Despite the positive strides Tennessee has made toward increasing college access, many students are still unable to navigate the transitions required to continue their education beyond high school. Many of these students not only could succeed in college but showed the intention to enroll by applying for Tennessee Promise. Each year about 80 percent of high school seniors apply for the Tennessee Promise scholarship and complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, but most of those applicants do not enroll at an eligible institution. Over the course of the summer, their dreams of higher education melt away.

“Summer melt” is the term used when a college-intending student drops out of the education pipeline during the transition between high school and higher education. For SCORE’s latest report, Stopping Summer Melt: What Students Say & What Tennessee Can Do, we partnered with tnAchieves, a partnering organization to the Tennessee Promise scholarship, to identify college-intending students who did not enroll in higher education the following fall. Their stories informed the recommendations in the report. Take Makayla, for example.

Makayla graduated from a West Tennessee high school and planned to enroll at the University of Tennessee at Martin but later decided to transfer to a nearby Tennessee College of Applied Technology (TCAT) campus and become a licensed practical nurse (LPN). Despite Makayla’s clear goals, she has struggled to make them a reality. “I am currently delayed because of the waitlist,” she said.

Makayla was still out of school a year after leaving UT Martin in spring of 2019. “People ask me where I’m going to school … it’s embarrassing, and I hate it. People don’t think I’m doing anything with my life.”

Makayla is currently living with her parents and working a part-time job while her enrollment is delayed. Like many other students, she sees postsecondary education as an opportunity to expand her horizons. “There isn’t much opportunity where I’m from,” she said. “I’m really hopeful that the LPN program will open more doors for me.”

Our challenge: How can we help students like Makayla?

SCORE’s student survey revealed that a TCAT waitlist was one of the more consistently reported reasons for a disruption in education plans. But there are steps we can take to prevent this.

Dedicated rural student support programs from the Ayers and Niswonger foundations offer individualized student resources to give graduates the tools to be successful and advise them about TCAT waitlists. Makayla said that without her Ayers counselor, she probably would have given up by now. But we must do more.

Increased transparency about TCAT program demand along with practices that keep students updated about their position on the waitlist would help students like Makayla. Close partnerships between high schools and colleges would expand student options by placing more TCAT instructors in high schools and providing transportation to TCAT campuses for dual-enrollment opportunities. If Makayla’s high school had a strong partnership with the local TCAT campus, she could have learned about the LPN program and applied early enough to avoid time on the waitlist. Today, Makayla would be a licensed practical nurse working in her field for more than a year.

Too many Tennesseans like Makayla are missing out on earning the postsecondary degree or credential that would improve their workforce opportunities and life outcomes. Through coordinated work across state agencies and partner organizations, we can reduce barriers to higher education and improve student success. Download Stopping Summer Melt to read all of the recommendations for making that happen.

Alexis Parker is SCORE’s senior data and research analyst. Diane Hughes, SCORE’s communications manager, contributed to this post.