“Summer melt” is a term that explains the phenomenon of college-intending students failing to enroll in the fall after high school graduation.
Melt occurs despite effected students having applied and been accepted to college and then paying a deposit to hold their place.
This phenomenon is especially prevalent in low-income minority communities due to a lack of finance, resources, support, guidance, and encouragement.
Up to one in five high school graduates who have been accepted and intend to enroll in college don’t make it to campus in the fall, according to research by Benjamin L. Castleman and Lindsay C. Page, co-authors of "Summer Melt.”
Support programs and interventions can have a significant impact on alleviating the summer melt phenomenon and increasing college enrollment rates.
Why do students melt?
After students receive acceptance letters and make their decision to attend a particular college, they face a wall of administrative tasks. Many of these tasks may be challenging for students who don’t have adequate access to support.
Students are often not aware of the support resources available at their intended college, and they may have families that lack experience with college processes.
Here are some examples of the tasks that students need to complete:
- Organising financing of fees
- Completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA)
- Paying term bill
- Identifying and budgeting for expenses (health insurance and course textbooks)
- Register for orientation
- Take placement tests
- Apply for housing
- Class registration
- Food plans
- Access, digest, and respond to correspondence
Completing these tasks often happens while balancing a part-time or full-time job.
Unfortunately, access to information is often provided through institution-specific online portals. These online portals can be challenging to navigate and require significant time to find, read and understand information.
For students without internet access, this becomes a tremendous strain.
How prevalent is summer melt?
According to a study from Harvard University, the rates of summer melt range from 10 to 40% of college-intending students, meaning that hundreds of thousands of students are likely melting away over the summer.
Summer melt rates are higher among students from low- and moderate-income families and those with lower academic achievement.
Melt rates are also considerably higher among students who intend to enroll at community colleges compared to their peers planning to enroll at four-year colleges and universities.
Strategies to reduce summer melt
The Harvard study reported that interventions at the institutional level “can have a significant impact on alleviating the summer melt phenomenon and increasing college enrollment rates."
Here is a list of strategies that can directly impact summer melt.
1. Hire counselors to reach out to students proactively during the summer months
Providing tailored advice to individual students can have an immediate impact on yield.
The University of Texas-Austin’s admissions website has a “counselor finder” feature where a student can type the name of their former high school and receive the phone number and email of an admissions professional who serves prospective UT students in that area. Arizona State University has a 24/7 helpline that students can call.
Pros: High success rate, personalized to each student
2. Assign a peer mentor to all students
Students who have experienced the same stresses are often the best mentors as they can relate to the difficulty of the experience.
Pros: Leverage relatability
Cons: Requires significant staff oversight
3. Distribute a general summary of essential summer tasks for college-going students to complete
When students are given a clear list of what they need to do, it makes the process feel a lot less overwhelming. Presenting a clear action plan with only the most critical action items also helps students to focus their limited time.
Pros: Easy to implement
Cons: Lower level of impact
Example Student Checklist
- Contact a school counselor if you need help
- Log on to the college website (your username and password were sent with your acceptance packet and by email)
- Check the status of your financial aid
- Complete the FAFSA and apply for aid if you haven’t already (check your most recent award letter and your personalized website to see whether there are additional steps you need to take to apply for aid. If you are considering an appeal, contact your financial aid office to ask how to appeal)
- Register for orientation
- Check whether you need to complete placement testing before the start of the semester or before orientation
- Complete your housing forms
- Check when term bills are due
- Review health insurance policy and submit an application
- Submit high school transcript and an official indication of graduation to the admissions office
4. Digital messaging campaigns with reminders of important tasks to complete and student resources
Consistent touch points keep college at the front of mind for the student. This strategy also helps to 'drip-feed' information to students when they need it.
Texas A&M’s admissions website has an “Aggie Answers” ask box where a prospective student can type their questions and be pointed to resources.
Pros: Low touch once established
Cons: Difficult to avoid information overload, social media can be ineffective to reach students
5. Simplify the post-acceptance process & reduce information overload
Less is more. It's easy to fall into the trap of providing too much information in an effort to help students to be fully informed. It can be a lot more efficient to give students the critical information they need to make it to campus.
Pros: Very effective
Cons: Difficult to do well
6. Create a community where incoming students can connect with one another for support
Thousands of students are in the same boat when it comes to starting college, so why not connect them all, so it becomes a team effort Students gather a lot of comfort from knowing they are not alone in the process.
Pros: Notably efficient, provides comfort to students during a difficult period
Cons: Fails if implemented poorly
Given the amount of work that goes into recruiting a pool of potential students, implementing strategies that will impact on yield is an easy decision.
Most importantly, helping students get to college should be something that we all support.