal computer; and a significant number of students are food and housing insecure. For program leaders, policymakers, and practitioners, the question is: how will we meet this moment? The COVID pandemic has generated "a call to action" upon which we must collectively act - at the local, state, and federal levels - to make higher education affordable and accessible to all, especially those who have been more impacted and marginalized.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also spotlighted something else: the ability and agility of local place-based organizations, like Promise initiatives, to effectively and quickly meet student and community needs during a time of crisis. This policy brief provides a case study on how one such local Promise initiative, the Richmond Promise, is adapting its programs and policies to support students through and beyond the pandemic.

Policy Recommendations

One of the primary lessons learned from the past few months is that the most pressing needs and inequities within higher education magnified by the COVID-19 pandemic are not unique to this moment. In the spirit of the Promise movement, the following recommendations are driven by local experience and learnings, offering actions for other Promise programs and local partner organizations as well as a suggested broader and collaborative path forward to impact policy and systems toward equity in higher education:  

  1. A Promise is More than a Scholarship; Expand (and Budget for) What We Promise - The Promise movement has always known that a Promise is more than a scholarship, but the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed Promise leaders to think critically about the digital divide communities face and the impact of emergency funding, so that students will continue to be supported. Programs should think about innovating and building in emergency relief and digital support into their package of student supports, with increased fundraising as an essential part of their student success strategies.
  2. Near-Peer Programming Support is Powerful and Reciprocally Impactful - One of the most effective and unique elements of a Promise initiative is the place-based nature of the program and the powerful identity and belonging that comes from a shared community. Richmond Promise’s network of college students helped them develop their near-peer strategy of programming, where they employ and train Richmond Promise Scholars as interns to deliver summer transition programming. This near-peer support provides younger students with relatable and relevant role models, enhancing the impact of the programming, while also employing current college students, giving them professional development and financial support.
  3. As Programs Scale, Monitor Equity Gaps and Plan to Differentiate Supports - Promise programs are unique in that they share a mission to reach and include all students, not just students who apply for competitive scholarships or opt-in to college access programming. This universality confers a responsibility to monitor equity gaps and think about strategies and differentiated supports that are relevant for a diverse student community. In response, the Richmond Promise monitors equity gaps and listens carefully to its students. Its peer-to-peer coaching system enables triage support for Scholars, and they have built a robust partnership with the nonprofit organization Beyond 12 to match near-peer college coaches with Richmond Promise community college students, who can benefit from enhanced individualized support. The Richmond Promise emergency fund also gives the program the capacity to identify and meet the needs of their most vulnerable students. Lastly, careful data analysis allows them to create initiatives to support students in areas of greatest needs.
  4. The Promise Scholarship as a Powerful Catalyst for Student Participation - Where there is evidence of programs working, incorporate and communicate the eligibility requirements as part of the scholarship. For example, attending a college success workshop and attending a one-on-one appointment with a near-peer coach is a requirement for the Richmond Promise, and has made a significant positive impact on reducing the summer melt rates and engagement among students, with nearly 90% of students attending the workshops and appointments.
  5. Allow for Flexibility in Program Policies - It is said that “complexity is the enemy of equity” - and so too is rigidity. Programs must be willing to be reflective and responsive in light of program learnings and changing conditions, and consider policy changes to keep students within the program and connected to critical supports during extenuating times. For example, the Richmond Promise waived the full-time enrollment requirement for this academic year.
  6. Listen to Students Over “Best Practices,” and Don’t Be Afraid to Adapt Policies and Program Requirements - Identify formalized pathways for students to participate in the administration of Promise programs. The Richmond Promise supports a Scholar Board, an Alumni Association, and Near-Peer college interns who offer their experience, policy, and program recommendations to inform and guide the programming and strategy. This summer, these students were a critical voice on how the Richmond Promise structured their relief fund, innovated virtually, and set additional supports to meet the needs of its Scholars. It has always been clear that the Richmond Promise was, and needed to be, more than a scholarship program. COVID-19 has only underscored and validated the necessity of additional wraparound supports, and the need for programs to allow for flexibility and adaptation in policy in order to effectively support Scholars amid extenuating circumstances. Sometimes this means pressing pause on “best practices” and listening to students.
  7. Learn to Serve a Digital Generation - Virtual programming, despite its challenges, provides an opportunity for creative engagement, flexibility, scale, and expanded participation. With the knowledge that the digital divide creates a tremendous equity gap, participation in online programming has maintained levels of previous participation in the Richmond Promise. The additional capacity afforded through virtual meetings has allowed programs like Richmond's to offer a wider breadth of specific topics for students and a wider range of scheduling options. Using Zoom, Instagram, TikTok, and other social media platforms is key, and students, by and large, understand how to use these technologies.
  8. Virtual Does Not Replace the Personal - While going virtual, Richmond Promise doubled-down on its college partnerships, and ensured students were connected to a point-person on campus, a near-peer college student, and a Beyond-12 coach. Ensuring students receive a warm and personal hand-off to their support system during the summer is critical to ensuring a successful start to college.
  9. Direct Service Programming is Powerful, and Should Inform Broader Policy - Often marginalized as too ‘downstream,’ or ‘too late,’ now is a moment to recognize and uplift the importance of direct-service programming. While continuing to work for policy and systems change, we need to uplift learnings and best practices to simultaneously push for broader policy. The Promise movement has shown how local innovation can spark larger policy movements toward making higher education affordable and accessible for all. This continued work in light of COVID- 19 is more important than ever, and looks like working together on a regional level to push for policy at the state level, like Richmond Promise does with Northern California College Promise Coalition and College Promise at the national level, daylighting program learnings and best practices to push for policy improvements at the state and federal level, such as emergency funding, expanding Pell Grant eligibility and increasing the Pell award amount, making the FAFSA financial aid application more easily accessible, and offering opportunities for local organizations to access government funds to support the basic needs and offer wraparound supports for their students.

For more information on how to prevent “COVID Melt,” read the full policy brief.

Jessie Stewart

Jessie Stewart brings over a decade of experience at the intersection of education and community development to the Richmond Promise. Prior to joining the Promise, Jessie served as National Director of UC Berkeley’s Center for Cities + Schools Y-PLAN (Youth-Plan, Learn, Act Now) Educational Initiative. As Y-PLAN National Director, Jessie built cross- sector partnerships to engage schools and young people in a range of city and education policy issues across the nation. Jessie began her career in education as a founding high school history teacher at Golder College Prep in Chicago, IL where she had the privilege of handing out diplomas to the school’s first graduating class. Jessie was also born and raised in Kalamazoo, Michigan, home of the groundbreaking Kalamazoo Promise, and a proud graduate of Kalamazoo Public Schools.

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