When Jimmy Garrison learned he’d been accepted into Washington State University, he was overjoyed.
Just five months prior, college wasn’t on the University High School senior’s radar. But he had good grades, wanted to be an architect and was motivated.
His school counselor saw all this and helped him navigate the application and financial aid process. His first semester at WSU was a blast, he said. He joined a fraternity, volunteered at his church, played soccer and got good grades.
Now, less than a year later, Garrison is back in Spokane working full time trying to pay off debts incurred during his semester on the Palouse.
“Yeah, it just kind of sucks,” he said. “Reality hit. I just got a full-time job, and I’ve just been working ever since.”
Garrison’s parents are poor. Neither attended college. Garrison’s story – a smart, ambitious, first-generation college student who can’t make it to, or stay in, college – isn’t uncommon, according to national and regional data.
Between 10 and 40 percent of college-intending students don’t actually attend class in the fall, according to a 2014 Harvard Graduate School of Education study. Many of those students come from low-income families. That rate is similar in the Spokane area. Last year, 43 percent of Spokane-area seniors who applied to Spokane Falls Community College did not attend, said Lori Williams, the student recruitment manager at SFCC.
At Spokane Community College, 60 percent of those who submitted applications did not attend in the fall. College administrators say the numbers are inflated because the Community Colleges of Spokane, which includes SFCC and SCC, don’t charge application fees. Still, there is a problem, administrators said.
At Eastern Washington University, about 5 percent of all students who apply, are accepted and confirm their enrollment don’t show up for the first day of school, said Neil Woolf, the associate vice president of enrollment management.
Low-income students and first-generation college students are particularly vulnerable to so-called summer melt, said Scott Kerwien, the director of college and career readiness for Spokane Public Schools.
Garrison’s story highlights many of those reasons. The application process was a complete mystery to him, as was applying for financial aid. The only reason he was able to apply successfully was because Kerwien, his high school counselor at the time, helped him through the process.
“I didn’t know how to do anything,” Garrison said. “Because my parents didn’t know how to do anything.”
And although he made it through that process and received substantial financial aid, once he arrived at college other obstacles arose.
Garrison needed a loan to cover what his financial aid couldn’t. So he applied for a Parent Plus loan. He was denied because his parents’ credit score was too low. Suddenly, he was short spring tuition costs. Plus, he was $6,000 in debt from incidental costs like housing and his meal plan.
“I was doing so good and having so much fun but just because of the money factor I couldn’t continue,” he said. “They (other students) are just buying all this stuff and not worrying about a thing. And I’m like, ‘Ah crap, I can’t even pay for the school part of it.’ ”
He remembers students complaining about only getting $100 from their parents. That left Garrison thinking, “Oh, that would be nice.”
Now, Garrison is back in Spokane working at Franz Bakery. He’s trying to save enough money to pay off the $6,000 he owes WSU. He’s registered to attend SCC in the fall.
“Yeah, it’s pretty disappointing,” he said. “I felt like I could have done a lot more things. I feel like the cards didn’t really fall my way.”
His story and others have prompted Spokane Public Schools to partner more closely with three colleges – SCC, SFCC and EWU. For the first time, this summer, those three colleges are allowing district counselors to track their students’ progress in applying to the colleges.
“The perpetual struggle is to meet students where they are at,” Kerwien said.
That means sending text messages in lieu of emails or phone calls. Kerwien joked that if the district could have a “business Snapchat account,” it would.
But it can be a challenge, especially when considering the district’s size. How can counselors reach out, personally and individually, to every senior student?
To address just that, Kerwien said, each high school now has a counselor who works throughout the summer. They help shepherd students through the college application process. In that way, the state’s second-largest school district tries to create a much smaller, more intimate setting.
“I’ve heard amazing things at schools that are much smaller,” he said.
A good example? The Community School. This year’s graduating class consisted of 27 students. All are committed to some kind of further education, said Sara Reijonen, an adviser to this year’s senior class.
The Community School focuses on completing student-led projects as opposed to passing tests. Reijonen has taught her students, the Class of 2017, since they enrolled as freshmen. She knows each student personally. She knows their strengths and weaknesses.
“It’s the relational things that I think are going to make a difference,” Reijonen said. “I was so in tune with where their stressors were because I was with them every day.”
Students start considering what they want to get out of their education in the ninth grade, said Cindy McMahon, the principal of the school.
“Our hope is that our students have a very clear plan,” she said, whether that’s a four-year university, community college or trade program.
About half of all students enrolled in the Community School qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, McMahon said. Many are first-generation college students.
That individual attention and support is exactly what students need, said Jenée Myers Twitchell. Twitchell is an adviser at the University of Washington College of Education, focusing on postsecondary success and advancement.
Twitchell is a first-generation college student herself.
“It’s a tough process. It’s a tough process for middle-class families. It’s a tough process for families who did go to college,” she said.
To support students through the summertime, UW has made a number of structural changes, Twitchell said. It sends acceptance letters before the summer starts, for example. When possible, UW organizes campus tours for interested students, often providing transportation.
Although Kent Hoffman, a Spokane psychotherapist who works with homeless parents and children, has never heard of the summer melt phenomenon, it makes sense to him.
The primary issue, he said, is attachment. Teenagers who have been supported by their parents usually do better in new and potentially scary situations. That’s because they “have a history of being supported rather fully when they show interest in doing things well and doing them on their own power,” he said.
And while poverty often corresponds with less security, that is not always the case.
“Some level of insecurity is an equal opportunity circumstance, regardless of economic status,” he said.
So, for Hoffman the primary issue is one of attachment and security. Children who, regardless of socioeconomic status, feel secure and safe do better in college.
“Children of any socioeconomic circumstance who are raised within a setting of limited encouragement for self-support and autonomy would have an increased level of self-doubt and fear regarding taking such a big leap,” he said.
Ultimately, that’s what programs at the Community School and Spokane Public Schools are attempting to do: create a sense of self-efficacy and security in students.
Griffin Hart, 18, started at the Community School three years ago. Prior to that he didn’t think college was an option.
But as he attended the school, he started to think about his future, and what interested him. Then, when he discovered he was eligible for significant financial aid, he decided to go for it.
“One of my teachers told me if you don’t invest in yourself, who else are you going to invest in,” he said.
He’s enrolled at the Evergreen State College in Olympia and is excited to attend. He hopes to be a photojournalist.
But, just two weeks ago he was notified that he’d lost $2,000 in financial aid. Now, Griffin is trying to find a job “as fast as possible” to make up the difference.
Still, he remains resolute.
“I know for sure that I’m going to be going to Evergreen in the fall,” he said.
Editor’s note: This story was changed on July 18, 2017. A previous version incorrectly stated the name of the University of Washington College of Education.
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