summer melt

Like many college-bound high school seniors, Lucas worked hard to meet his goal of being the first person in his family to attend college. He applied and was accepted to his college of choice, completed his financial aid forms, and made a deposit—all before wrapping his senior year of high school.

In the fall, Lucas didn’t show up on campus.

Unfortunately, Lucas’ story is similar to thousands of incoming freshmen across the country. From the point of view of the admissions office, as you know, we’re looking at the painful reality known as summer melt.

What is summer melt?

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.

National College Attainment Network

10 to 20 percent of students who enroll in college do not end up attending in the fall.

While there is a range of reasons summer melt occurs, it’s more prevalent among low-income students and first-generation college students. 

Fortunately, research also shows that colleges, and specifically college counselors, can implement a number of relatively simple and low-cost strategies proven to bridge the high school to college gap and increase college enrollment rates—especially in the underrepresented and minority communities.

Why are students “melting?”

The summer between high school and college requires students to complete a number of important steps to ensure everything, including registration, financial aid, course schedules, placement tests, and room and board, is taken care of and completed prior to arriving on campus.

The most common reason why incoming college students melt away is they don’t get the support they want during their transition to college. This problem is even more prevalent among low-income, minority, and first-generation college students. In fact, students in these demographics are over 60% more likely to experience summer melt than their more affluent peers.

According to the American School Counselor Association, specific contributors to summer melt include:

  • Figuring out the actual cost of college tuition and related expenses
  • Interpreting complicated financial aid information
  • Difficulty meeting medical and immunization requirements and timelines
  • Registering and performing well on placement tests
  • Completing paperwork related to housing and housing related-costs
  • Registering for classes
  • Figuring out transportation
  • Lack of access to the internet

What school counselors can do to reduce summer melt

The summer before college is the epitome of a broader pattern on the road to college, of students encountering consequential but complex decisions. This time can set students up for success, or a lack of resources can greatly impact their ability to get where they want to go.

Benjamin L. Castleman, University of Virginia (Source)

When it comes to preparing for the transition to college, students graduating from high school often just don’t know what they don’t know. Considering the importance of the high school to college summer matriculation period, it’s important for high school guidance counselors to provide students (and their families) with some tips and strategies to help them better navigate the transition. 

Tell them email matters

Today’s students use email just a tiny bit more than they use snail mail, which is to say they don’t use it much at all. Even though they might think it’s an archaic way to communicate, students need to be aware many colleges rely on email as their primary means of communication—especially when they need to collect important information.

Encourage students to create an email account specifically for college. Since many high schools purge graduates’ email accounts, it’s essential to have an email address that is not affiliated with their high school. Students should be instructed to check their email several times a week over the summer. 

Also, encourage students to read and respond in a timely manner to all emails from their college. This means paying attention to important deadlines mentioned in the email. It’s also important for students to understand how to create folders and save all email correspondence for future reference.

Encourage them to reach out

In the effort to reduce summer melt, it’s essential for students to understand the admissions staff and student support office at your college are there to help them succeed. Still, they need to understand it’s often up in them to reach out and ask for the help they need. 

Like email and snail mail, phone calls have seemingly become a lost art with Gen Z college-bound students. Make sure students realize how helpful it is to have connections at your school that they can reach out to for support.

Strategies to freeze summer melt

Research shows the sooner a student connects and feels supported by their college, the less likely they are to “melt” over the summer. Fortunately, a combination of technological advances and intentional efforts to improve connections between students and college staff members and/or students have resulted in a number of very effective, low-cost strategies for college counselors to reduce the number of students experiencing the effects of summer melt. 

Identify at-risk students

Research has consistently shown who is most at-risk to “melt” during the summer matriculation period. Since college admissions offices have data that can identify incoming freshmen who meet these at-risk criteria, it makes sense to capture and use the data to develop strategies to support the most vulnerable of these populations.

One effective way colleges can support at-risk students is by flipping the script and directly reaching out to them over the summer. 

In fact, research has demonstrated that providing matriculating students with two to three hours of direct support from a college counselor only costs between $100 and $200 per student and is effective in increasing enrollment among low-income students by nearly 10%.

Connect the way students prefer

Today’s students typically communicate via text messaging and social media. Considering this, recent research has demonstrated that using communication software to send automated and personalized messaging to students who are at-risk for summer melt has resulted in a significant increase in college enrollment among this group.

This research also demonstrated that an effective social media/text message campaign costs just $7 per student.

Show students the way with peer mentoring

Another affordable, but very effective way to bridge the gap between high school and college for at-risk and underrepresented students is peer mentoring. Using current or former students from your college or university, perhaps even as part of a work study, has demonstrated to be effective at helping incoming and at-risk students successfully navigate the college matriculation process. 

The transition to remote or virtual learning experienced during the recent COVID-19 pandemic has also opened up new opportunities for colleges and universities to provide virtual peer mentoring, small group meetings and orientations, and one-on-one opportunities to help students:

  • Understand financial aid and financial issues
  • Meet important deadlines
  • Connect with students with similar interests and backgrounds

Peer mentoring opportunities, at a cost of under $100 per student, have been successful in increasing four-year college enrollments, with substantial increases demonstrated for males and for those unsure of their college plans.  

Reduce summer melt and everyone wins

Although summer melt is a real and increasing concern of colleges and universities, research shows can be prevented or reduced.

When students who are at most at-risk for summer melt set foot on campus in the fall both they and your college win. Considering the low cost of implementing strategies to prevent summer melt, everyone involved benefits from putting in the effort to put a freeze on the summer melt phenomenon.

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