Every year, an estimated 10-40% of high school students with every intention of enrolling in college the following fall never actually do so. Students most underrepresented on college campuses, e.g., students of color, students from low-income backgrounds, and first-generation students, are the most susceptible to challenges of this “summer melt.”
The National College Attainment Network (NCAN) defines summer melt as the “the phenomenon of college-intending students who have applied to, been accepted by, and made a deposit to a college or university, but fail to matriculate to that college (or any other) in the fall following their high school graduation.”
So, what causes summer melt?
The challenge of getting to the metaphorical college-going finish line is not often a question of whether or not the student wants to go, but rather if they have the resources to do so. Far too often, students falter when facing the immense challenge of navigating complex forms and processes.
Financial aid is often one of high school seniors’ biggest hurdles. If there are gaps in a college’s sticker price and a financial aid package, students might find themselves in what seems like the impossible position of not knowing how to close that gap.
Students who complete the FAFSA thinking it will unlock their financial aid sometimes experience hurdles in the form of being selected for verification and needing to provide additional documents. The office of Federal Student Aid estimates that 7.2% of students selected for FAFSA verification do not receive subsidized federal aid as a result. These challenges add up, making it more difficult for students to afford, and attend, college.
For the class of 2021, we cannot overstate the importance of summer melt interventions. New data about the class of 2020 tell us that postsecondary enrollment from low-income high schools was down more than 13 times from the previous year. Similarly, high-minority high schools saw postsecondary enrollment decline more than tenfold.
Since the most disadvantaged students are the most susceptible to summer melt, it is imperative that districts, schools, and college access programs are prepared to provide support for high school seniors as they transition. Regardless of your organization’s capacity, there are actions that you can take to combat summer melt.
The first step to tackling summer melt is measuring summer melt.
Measuring summer melt takes time, but the payoff is well worth the effort.
For many organizations, the classic senior exit survey administered around graduation is a good place to start. To increase survey completion, consider offering incentives or making the survey a graduation requirement. Harvard’s Center for Education Policy Research Summer Melt Handbook offers a guide on what exactly to include in the senior exit survey and offers examples.
When it comes to creating the survey, the more specific the questions, the better. For instance, the guide recommends asking questions that reveal exactly at which institution a student plans to enroll and whether or not the student has paid their deposit.
With an understanding of how many students intend to go to college, compare that information against data available through the National Student Clearinghouse (NSC). Their StudentTracker service helps organizations determine how many students actually enroll in college the following fall.
Once the fall approaches, use data on intention and enrollment and this formula to calculate summer melt:
For an example from the field, consider the School District of Lancaster (PA). The district paired with researchers from Franklin & Marshall College to develop an approach to measuring summer melt. They found three key indicators to best predict their class of 2018’s summer melt: senior year GPA, senior year attendance, and completion of the FAFSA (or listed as N/A due to income or undocumented status). The district then used that new information to inform its advising approach and refine the types of supports its college advisers would provide students.
“While your school or organization may not have the data or resources to build your own predictive model, it may not be as hard as you think. Consider reaching out to local colleges and universities, especially the economics, education, statistics, and political science departments,” advises Dr. Jeremy Raff, SDOL’s coordinator of college and career services.
Regardless of measurement approach, the key is to have some sense of how many students are melting and, even better, which student groups are melting at the highest rates. Having these data makes a more effective summer melt intervention possible.
If many of your students are going to the same colleges, consider creating transition ‘cheat-sheets.’
Organizations can take this simple and low-budget action to support students over the summer.
To get started, make a list of the institutions to which the students you serve most often matriculate. Contact these colleges’ admissions offices to ensure that your organization is creating a guide that is in line with each school’s requirements and timeline and to see if they have any additional information to include. This can also help to build a stronger partnership between your organization and the higher education institutions that serve your students.
The Puget Sound College and Career Network created a number of wonderful checklists for their students’ popular college choices. They include simple one-page summaries of tasks, deadlines, and “good to know” information – complete with links and contact information.
Keep in mind that while the cheat sheets are a great resource, they are most effective when combined with hands-on support.
Depending on your organization’s capacity and funding, consider summer staffing.
If a district has the resources to hire school counselors or other summer employees, this high-impact approach allows for personalized advising. For the class of 2021 in particular, it is a great way to reach students who started their college-going process later in the year. This is especially impactful if your organization has access to the information necessary to contact students over the summer.
Harvard’s Center for Education Policy Research Summer Melt Handbook offers guidance on how to actually make this happen:
“Through phone calls, text messages, and face-to-face meetings, counselors offer additional college-related support and guidance during the summer months. Counselors help students review their financial aid packages, understand and complete required paperwork, and negotiate social/emotional barriers to enrollment.”
Also consider involving members of the local groups such as the faith community, a local college access organization, or a nearby college. If you have already have strong partnerships with these groups, this could be a good match for your district, school, or organization.
Last summer, the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools collaborated with four local colleges to build a summer melt program by employing two AmeriCorps VISTA college success advisers. They met with the students virtually every month and sent out weekly, campus-specific text message reminders. Utilizing the cohort model ensured that students had a community that would arrive with them on campus.
Whether or not your organization is able to bring on summer staff, you should still consider a digital approach, such as texting.
Texting campaigns can easily be customized to reach your students.
Research suggests that texting campaigns can be one of the most cost-effective ways to stay in contact with students.
For instance, when Rhode Island Pipelines to College collaborated with Career Research Partnership, they found that 73% of students from low-income backgrounds who received text nudges enrolled in college, compared to 66% who did not receive texts. When Bottom Line paired with Signal Vine to re-engage students through two-way texting, they found that staff members reported at least a 50% student response rate.
The aim of texting should be to inform students about college-related tasks that they might not be aware of, remind them of deadlines, and help them complete such tasks before enrolling. If your district or school’s student portal has texting capabilities, that is one way to get in contact with students. If not, consider contracting with a message delivery service like Signal Vine.
When sending texts to students, focus on just one enrollment objective per text and include links for actions.
If you’re looking for text messaging templates, Find the Fit has a series of customizable text messages that can be sent to students.
Finally, for a more in-depth look, “Nudges, Norms, and New Solutions” is a comprehensive guide on how to utilize digital efforts such as texting, social media campaigns, and chatbots.
Remember, being proactive is key to every summer melt intervention, regardless of an organization’s size and capacity.
It’s an unfortunate truth that summer melt starts in February. Comprehensive and engaging summer melt interventions require thoughtfulness and planning in order to effectively reach the students who need them the most. While your organization is determining the approach that is right for you, don’t forget the resources that are already available to you. NCAN has a Summer Melt Toolkit for inspiration as well as a K-12 Advising Calendar to help you stay on track throughout the year.