In summer, college plans can melt away

Graduate high school, get accepted to college, and things still don't work out? It's a common problem for Philadelphia students.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Last August, 19-year old Mia Elliott thought she was on her way to a bright future as a forensic scientist.

Fresh off her graduation from Constitution High, Elliott says she was accepted to 11 different colleges. She chose Temple University, where she planned to study biology.

"It was everything I wanted in a college," said Elliott.

Less than 9 months later, her plans – and her life – have been turned upside-down. Before starting the fall semester, Elliott was required to enroll in Temple’s summer bridge program. There, she failed a math class, leading the university to revoke her admission.

Though she had received paperwork explaining that her admission was contingent on passing the summer classes, Elliott said she was stunned – especially when she found out it was too late for her to attend one of the other four-year colleges that had accepted her.

"Once it sunk in, I was just hurt," said Elliott.

Months later, she is still reeling. She is currently out of school, pregnant, and worried that she may have slipped hopelessly off track.

"This is not the life I envisioned for myself back in high school," said Elliott.

Hidden pitfalls

Unfortunately, said Jessica Sasko, the managing director of the Student Success Center at Benjamin Franklin High School, getting accepted into college by no means guarantees that a student will actually make it there.

The summer after high school graduation can be especially perilous.

"That’s when most students find themselves in trouble," said Sasko. "A lot of students need structured follow-up, but in the summer, there’s not as many people looking at what they do."

The academic and paperwork challenges that Elliott faced are common. So are sudden money shortages and cold feet about leaving home for the first time, especially for the high percentage of Philadelphia graduates who are both poor and trying to become first-generation college students.

"There are a lot of fears," Sasko said.

The key to getting on top of any problem that comes up, she said, is trust.

"A student won’t tell you why they are scared to go away if you don’t have a relationship with them," Sasko explained.

At Benjamin Franklin, staff from the Student Success Center and a number of partner organizations work to build those trusting relationships with students – and to walk them through all of the steps to actually begin college.

To help with the paperwork, the Franklin Success Center processes students’ requests for transcripts, easing the burden on the school’s administrative and counseling teams. To help with the jitters that start arising as the first day of college nears, the Success Center connects current students to alumni from their schools who have made it to college.

"They ask everything from ‘Where do you get your hair cut?’ to questions about classes," said Sasko. "We let their peers tell them what it’s like."

There are currently 11 Student Success Centers in neighborhood high schools across the city, although at least two – including Franklin’s – are set to close next fall. Administered by local nonprofits and promoted by the Philadelphia Student Union, the centers stay open year-round, including summers.

"We need more people to help with college, not less," said Sasko.

Struggling to get back on track

Mia Elliott certainly would agree with Sasko on that point.

Though she was thrilled when she got her acceptance letter from Temple, Elliott said she got "mixed reactions" from her family to her plans. "It was basically all on me," she said.

After her admission to Temple was revoked, Elliott gathered herself and arranged to start last September at Community College of Philadelphia. But a host of "real-life issues," including finding out she was pregnant, led her grades to go downhill.

"I didn’t have anywhere [permanent] to stay," said Elliott, explaining that things as simple as finding internet access or getting to campus proved to be huge challenges on many days.

Worried that her poor grades would hinder her ability to get financial aid in the future, she withdrew from spring classes. Despite having dropped her classes, Elliott still owes $800.

"I just want to get everything back in order," she said. "I’ve come too far."

Though she remains focused on obtaining her bachelor’s degree, Elliott can’t help but look back to the summer after high school and wonder if things could have worked out better.

"If I went to Temple and I was on campus and away from everything I grew up in, I think everything would have played out a lot different," she said. "That was what I wanted, because I knew that was the best way for me to succeed."

Contact Philadelphia’s Student Success Centers:

  • Bartram: 215-492-6450 x444
  • Edison: 215-329-1553
  • FitzSimons: 215-227-8623
  • Frankford: 215-537-6407
  • Franklin: 215-299-3310
  • Germantown: 215-951-4004
  • Gratz: 215-227-2988
  • Lincoln: 215-335-5653
  • Overbrook: 215-581-5541
  • University City: 215-386-0701
  • West Philadelphia: 215-205-1967