The “summer melt.” When a phrase like that is used down in these parts, one generally tends to think of the sweltering heat and humidity that must be endured this time of year. With heat indexes that almost daily top out over 100 F., inducing profuse sweating after just a brief time spent outdoors, it can be easy to think one is melting.

However, in the context I’m using it, “summer melt” refers to that time of year when recent high school graduates’ dreams and aspirations of attending college or some sort of postsecondary school melt away. As disappointing and discouraging as it sounds, it’s a phenomenon that doesn’t escape most educators and education policy advocates.

In the spring, many high school seniors jubilantly walk across the stage to receive their diplomas. It’s an accomplishment of which they can rightly be proud. Both they and their loved ones see this as the first step toward attaining the needed education and skills to achieve the coveted American Dream: a good job, eventually own a nice home and be able to provide comfortably for one’s family. To make this dream possible, plans for attending a two- or four-year college or specialized training program in the fall are typically articulated and hoped for by all.

Unfortunately, as summer slowly makes its way toward fall, many of those dreams and plans melt away. Statistically, around 40 percent of those who graduated from high school with the intentions of attending some postsecondary school in the fall never make it. In a time when it’s almost impossible to get a well-paying job without some type of specialized skill or degree, this missed opportunity can set many young people on a path of economic insecurity and deprivation.

To reverse this “summer melt” phenomenon in Alabama, educators and advocates have hit upon an effective and powerful remedy: FASFA completion. FASFA stands for Free Application for Federal Student Aid. It is a form filled out annually by current and prospective college students.

Based on the information reported in a student’s or potential student’s FASFA, an expected family contribution (EFC) is determined. The FASFA doesn’t give or take money away from anyone, but through the EFC that is reported to colleges and universities, awards for needs-based aid (both federal- and school-based) are determined based on computations from the FASFA data.

Why has filling out a FASFA proven so effective in combating the summer melt? Because according to data from the U.S. Department of Education, nine out of 10 students who complete a FASFA attend college the following fall! More importantly, in a state such as Alabama, which has a higher number of poor and low-income students, around 60 percent of those who file a FASFA end up qualifying for Pell Grant aid of up to $5,920 a year — money that can turn dreams of attending college into reality.

This is why in January 2016, Alabama Possible, a statewide nonprofit whose mission is to combat poverty in Alabama by eliminating obstacles to prosperity through a variety of means, started the Cash for College program. According to Alabama Possible Executive Director Kristina Scott, “The cost of college [technical and academic education] is a major barrier for students and families, and those who are most likely to qualify for financial aid, including Pell Grants, have the least knowledge of its availability and of the process to obtain it.”

For example, she explained that in the 2014-2015 school year, due to Alabama’s low FASFA completion rate at the time (remember that around 60 percent of Alabamians qualify for a Pell Grant) that year, “Alabama students and families left around $58,731,020 in Pell Grant aid on the table unused.” So, you combine this with the fact that even for those who may be aware of the need to fill it out, “… the FASFA has more than 100 questions and is more complex than a typical tax return.” The result is a serious barrier to a college education exists for many Alabamians.

Cash for College was started as a collaborative effort to prioritize FASFA completion among Alabama’s graduating high school seniors. To date there are approximately 207 high schools from around the state working in partnership with the effort.

Those efforts are bearing fruit. During the 2016-2017 school year, 14.4 percent more Alabama high school seniors filed their FASFA than in 2015-2016. That significant increase allowed Alabama to be ranked ninth nationally for “Growth in Total FASFA’s filed by High School Seniors.” Thankfully, Alabama is in a top 10 list for something positive.

The goal is to keep building on this momentum. According to Scott, Alabama Possible wants to create within Alabama a “college-going culture,” to ensure “every Alabamian is equipped for today’s and tomorrow’s economy.”

Creating such a culture is critical. The Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce has published data showing that 62 percent of Alabama jobs will require a postsecondary degree or certificate, but only 37 percent of current working-age adults have the required credentials. As Scott observed, “That’s a big gap to make up!” She went on to say, “In a low-income state like Alabama, filing the financial aid form is essential for anyone who wants to continue their education after high school or go back to school to complete a new credential.”

Indeed it is. It’s an essential, but too often overlooked, step in keeping dreams of college and a better future alive.