During the last few weeks of August, Torri Hayslett's room at McKinley Technology High School feels more like an accountant's office than a college adviser's.
"Thirty-one thousand dollars minus $4,000, minus $2,500," she says, saying the numbers out loud before punching them into the calculator. She's sitting with one of her students, who recently graduated from McKinley. They're looking over her first college bill.
"Does the $9,000 include the $3,000?" Hayslett asks. "I think that is including," the student responds. "Again, I do not know a lot of logistics right now."
Hayslett works as a college and career manager, helping nearly 150 seniors at this public high school in Washington, D.C. Nearly 40 percent of McKinley's students come from low-income families.
She says this is what happens in July and August: Seniors who've already graduated come to her office (or call or text) trying to get a handle on all these numbers.
Many of the students who shuffle into her office ended the school year in celebration. They're going to college! The schools they've picked were pinned up on bulletin boards in the hall; some students even made the local news.
And then summer rolls around, bringing with it one big question: Can I actually afford this?
"It still doesn't become a reality until they see those numbers on a piece of paper and it doesn't balance out," says Hayslett.
This last-minute money scramble is one of the main reasons that nearly a third of low-income students with college-going plans never start freshman year.
This past spring, every graduating member of the senior class at McKinley Tech was accepted to college, Hayslett tells me. But she works year-round, so her work didn't stop after graduation. She knows that only about 75 percent of those students will start classes in the fall.
Over the summer weeks, I visited Hayslett several times in her office. I saw her solve a range of problems: A homeless student was short several thousand dollars and hadn't yet received housing on campus. Hayslett borrowed a car and drove the student an hour north to Baltimore in order to talk face-to-face with the director of financial aid. While they were there, she helped secure the extra money he needed — plus a year-round dorm, so he won't have to sleep on someone's couch over winter break.
Another student's gap — about $6,000 — was filled when Hayslett ran into a local dentist when she was out with some friends. It turned out that one of his employees was that student's mom. The dentist made the connection and asked how the student's college plans were going. When Hayslett mentioned they were applying for last-minute scholarships, the dentist offered to help. He's now paying that $6,000.
Sometimes, Hayslett will pay the difference herself. When a student needed just $250 for a housing deposit, she covered it.
"I know I can't do that for every student," she says, "but sometimes it can just make such a big difference." She also gets her friends and family to chip in. "I'm not above asking anyone for college money for these students," she says. That includes local celebrities. This year, she helped students needing college money write personal letters, which she mailed to anyone she could find addresses for, including actress Taraji P. Henson.
One of her students, Damoni Tolson, planned on going to Johnson & Wales University, a private college with a campus in Florida. Ever since he was a kid, he'd wanted to make his way to Florida — he'd gotten a good scholarship in March. (Later it would turn out that he'd gotten the highest amount of scholarship money the school could give, because Johnson & Wales doesn't give full-rides.)
And yet, in the last week of August, he was still about $12,000 short. His mom was having trouble getting a loan. And so, with the days counting down, he found himself in Hayslett's office, facing a tough decision.
Hayslett turns to Damoni, cutting right to it: Do you want to consider going to another school?
"We can see," he says, looking down at his feet. "I don't really want to switch this decision this late in, but if the loan doesn't go through, I don't really have any other options."
Most students in Damoni's position have limited options. They can sit out for a semester, while they get finances in order. Or they can see if they can get in somewhere else.
Often, spots at local community colleges are still available, and some state programs have rolling admission. Though for both options, much of the scholarship money has already been given out to other students.
It can be really disheartening, says Shaquinah Wright, who oversees College Bridge, a program in New York City that pairs current college students with high school seniors in order to support them through the college process.
"These are young people who haven't figured it all out, and they're not supposed to," she says. "The finish line keeps getting further and further away."
Experts say there are things that can help: High school students can select smarter college choices. Colleges and universities can send clearer financial-award letters. And high schools can support students over the summer with year-round college counselors, like Torri Hayslett.
Damoni has some advice for current seniors, too: "When you're applying to schools, make sure you have an idea of what you're willing to spend," he says. "Come up with a plan with your parents, to make sure everything is good financially, so when the time comes, you're not forced into anything."
He never made it down to Florida. Instead, he got a football scholarship from St. Augustine's University, a historically black college in North Carolina. He's relieved everything worked out — and pretty excited that his football-playing days aren't over.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
As the school year gets underway, about a third of low-income, college-bound students won't actually enroll. These are students who were so close. They've graduated from high school. They've applied. They've been accepted to college, but then they don't show up. Why? Most of it comes down to the August money shuffle.
Elissa Nadworny of the NPR Ed team introduces us to a woman in a Washington, D.C., high school who is working to make sure her students avoid this trap.
ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: During the summer months, Torri Hayslett does a lot of math.
TORRI HAYSLETT: That's 31,000, minus 3,500, minus 2,000, minus 4,000...
NADWORNY: Seniors who graduated last spring are here in Miss Hayslett's office at McKinley Technology High School to number crunch. They sit with Hayslett, watching her pour over their finances.
HAYSLETT: So is the $9,000 including this $3,000?
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: I think that is including. Again, I do not know a lot of logistics right now.
NADWORNY: These students have been celebrated. They're going to college. The schools they've picked are on bulletin boards. Some even made the local news. And then August rolls around with one big question - can I actually afford this?
HAYSLETT: It still doesn't become reality until they see those numbers on a piece of paper, and it doesn't balance out.
NADWORNY: Hayslett works with about 150 seniors at McKinley, where nearly 40 percent of students are low-income.
HAYSLETT: I mean, I get messages all day, night, weekend.
NADWORNY: One of her students is Damoni Tolson. He planned on going to Johnson & Wales, a private school in Florida, but the numbers aren't adding up.
DAMONI TOLSON: I'm coming here to just clear up some college financial things, and she's going to help me with that
NADWORNY: Right now, Damoni is about $12,000 short, and his mom is having trouble getting a loan.
HAYSLETT: Oh, so you did get some money.
TOLSON: They gave me a decent amount. It's just what's left over...
NADWORNY: So here in Hayslett's office with two weeks left before classes start, Damoni faces a tough decision.
HAYSLETT: Do you want to see about going to another school or is your heart set on Johnson & Wales?
NADWORNY: Damoni shrugs and looks at his feet.
TOLSON: We can see. I mean, I really don't want to switch my decision this late in, but if the loan don't go through, I don't really have any other options.
SHAQUINAH WRIGHT: These are young people who don't really have it all figured out, and they're not supposed to.
NADWORNY: Shaquinah Wright oversees a program called College Bridge, which mentors New York City high schoolers during the college process.
WRIGHT: The finish line keeps getting further and further away.
NADWORNY: She says there are things that can help - smarter college choices, clearer financial award letters and support over the summer months from counselors like Torri Hayslett. At Hayslett's school, McKinley Tech, every member of the senior class was accepted to college, but her work didn't stop there. She tells me only about 75 percent enroll in the fall. So what about Damoni Tolson, who'd been dreaming of moving to Florida?
(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)
NADWORNY: Hey, Damoni?
NADWORNY: Hey, it's Elissa calling from NPR.
TOLSON: Yeah, how you doing?
NADWORNY: He didn't make it to Johnson & Wales, but he's now on campus at St. Augustine, a historically black college in North Carolina. He got a big, last-minute scholarship to play football.
TOLSON: I think I've settled in pretty good, met some new people. The campus isn't that big, so I pretty much know where everything is.
NADWORNY: And instead of finding $12,000 for the year, he only had to pay $3,000. Now he's just got to make good grades to keep that scholarship money coming. Elissa Nadworny, NPR News, Washington.
(SOUNDBITE OF TOBACCO'S "OUT THE DUNES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.