The summer between high school and college is a unique time. The previous months have been filled with activity: submitting applications, waiting for acceptance letters, choosing schools, submitting deposits, and lining up financial aid. Suddenly, it all comes together. Graduation happens and once a college is chosen, students have little more to do than wait.
After graduation, most high school guidance counselors are no longer available to assist students. Similarly, many graduates aren’t aware of the resources that may be available to them at their new campus homes. This in-between summer is a distinctly “un-mentored” time.
No longer high-schoolers, but not yet undergraduates, students meanwhile prepare to venture out on their own. They awaken to the rewards of independence—as well as the realities of college-level coursework and tuition payments. Some may begin to reconsider their college choices.
By the time fall semester begins, many students have changed their minds. Some have opted not to attend college at all.
This phenomenon is known as “summer melt”—and it’s more common than you might think. The national average melt rate is between 10 and 20 percent of college-intending high school graduates. In some parts of the country, it’s as high as 40 percent.
Here we’ll discuss summer melt in greater detail and outline steps colleges and universities can take to reduce their melt, showcase their distinctive qualities, and direct incoming students to the resources they need for a successful transition to college life.
Understanding summer melt
Summer melt does not affect all students equally. There are two types of melt, and if you want to address the issue, it’s important to understand the difference.
The first type of melt refers to students who pay deposits to multiple colleges. These students may still be undecided about which school to attend, or they may be hoping for a late acceptance from a more selective institution. This creates issues for colleges that want an accurate profile of their incoming classes. Students who ‘melt’ from one institution to another decrease the yield of the colleges they do not attend. These types of students, however, are unlikely to forgo college altogether. The challenge for colleges trying to retain these students is to demonstrate their value—their competitive edge—in comparison to students’ other options.
The second type of melt is more prevalent—yet less talked-about in higher-ed circles. It refers to students who, for a variety of reasons, decide not to attend college anywhere after summer ends. Common reasons include a reevaluation of the costs of college (particularly when non-tuition expenses, such as room and board, meal plans, and health insurance, come to light), social anxiety about fitting in on campus, and informational barriers, such as a lack of tools needed to complete required forms.
This type of melt disproportionately affects students from low-income backgrounds, many of whom are the first in their families to attend college. Such students may lack adequate support networks encouraging them to enroll—including the advice of friends and family who have been in their shoes and can guide them through the process.
For many colleges, providing these students with the resources they need is beyond the scope of their admissions pipelines. However, colleges that want to better serve underrepresented students should recognize this second type of summer melt.
Why does summer melt happen?
There’s no one, simple explanation for summer melt. Indeed, some degree of melt is normal and expected. A student realizes that the program she’s interested in isn’t available at her first-choice school. For another student, changing financial circumstances shift college to the back burner. Yet another decides to take a year off before continuing his studies.
Reasons vary depending on personal circumstances, but that doesn’t mean schools have no sway. A school’s ability to effectively communicate with inbound freshmen can be a powerful asset. “When it comes to summer communications from colleges, there’s a degree of ‘ships passing in the night,’” says Benjamin L. Castleman, Assistant Professor of Education and Public Policy at the University of Virginia and a leading researcher on summer melt. “It’s not that schools aren’t communicating—they’re just not using the right tools to reach students.”
Two primary objectives: Build community and offer support
You already know that students from different backgrounds make the high school-to-college transition with different needs and expectations. Meeting these diverse needs, however, is easier than you might think. All of your summer communications should be built around just two primary objectives: building community, and offering support.
Use text messages to stay connected
So what are the right tools? The answer may be at your fingertips.
Castleman’s research, conducted in collaboration with Lindsay C. Page at the University of Pittsburgh, suggests that text messages are a uniquely effective way to connect. In a 2012 study, students who received regular, personalized text message reminders about preparing for college were as much as 11 percent more likely to attend than students who did not receive messages. Texts were particularly helpful for students from lower-income backgrounds, who may not have had other sources of encouragement or access to college-planning resources or information.
There are several reasons text messages might be so well suited for this task:
THEY SIMPLIFY INFORMATION. Mailed packets of forms and checklists—and even email communications—can be overwhelming, Castleman says. Texts, on the other hand, are brief, focused, and timely. They tell students what to do now.
THEY PROMPT ACTION. Similarly, unlike other forms of communication that are easily dismissed, text messages are hard to ignore. Messages can include URLs, so that students with smartphones can go directly to a college’s website to fill out a form, apply for housing, or other actions.
As Castleman and Page pointed out in a recent paper, “messaging may effectively turn one of adolescents’ greatest liabilities—their impulsiveness—into an asset: By providing simplified and timely information, text messages can prompt students to complete required steps in the moment, before their attention is diverted elsewhere.”
THEY MINIMIZE BARRIERS TO PROFESSIONAL HELP. It’s not easy to pick up the phone and ask a stranger for help—particularly for an incoming college student who has no idea where to begin. Not knowing whom to contact about important issues like tuition and financial aid, some students may simply miss application deadlines and ultimately melt.
Text messages, in contrast, are more familiar and less anxiety-inducing for many of today’s college students. Teens may feel more comfortable asking questions and seeking help using this less-formal method.
Best of all for colleges, text messaging programs are simple and inexpensive to implement compared to other forms of outreach. In addition to messages about the steps required for enrollment, texts can be personalized based on students’ stated interests. Text messages that inform students of sports teams, clubs, Greek organizations, and other activities help create inclusiveness and get students excited about starting college.
More tools schools can use
Text messages aren’t the only method for colleges to effectively reach out. There are many other ways for colleges to meet their objectives of building community and offering support.
CONNECT VIA SOCIAL MEDIA. It’s well known that social media is a primary arena for teens and young adults to connect. You don’t have to look far to find a wealth of advice from social media experts on how to use various platforms and what to post. The sites are perfect for community-building—for example, a Facebook group just for members of an incoming freshman class allows students to “meet” one another before school begins, ask questions, and develop a sense of unity with their class and their school.
Social media is also a great way to gauge the pulse of—and respond to—misinformation and negative feedback. Information can spread like wildfire on the web, and it’s often hard to verify what’s true and what’s rumor. Colleges with an active social media presence have the chance to set the record straight. By establishing themselves as the authoritative source of information, colleges can proactively address student concerns and put the rumor mill to rest.
Schools should stay current on the networks today’s students are actually using to connect, explains Castleman. Platforms like Twitter are much-discussed in social media circles, but are less popular with teens. More popular today are applications made for sharing with smaller groups, such as Instagram and Snapchat.
If you decide to delve into social media, make the commitment and go all in. Have a dedicated person or team that knows how to stay on top. A half-hearted effort can potentially do more damage than good.
CONNECT PROSPECTS WITH CURRENT STUDENTS. A major reason many students melt is that they don’t feel a sense of community with their chosen schools. Incoming students may fear that when they arrive on campus, they won’t meet others with similar interests and backgrounds. They might be afraid of being isolated or lonely. Connecting and talking with current students, however, can help newcomers imagine, plan, and get excited about their future campus lives.
Matching incoming students to mentors with whom they have something in common, such as a shared hometown, intended major, or extracurricular interest, may help students connect. Arrange for mentor-mentee pairs to exchange contact information over the summer to give incoming students a helpful person to tap with questions and access needed support.
Give your mentor-mentee program a jump-start by supplying your mentors with plenty of resources: phone numbers, contact names, schedules, and due dates. An outline of a communication plan can help them cover all the bases. The easier you make it for your mentors, the more successful your program will be.
HOLD VIRTUAL CAMPUS VISITS. A campus visit can be a deciding factor in choosing a college. For many prospective students, setting foot in a classroom or dorm can help determine whether they can see themselves there for the next four years. As important as these experiences are for some, time, money, and distance make travel unrealistic for others. Yet many colleges see campus visits as an indication of interest and even use them as admissions criteria—putting students who are unable to visit at a distinct disadvantage.
Technology has made it possible for colleges to address this imbalance by bringing the campus experience to prospective students everywhere. Through video conferences or pre-recorded video clips, students can “tour” campus housing, athletic facilities, and classrooms. Admissions counselors, financial aid staff, and current students can answer questions during live chats. One-on-one calls conducted over programs like Skype easily replace in-person admissions interviews. Prospective employers are doing it in the business world. Why can’t you?
HELP STUDENTS MANAGE PAPERWORK AND ENROLLMENT DEADLINES. Missed deadlines are red-flag warnings that a student is at risk for melt. A “first-semester checklist” with important dates, links to required forms, and other key information is a must. Digital checklists and file-upload pages save paper and allow colleges to gather information more rapidly. However, make sure that important deadlines and forms are also available in hard-copy format
CREATE TIMELINES FOR ENGAGEMENT. Incoming students aren’t the only ones that can benefit from reminders. The more effectively and strategically colleges can communicate with students, the better their chances of reducing summer melt.
Visual aids help manage the flow of new students between acceptance and arrival on campus and help guide colleges’ decisions about communication. Use a communication flowchart to help you schedule your reach-out efforts and track students’ responses. When a student doesn’t respond to a particular message, take specific actions to reach out. With each step, you will make progress toward building relationships with students who might otherwise have attended another school—or not attended college at all.
Summer melt is a complex issue with a diverse set of solutions. In fact, it’s best understood as two problems, affecting two distinct groups of students:
- Students who choose a college after making enrollment deposits at
- Students who, for a variety of reasons, are accepted to and enroll in
college but ultimately do not attend
Even with focused effort, colleges cannot always meet every potential student’s needs. However, tools like text messages, social media campaigns, peer mentoring, and online technology help colleges ease students’ transitions and pave the way for college life.
Whatever tools you choose, build your strategy on two primary objectives: foster community and offer support to incoming students—of all backgrounds. There will always be students who melt. However, with a proactive, targeted approach to your summer communications, you just may lower your melt rate and increase your yield.
To learn how One Call Now can help put a freeze on summer melt, click below:
- Castleman, B.L., Arnold, K., and Wartman, K.L. (2012). Stemming the Tide of Summer Melt: An Experimental Study of the Effects of Post-High School Summer Intervention on Low-Income Students’ College Enrollment. Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness, 5(1). Available at http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/19345747.2011.618214#.U1rQcVca3n0
- Castleman, B. L., and Page, L.C. (2013). Working Paper: Summer Nudging: Can Personalized Text Messages and Peer Mentor Outreach Increase College Going Among Low-Income High School Graduates? EdPolicyWorks Working Paper Series, 9. Available at http://curry.virginia.edu/uploads/resourceLibrary/9_Castleman_SummerTextMessages.pdf
- Castleman, B.L., Page, L.C., and Schooley, K. (2014). The Forgotten Summer: Does the Offer of College Counseling After High School Mitigate Summer Melt Among College-Intending, Low-Income High School Graduates? Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, 33(2). Available at http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/pam.21743/abstract
- Castleman, B.L., Page, L.C., and Snowdon, A.L. SDP Summer Melt Handbook: A Guide to Investigating and Responding to Summer Melt. Strategic Data Project, Center for Education Policy Research, Harvard University. Available at http://www.gse.harvard.edu/sdp/resources/summer-melt/index.php
- Hoover, E. (2009). “In an Uncertain Summer, Colleges Try to Control Enrollment ‘Melt.’” Chronicle of Higher Education, 42(9). Available at http://chronicle.com/article/In-an-Uncertain-Summer/47100/
- Sherrer, K. (2013). Viewpoint: Time to end ‘summer melt.’ USA Today. Available at http://college.usatoday.com/2013/08/16/viewpoint-time-to-end-summer-melt/