How GEAR UP Helps Students Stay on Track for Postsecondary Success

Episode #51. Host Jonathan Hughes talks with Julie Shields-Rutyna about FAFSA Simplification, including financial aid experts’ opinions from MEFA’s Round Table Discussion hosted earlier this month. Then Jonathan and Julie go to the MEFA Mailbag to answer a questions about using the U.Fund to pay for college. Finally, Jonathan has a conversation with Director of the Massachusetts GEAR UP Program, Robert Dais. They discuss Robert’s career trajectory, the GEAR UP Program and what it does, as well as what “summer melt” is and how to help curb it. If you enjoy the MEFA Podcast, please leave us a review.

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Resources Mentioned in the Episode:

FAFSA Simplification Round Table with Financial Aid Experts


GEAR UP Massachusetts

Staying On Track to Attend College This Fall


0:00 Introduction

1:01 FAFSA Simplification

12:19 MEFA Mailbag

14:40 Conversation with Robert Dais


Jonathan Hughes: [00:00:00] Hello everyone and welcome to the Mefa Podcast. My name is Jonathan Hughes. And

Julie Shields-Rutyna: I'm Julie Shields-Rutyna

Jonathan Hughes: Julie's back. It's been a few episodes. Julie, it's nice to have you back.

Julie Shields-Rutyna: I'm happy to be back.

Jonathan Hughes: Well, you picked a good one to come back on because I had one of my very favorite conversations that I've ever had on the show.

And it's with Robert Dais, who is the statewide director for the Massachusetts GEAR UP program. And he's going to tell us all about what that is, and we're going to talk about things like keeping kids engaged during the summer. And we're going to get a little philosophical as well. And we're also going to be joined by his cat very briefly.

So a little bonus for those of you who are watching the show on our, on our YouTube channel versus listening to it. So stick around for that conversation because I guarantee you will enjoy it. But Julie, what are we going to [00:01:00] highlight first?

Julie Shields-Rutyna: Well, as you may know, there are big changes coming to the FAFSA now.

The FAFSA is the free application for federal student aid, and that's the most important piece of the financial aid puzzle. It's the form that you have to file if you want any aid from the federal government states. And typically, colleges also base their awards on the FAFSA. So as developments occur, MEFA will be a great resource with those questions for students and families, but also those who, who counsel students and, families as well.

So we've been holding some webinars, both for college administrators going over, you know, how they're going to deal with all this, and then we're also, we've done it for counselors as well, so I thought I'd share some of the highlights from our recent FAFSA simplification webinar.

Jonathan Hughes: Yeah. Let's see. So this was hosted Julie, by you, by Shawn [00:02:00] Morrissey from MEFA, and featured guest presenters. We had Ken Ferrera, who's the Vice President of Financial Services of Franklin Pierce University. Gail Holt Dean of Financial Aid at Amherst College. Mika Lim, Associate Director of Compliance for Student Financial Services at Northeastern University. And Amy Staffier, Vice Pre- Assistant Vice President of Enrollment Services and Director of Financial Aid at Simmons University. So that's quite an August group that we have there. So what are we going to hear about first?

Julie Shields-Rutyna: So let's first hear from Ken Ferrera and he's going to set the table for us on what's

going on.

Ken Ferrera: The FAFSA is becoming easier. It's going from over a hundred questions to around 35, 36 questions. It will change the way families or students are eligible for federal Pell Grants. There are some changes to the financial aid formula that we're going to dig into today and and changes to the application process. The only downfall, and we're going to [00:03:00] get to that is it's just a shorter runway for one year. The timeline is a little different for next, for 24-25 than it is and, and has historically been.

Julie Shields-Rutyna: So you just heard Ken say that there's a shorter runway this year. What he means when he says that is the FAFSA will be delayed until December this year. So students will be filing their admissions applications.

Before the FAFSA is available, most likely, but remember, FAFSA deadlines are typically in February and March for students applying regular decision. But what about students who apply early action or early decision? Here's Gail Holt to talk about how colleges may choose to handle that question.

Gail Holt: The FAFSA used to be released after January 1st. And some, older professionals, more experienced professionals may be familiar with that timeline. So some of the schools that have early programs do utilize the c CSS profile [00:04:00] application, and that's an institutional application that has been released. October 1st for a significant number of of years.

It's possible that some colleges and universities maybe that got away or, or changed their use of the profile may use the profile in this one year. I've also been talking with colleagues who already have a shorter institutional questionnaire to collect a modest amount of data that helps compliment their information.

And, and they may use that or just expand it slightly in this one year. But colleges that need to. You know, pivot and make an accommodation for this year. We'll certainly have information on their websites but the colleges that are using the CSS Profile and have substantial institutional funds you know, they're going to be using, you know, if they've already been using the profile, then they're [00:05:00] well equipped to use the profile application to make aid offers during the early action and the early decision timeframes, and offer that information in December as they, as they have been.

And you know, what is important for families to. Remember is that colleges are well aware that financial information is exceptionally important in making an enrollment decision. So either they'll provide that information you know, in advance of a timeline.

Jonathan Hughes: Okay, so there's another popular form institutional form called the CSS profile, and that's for colleges that give out a lot of their own money, and some colleges will ask for this in addition to the FAFSA.

So that was that form that, Gail was talking about, just in case anybody wasn't familiar with that.

Julie Shields-Rutyna: Yeah, so now we're going to hear quite a bit from Mika Lim from Northeastern, because she's going to go over many of the substantial changes to the actual [00:06:00] FAFSA itself. So she has a lot to say, but let's start with a huge simplification surrounding answering income and asset questions.

Mika Lim: Some other big changes include how income will be treated. So Ken had already kind of alluded to the change from the data retrieval tool to this direct data exchange, and it cuts the family out of having to transmit information. From the IRS to the Department of Ed.

This basically means that for many students, most students, they won't be presented with income questions. I think for a lot of families, that's the biggest burden of the FAFSA, having to pull out a tax return and look at line 18 and what is an IRA payment and all these questions. So that's a huge win.

Additionally, well I'll say currently there are criteria that would exempt parents from having to answer asset questions on the FAFSA. And now that criteria is expanding. So more [00:07:00] applicants than before, beginning in '24-'25, won't have to answer asset questions and therefore their asset information won't even be considered in their aid eligibility.

Julie Shields-Rutyna: There are changes as to which parent needs to complete a FAFSA in the cases of divorced or separated parents. And a slight change with who needs an FSA ID.

Mika Lim: In the situation of divorced and separated households, there's now a different set of criteria to determine which parent needs to be on the FAFSA.

So up through the FAFSA that's currently opened '23-'24, the parent on the FAFSA is who the student lives with most of the time. And beginning with '24-'25, it will be the parent who provides the most financial support to this student in order for federal tax information to be accessed by the Department of Ed from the IRS. Every contributor, and contributor is a contributor is a new term, and that just means anyone who has to complete a portion of the FAFSA, every contributor needs to create an [00:08:00] FSA ID and provide consent on the FAFSA. And in order to create an FSA ID, you need a unique email address in the case of parents who are married, but file separate tax returns. Both parents would need to create an FSA ID.

Jonathan Hughes: There's really so much here. It would take too long to go over anything, everything, or even close to everything that was talked about on that webinar. And we will put a link to the show notes. But I really want to get to this new status that's going to be available, this provisionally independent status. Can you explain a little bit about status as Julie dependent and independent, and then we can get to Mika's explanation of the new status?

Julie Shields-Rutyna: Sure. Basically, dependent students need to include parent information on the FAFSA, independent students do not. For independent students, the FAFSA is only looking at student income and assets. So there are a series of questions to determine if a student is dependent or independent. Now many students who are in their own estimation independent don't technically [00:09:00] qualify as independent students, meaning they need to include their parents' information on the FAFSA and they may not be able to do so.

So these students are in a gray area, hence this new status of provisional independence. Let's hear from Mika on it.

Mika Lim: If a student falls under an unusual circumstance, which is they are considered to be a dependent student, but are unable to provide parental information. Some examples, and the facet lists out a couple examples of this, would be they are, were in an abusive or threatening environment with their parents or their parents, or they have refugee status and have been separated from parents. Parents are incarcerated, they are experiencing homelessness and our self-supporting, they'll be able to indicate that on the FAFSA.

And then they will have, provisional independent student status, and that means that they can continue completing the FAFSA and submit it. Pell eligibility will be calculated a Student Aid Index, which is the new [00:10:00] term for EFC or Expected Family Contribution. Student Aid Index would be calculated and then the college would be required to make contact with a student and make a final determination on whether they can be considered independent within a specific timeframe.

So this is a much more positive experience than what has been in the past, which, students can't provide parental information they get a rejected FAFSA, no expected family contribution is calculated. Schools would still have to make that determination, but it's just not a very pleasant experience for the student who's already experiencing some level of hardship.

Julie Shields-Rutyna: Let's hear once more from Mika on something I know UFund savers will appreciate

Mika Lim: 529 plans, beginning in '24-'25 will only need to be reported on the FAFSA if they were intended for the student who's filing the FAFSA. So, if parents have college saving plans in other siblings names or other household members names, they don't need to be reported on the FAFSA.

So that's a big win. Lastly, the FAFSA will be available [00:11:00] in 11 different languages, so much more accessible. Really the emphasis is on removing those types of barriers.

Jonathan Hughes: And finally, let's hear about the elimination of the so-called sibling discount from Amy Staffier.

Amy Staffier: I drew the short straw, so I will be talking about the, the number of students in college, no longer being part of the formula. It is still going to be a question that is asked on the FAFSA form and institutions will receive that information. But it is no longer part of the formula, and I feel like in so many. You know, news stories and things like that, that is like the leading this is really changing things when I think all of us on this panel will say that.

I think the good with all of these changes outweighs you know, just really a few of the things that will be difficult for some families. And what I think is really important is to understand. Kind of the background, right? Or the rationale for this, I think of in my own family. I have a, a sister and [00:12:00] brother-in-law who have five children who are three to four years apart and some maybe five.

And so do they have more funding because their kids are spaced out more, that they can pay the full, you know, EFC each year? No.

Jonathan Hughes: Believe me, there is so much more where that came from. So please check out the webinar on the show notes. Now it's time for the MEFA Mailbag. And so these are questions that have come in to us over the past weeks and been answered by our college planning team.

Remember, if you have any questions, you can email us at college planning and You can call us at 1-800-449-MEFA, or you can also reach us over social media on Facebook @MEFAMa, on Twitter @MEFATweets and on Instagram @MEFA_MA, our question today comes to us from Brian who writes, I have a 529 balance of approximately half of my son's four-year college tuition.

Do you recommend using the 529 balance first before [00:13:00] borrowing? That's a loaded question, but one that we get all the time. Julie, how would you answer it?

Julie Shields-Rutyna: Oh, it is, it's such a good question, and we do get it all the time. So the answer is it's a very individual decision and you will have to decide that, as a family.

But the good news about that is it's your decision. You're not going to have the college tell you have to use those, those savings first or anything like that. So it's your decision as a family. So let me just talk about the different. Points that usually come into the decision making process on that.

Some families I speak with will say, well, I think I'd rather use my savings first before I borrow a loan and have to pay interest. So for those families, I think, oh, that makes, that makes sense. That seems like a good decision. But then I talk to some other families who say, well, I hate, I'd rather spread it out.

That would make me feel more comfortable. And I'm able to borrow an additional loan at a [00:14:00] decent interest rate or something like that. And so I'm going to decide to spread it out over the four years and then make up the difference in another way. And that also seems like a good decision on, on some families' parts.

So I would just advise families to think about it, to talk to their financial advisor about it, and also see what, what makes them feel comfortable and what their other options are. As far as paying that bill, and I guess this, I could put in a little plug for our Paying the College Bill Seminars that we have recorded on our webinar, on our website.

So just to think through all of those questions you should be asking yourself as a family when you make that decision.

Jonathan Hughes: Now let's go to my conversation with statewide director of GEAR UP Robert Dais. Our guest on the show today brings over 28 years of experience in the arenas of educational leadership, curriculum development, and management to the show.

He has held a truly impressive variety of positions throughout that time. [00:15:00] Teacher, coordinator of diversity principal and textbook author. He's currently the Director of the Massachusetts GEAR UP Program, which he's going to tell us all about and how it can help students this summer and throughout the year. But first, let me welcome to the show, Robert Dais.

Robert Dais: Oh, thank you so much. It's an honor being here. I'm a big fan of what MEFA has done in the community, and by the way, I'm welcoming, my beloved cat Jet Black, so he'll pop around because anytime I'm hogging the stage, he gets jealous. So thanks for that great introduction. It's always great to hear your, your resume read back to you. You're like, who's that? So thank you.

Jonathan Hughes: Well, yeah, I was, I was actually, that was my first question. You know, if you could take us through that a little bit and, and what has your journey been and how has it led you to this position being director of the GEAR UP program?

Robert Dais: Thank you. I think I, I really exemplify sort of the career trajectory that a lot of our students take. So I studied in, I'm out, I'm from [00:16:00] outside Philadelphia originally, so all you Philly folks, Hey, what's up? And went to college there and I grew up in a community that was probably what we classify as working class.

So probably a 50-50 split of those who went on higher ed, and that was a time when folks could get a good job out of high school. So very working class community. Went to college, went on, got a, you know, thought I was going to study business and heard a calling is what I'll sort of explain it as I realized I wasn't satisfied in the business world because it just didn't resonate with something inside my heart and made a leap and decided to do a volunteer position that led me to Boston.

So and if I backed it up even further, what I would say as a young man is I saw a lot of talented young people who are smarter than me, better athletes than me, a lot of talent and skills that unfortunately did not not know how to navigate the system. Maybe their parents didn't know [00:17:00] how to negotiate the educational system.

I saw them languish or fail or fall behind or get stuck even as a young man, I saw that, and I always said to myself, that's, that's just a shame. That's talent, that's human capacity, that's wasted as they've gotten stuck in these, these different areas of their life. So it made sense for me to find my way to education.

So I did, I became a teacher. Then I went and, and served in New Hampshire at a boarding school for a period of time. Was director of diversity there. Went back, got my master's degree as I get, got more experience and committed to education and realized I loved it and I've always had a blend of two passions, business and education.

And I thought I had to choose one path, but I think the. The beautiful thing is when you can blend your passions. So then got into financial services before a period of time, sold mortgages and investments and things like that. And then just realized as much as I enjoyed it, I love education, and that's in [00:18:00] 2008 I came to, I found GEAR UP out of the Department of Higher Education.

I applied and was accepted, got the position, and I've been here for 16 years now and it's just been a beautiful experience and I'm honored to serve our students. So I, if I summarize, I would say it's been a path that's kind of, initially I didn't know, like, does this all come together? Is there any synergy here?

But now I realize that the skills I use every day are a combination of the experiences that I've, I've gained in business in education and blending those two has really made me a better performer.

Jonathan Hughes: Tell me about GEAR UP then. What is GEAR UP at the federal level? Yeah. What is the program and what was it designed for and, and who is it designed to help?

Robert Dais: Absolutely. So I'll start with the sort of the three-minute commercial, so to speak, which is it stands for Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs. So in 1998 with the Clinton Administration, they added GEAR UP to what's called TRIO Programs [00:19:00] that are really designed to help first generation, underserved underrepresented students in different communities.

In Massachusetts, we call them Gateway Cities. And typically you're going to think about cities like a Springfield or Holyoke and New Bedford, where manufacturing in the 1800s was a big deal and it attracted a lot of newcomers to those communities. But because manufacturing has been hollowed out in our country for so long, there's not a lot of occupational opportunity there.

So, you have the incredible you know, basically a gap where people are looking for employment. So we typically, so to zoom out, if you'd look across the country nationally, GEAR UP was designed to really give a boost to communities like that. So, Nationally, GEAR UP serves about 560 students, 560,000 students. They're at a thousand students. In about 45 different states. So I'm the statewide Director in Massachusetts. And then if we zoom into Massachusetts as [00:20:00] a state I'm employed by the Department of Higher Education. Then we serve seven different districts throughout the Commonwealth.

Up in the north we serve Lawrence and Lowell. And if you come down 93, then you're going to hit Boston and we serve East Boston, then go further south. We're in New Bedford, so that's kind of our vertical. Sort of axis. And then if you head west, we hit Worcester, Springfield, and Holyoke. And so those are the seven districts we serve.

900 students per district, gives us a total of 6,300 students and families we serve. And then the key questions are, well, Robert, when you say serve, what do you mean? Well, that means we get into, we're in there working with students as early as seventh grade. All the way through their first year in post-secondary education.

So the thing I always appreciate about this, appreciate about this program, we see a family and a group of students on a longitudinal basis. It's not a once and done kind of a thing. [00:21:00] So we're seeing you from that awkward seventh grade stage where you are sort of short and you're growing and you're going through those stages.

All the way through to when you're a, you graduate and you're enrolled in maybe a technical school or maybe you decide to go in the military or whatever you're pursuing, we get a chance to watch you develop, and in the middle of all that, we help you with the transitions because this is where most students and families struggle is to go from middle school to high school.

Sounds easy, but a lot of our students don't know how impactful it is to make sure your attendance is strong and you're, you're passing all your classes. And a lot of those indicators determine whether 96% of you will graduate. So people don't realize that how you enter ninth grade determines how you exit whether you're going to be a stop-out or one up dropping out versus completing.

And so we want to make sure students are on track with far as attendance passing their classes. Getting on college campuses, filling out a career interest [00:22:00] inventory, like, let's find out what are you excited about? What do you not like? Like let's just help you begin to understand who you are as a learner and also so you can move along that trajectory with a purpose because if you can start seeing yourself saying, you know what I kind of like, I like working with people. I'm good with like, sort of like with human beings. Okay, great. Let's, let's focus in on that. Let's talk about a career path that could lead to something like that. Or, I'm really good with technology.

I'm really, I like tinkering with things. I like working with my hands. Great. Let's talk about career paths that can lead you toward that. So if I summarized how we do our job and, and, and, and rate ourselves, I would say, every student who graduates, who's a GEAR UP student should graduate with a plan, a clear plan.

And that means A.) My optimal plan and B.) If it doesn't go the way I hope it does, I have a fallback. So if you walk across that stage and you have a clear vision as to where you're heading and, and some of the obstacles that might interfere, and you have an understanding of what it might [00:23:00] take to overcome those, and then also you know who to reach out to when you get stuck we've done our job.

Jonathan Hughes: Do you see all of the students beginning in seventh grade or most students beginning in seventh grade, or how do students get through you?

Robert Dais: Good question. So the, the cities and the districts I mentioned we're in partnership with them and they're classified as what's called Gateway Cities because they high have a higher number of free and reduced lunch students.

So the good news is our country, our federal government, has identified the fact that we need to support our free and reduced lunch students better. And so that's why GEAR UP comes in. And we work best when we're partnering with school counselors, principals, administrators. We're not replacing what they do.

We're doing a lot of the things that they wish they could do. So if you're a school counselor and you're dealing with truancy or homelessness or food insecurity or, or some type of a. Serious traumatic experience for a student, you, chances are you don't have the time to, to sit down and do a FAFSA with a student or a college [00:24:00] application with a student or take a student on field trips to go to Worcester State or STICC.

You don't have time to do that as much as you want to. So we supplement those schools in those areas because the average, a lot of times the average counselor, school counselor to student ratio, Our school districts can be as high as four to 500 students per counselor. That's impossible for them to get to and serve all the students.

They, it's, they're set up in a way where they can't. So our GEAR UP program, like other trio programs, Upward Bound, Talent Search, et cetera, we are in the building. We have staff that actually work with the students on those areas that we're not, many times we're not licensed guidance counselors, so we don't want to be, but what we're able to do is some of the things that they can't do, and we work in tandem with them.

Jonathan Hughes: Have you, is this something that you, you've seen the success of this program, I imagine over, over the years that you've been here.

Robert Dais: Yeah. Thank you and absolutely. And one of the things that we are responsible to do is [00:25:00] report our outcomes every year to the Federal government. And because I work for the Department of Higher Education, I have to submit my reports to them.

So we measure our success by a lot of key metrics. One of them is pre-algebra and algebra participation. So do our students in the lower grades take higher math, rigorous course of study? Are they taking AP courses? Are they taking innovation pathway curriculum? Are they taking not only ap but early college?

So really making sure students are taking rigorous courses in preparation for post-secondary education. Are they completing CSS profiles and college applications? Are they attending these, these these, these events such as you know, field trips to, to, to explore careers? Are they completing their career interest inventories?

We work a lot with DEI, Department of Early and Secondary Ed so that we are making sure that our students are completing these, these. These platforms, like MEFA has a fantastic platform as you [00:26:00] all know you know, sort of, you know, my plan for college back in the day. Mm-hmm. And, and, and all those types of things that help just guide students to sort of explore their career that inspires them to think about.

Yeah. I'm thinking about forensic science, so I know that this class in high school may not pertain to it, but I know I have to. Work on my GPA. So a lot of those types of metrics in one in particular, right off the top is FAFSA completion. So we always strive for 95% FAFSA completion with our GEAR UP students, and we also give them room.

There's something called an opt out form or FAFSA awareness form, which says, we know not all students are, college is not the trajectory right now for everyone. It might be that you decide to go into the military for a few years, take advantage of the GI Bill, come back, mature, decide you want to go on, that's fine.

So if you decide fast was not important for you right now, we just have you sign a form that says, I'm aware of how important it is to, to take advantage of this. I choose not to do it right now, but someone's explained [00:27:00] it to me. That's one metric. Like I said, mathematics, rigorous course of study attendance.

So there are, there are about 20 metrics that we are held accountable to with regards to the federal government. And we have to report on them annually. And so we watch them like a hawk and that's, that's how we measure. And then I'd be remiss not to say, and then forming strong relationships with our students and families.

So, we also do some great events because we also recognize that it's not just about the data, but it's about, do I have a relationship with that student so that when there's a crisis or a situation where they're thinking about dropping out, or they're thinking about maybe I'm not going to go to college, that they'll turn toward us and just have an informed conversation.

And that's all we want. So we want to build that relationship from grade seven all the way through that, all the way through the pipeline. Summer's a big part, and I know we're going to talk about that, but it's really, the relationship is critical.

Jonathan Hughes: One thing that. You mentioned just a minute ago [00:28:00] that I did want to ask you about are the field trips to college campuses. Can you talk a little bit about when those take place and also the impact that that has?

Robert Dais: I'll testify as an adult. I still remember my first experience on a college campus. My mom was pursuing her bachelor's degree and I was a. Five-year-old boy and she would bring us, because that was back in the seventies when you could bring your kid.

And I remember the attention I got and I was like, college is awesome. I'm five years old. And I'm like, college is cool. And our students report the same. So they love, maybe it's the gym that they walk into and all of them, when they get on the college campus, let's not get each other. They, they, we always try to give them a meal in the dining hall because it's all about tasting that freedom and saying, are you kidding me?

Unlimited soft serve ice cream. My gosh, I'm going to college because I got yogurt for days. The pizza. Oh. So I just say that because I want to just get people into the mindset of a middle schooler. So oftentimes we start as early as middle [00:29:00] school with regards to field trips, career exploration trips job shadowing, things like that.

We want to get them, we set off and set goals with our administrators of. A minimum of two college visits per year for all students. And so our goal is to get them out and we want expose them to a wide range of institutions, technical schools, community colleges, private, public. So the goal is just to get them.

A wide variety of experiences on campus and, and, and to just allow them to, to say, oh, I've been there. That's not unfamiliar territory to me. And oftentimes some of our students live in the same city and they may say, Hey, I've never visited, visited BU. I lived in Boston my whole life. I never visited BU.

So we want to take that away and sort of say, oh, yeah, yeah, I've been on that campus. I think the power of that, and we've talked to our alums, I'll never two students come to mind. One is we, we do a summer program where we, we would have a three-day experience on campus of [00:30:00] either Worcester State or UMass Amherst.

And one young lady graduated and about four years ago, you know, she said, we realized she was at UMass Amherst and she said, yeah, when I fell in love with it, when I spent, you know, my my summer here with the GEAR UP and I just committed, she, you know, we didn't, she was a freshman and she said, I made a commitment.

I'm coming here. So those are the type, and then because they're, living in the dorm, they're eating the food, they're waking up. And now all of a sudden it's almost like there's a sense of ownership. And I was just looking at a report that we did for our students in New Bedford, how they talked about those visits are impactful. And then also the fact that they're doing it with their peers. So they're engaged, they're having fun, they're learning together, and I think it's that combination of I'm having a great experience, I'm with people. It's safe. Because we're among each other. And even if you come from a, a population that may not have a large representation on that campus, when you're there, you feel among them, you feel like, oh, [00:31:00] okay, I'm with students from New Bedford or Holyoke or Springfield. We're here together and the schools do a great job, do a great job welcoming our GEAR UP students.

Jonathan Hughes: One of the things I wanted to ask you about is this concept of summer melt. Can you explain what that concept is? Why might it happen and what are some things? That GEAR UP can do to help.

Robert Dais: Absolutely. Thank you and Summer melt is a concept that probably in the past 15 or so years took on more relevance. It was always there. So if we all think back to our own learning experience, we work really hard, school ends, and then what do we do with our summer? So if you're from a, let's say a middle class, upper middle class family, you may have a very real robust summer schedule of going to camps and being engaged and reading books. And so it's very structured. If you don't have a lot of support you can, you can have a lot of loss, learning loss. It's really what it's called. Summer melt is learning loss. So if you were doing really well, let's say you were a B [00:32:00] plus student in your Algebra II class as a sophomore or junior in high school.

Well, you go away for the summer, you're not doing algebraic equations, chances are in the summertime, so a lot of times that muscle gets, doesn't get flexed. How do you mitigate that? Well, keeping students engaged. It doesn't have to be sitting in a row in a classroom. It can be engaging them in summer programming.

That's outdoors, but still engages them in their learning and keeps that muscle flex, that mental muscle flex. So that's what a lot of what we do during our summer programming. We might have a STEM orientation where we're getting students involved in a coding camp over the summer. So it's, it's something different, but yet they're still using those mental muscles.

And then as we talk about our graduating Seniors, this is where there's a tremendous drop off. So if you think about the high school experience when you graduate, you've got a lot of support. Your school counselors, your principals, your teachers, you're all on track to go to Westfield State or [00:33:00] or UMass Amherst or UMass Boston.

But yet what happens is in the summer, all that goes away. You don't have any support. So now maybe you're working a part-time job, but let's say, you know, your school sends you, Salem State sends you, Hey Robert, you got a deposit. We need the money for you to deposit to, to secure your dorm room. Well, maybe you, you, you lost it in the mail.

You didn't do it. There's nobody really follow up with you. And a lot of times what happens is students who are planning to enroll in. Mar May and June and July, they fall off because of that summer melt, because there's no one really supporting them to respond in a timely manner along the way. And many times their parents are working hard and do, and they want them to go, but they don't know the process.

So oftentimes what GEAR UP is doing in partnership with a lot of our Higher Ed institutions is we are working with them to make sure that they're following the deadlines. We're texting them, we're keeping them informed. We're just a resource. Because I'll just sort of give you an example. MEFA helps with [00:34:00] this, but my DE, my office out of the Office of Student Financial Assistance, we send out their Mass Aid information, which is their financial information in the middle of the summer.

That's when it comes out and students get it, and of course they have questions. I've seen them return to their schools. I've seen them seek out their gear up or, or trio counselors because that's when the rubber hits the road and we don't want to lose them after all that hard work. It's like climbing a mountain.

You do all that hard work and boy; you'd hate to lose people right at the finish line. And that's often what summer melt is addressing, or that's the concept is those students don't have support they don't have structure. And you've done all this work and because nobody claims the responsibility in the summer, they're not college yet and they're not high school anymore for the graduates, and that's where they fall off.

And so there's been a lot of research around how important it is to address summer melt.

Jonathan Hughes: How do you realize that something like summer melt is a problem, or how do you know [00:35:00] when maybe you need to add a program or a feature or what feedback necessitates that? I'm wondering.

Robert Dais: Yeah, great question. I think it's a combination of both listening to your community. So you're going to listen to your students, you're going to listen to your school leaders, you're going to listen to what's happening Nationally and in your state because we are constantly sourcing information. I'm on a lot of boards and panels with regards to other statewide directors all across the country.

So you're constantly sourcing it, both big picture. And then you're getting granular because you're looking at data, financial data. I'm working with DESI. So you're in a lot of organizations where they're constantly saying, what are we dealing with Both in your, in your program, but also what's the bigger picture?

I'll give you a great example. One of the one of the, the, the areas that we all need to take a closer look at, and myself included, is the fact that our young ladies have really responded to the message in the, the [00:36:00] interventions we've put forward. So our GEAR UP program is about 60 plus percent females. They're really thriving in it. What we're seeing is a drop off of college enrollment and higher and post-secondary pursuit of education with our young men and in particular our young men of color. And we have two choices, right? We can respond, we can blame them and say, oh, something's wrong with them.

Or we can look at ourselves and our interventions and say, why aren't we getting the message out? What can we do better? How can we adjust and modify our services to make sure that we're inclusive and providing the right opportunities for them across the board? Are we meeting them where they are? And so that's a lot of the soul searching that we're doing right now internally.

And I'll just highlight one intervention is, you know, we're partnering with a lot of, we have a partnership with the Boston Celtics. And they've been a great partner. And one of the reasons we're doing that is we recognize we do a college career readiness night every year with the Celtics going on 10 years now because we realize our group [00:37:00] advisors they're watching both. You know, all students go by them every day. Male, female, non-binary, doesn't matter, but. For whatever reason, our message isn't getting through a lot of times to our young men, maybe they're not seeing us as a solution for their challenges. It's funny because when we say, "Hey, by the way, we got a partnership with the Boston Celtics."

All of a sudden, some, some folks are listening to us now, whereas before they, Hey Robert, I don't really like you, but I wouldn't mind going to a Boston Celtics game and listening to, you know some of the players there and listening about career interest inventory based on that. So we're just modifying our services to say, There's a gap here.

We can, we can either address it and change and grow and understand the fact that we have got to, to change with the times and with the, the needs. And that's, that's what we've chosen to do. And that's just a small example.

Jonathan Hughes: I'm going to end with a couple of really big, sort of grand philosophical questions, but I feel confident that [00:38:00] you've got an answer.

Robert Dais: I'm going to do my best.

Jonathan Hughes: So what do you think is the purpose of higher education? And then what value does it bring?

Robert Dais: Sure. And this is my personal opinion, I would, because there are scholars who can fill, you know, wax philosophical on us for years. I have boiled my life down in this way. I think that education and I mean that in a broad sense, right?

Everything from K to 12 to YouTube, educate. Any way you can educate yourself is about you creating a better life. And optimizing your potential. That's the great gift. It's about you optimizing your potential. And I break by the way I measure my own successes and achievements in what I'm striving for is in several categories.

One is health, a second is wealth, and I'm going to talk about how broad that definition is. It's money, it's a bunch of other things. Another is love, and I mean that by how do I treat [00:39:00] people, my fellow man, woman, other people around me, my community. And I think if I get that right, if that get that triangle of health, wealth and love, right in the middle is happiness, right?

And, and from a constitutional perspective, the pursuit of happiness, we're all entitled to it. Now if I had to break that down, Robert, what do you mean by health? Well, I think education has a role to help me live a healthier life. I should be a healthier person. I should understand my body. I should understand the environment I live in.

It should help me make sense of just being a healthier human being, psychologically, spiritually, emotionally. It should feed into my health and inform my health. From a wealth perspective, there are many ways to be wealthy. Finances is a very important one. Making better financial decisions. There's a role for that with regards to education.

And, and also again, there, I think being healthy is a form of wealth. Having great relationships is a form of wealth. So I think that that concept of abundance is really, I'm going to sort of use the word abundance to describe I should [00:40:00] have a more abundant life as I learn. Right. And then finally, when I say love, I mean that in the broad context of how do I treat the people in my home?

How do I treat the people in my neighborhood? How do I treat the people in my community? How do I treat, treat the people in my state and my nation, and on this planet how do I treat non-humans? So again, and then what's my relationship to whether it's spiritual. So I look at it, if I can get those three corners of the triangle right in the middle is sort of a bliss, there's a happiness.

And education, I think in all those domains is integral. It plays a role, both formal education and informal education, and I'll. End my quote with one of my favorite quotes by Carter G. Woodson, who was a great leader, and I think he said something to the effect of, there are two educations that a person receives in their life.

There's the one that they're given and the one they give themselves. So when we talk about education, I'm always [00:41:00] asking what was the education that I was given? Well, GEAR UP is about working with partners to make sure that you have a high quality education at the state our beautiful country has given you.

Then we want to help you become a lifelong learner because that's about the gift you give yourself. We can't change that. But nonetheless, we want to influence you to consistently strive to be curious, open-minded and, and just continue to strive to be a better version of yourself. And I think that leads to happiness as we often talk about in this wonderful country we have so, that's my broad definition of education, what it does, what its role is, and I think in some way I'm just trying to play a small part in the students that I serve.

Jonathan Hughes: I thought you'd have a good answer. You had a great answer and thank you very much. What I had a great, great time talking to you. Good luck with everything. Enjoy the rest of the summer.

Robert Dais: Hey, thank you. MEFA is a great partner in all ways and it's been great to connect with you and my dear friend Shaun and thank you. Thanks for doing this. So [00:42:00] you enjoy too. You have a great summer.

Jonathan Hughes: All right folks, so that about wraps it up for us. I want to thank Robert Dais for sharing his wisdom with us. And remember folks, if you like what you heard on the show today and you want to know more about planning, saving, and paying for college and career readiness, you can follow us wherever you find your podcasts.

And please remember to review us. It helps us to keep doing what we're doing. In getting this show out to folks like you, Julie, once again, thank you.

Julie Shields-Rutyna: It's so always good to be here with you, Jonathan.

Jonathan Hughes: I want to thank Shaun Connolly, our producer and AJ Yee and Lauren Danz for their assistance in posting the show.

Once again, my name is Jonathan Hughes and this has been the MEFA Podcast. Thanks.

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