Summer melt is an issue that admissions and enrollment departments are all too familiar with. “Summer melt” refers to students that have accepted an offer at a college and paid a deposit, yet they don’t end up enrolling in the fall. After the yield period is over, actively preventing summer melt is key to maintaining and improving the quality and diversity of the incoming class.
In order to prevent summer melt, it is important to know why it happens. Students that suffer from summer melt typically fall into two categories:
Type 1: Competition-based
Most institutions require that accepted students pay a deposit upon acceptance of the offer to “hold their spot” at the institution. Some students that can’t decide on a college by the decision date “double down” – meaning they submit deposits for multiple institutions. Unfortunately, this means that the institution may consider the student as “accepted”, but the student might be enrolling with another institution in the fall. This means institutions may still be competing against other peer institutions to “win over” students, even if they’ve accepted an offer.
Type 2: “College-intending” students
Studies show “summer melt” affects 10-40% of college-intending students, and they are more commonly from low-income backgrounds. The Strategic Data Project at Harvard uses the term “college-intending” because these students have clearly shown their intention to attend the institution, yet for various reasons, they don’t attend in the fall. Studies show that melt can be caused by:
- Lack of support during transition, including sorting through all required paperwork like transcripts, financial aid forms, health insurance forms, housing forms, placement testing, and orientation requirements.
- Lack of financial resources for things like tuition deposits, housing deposits, books and supplies.
- Lack of a connection to the campus or students at the institution
In the book, “Summer Melt”, the author notes that low-income, college-intending students enter a sort of “no-man’s land” after high school graduation. From the moment they confirm acceptance, they are bombarded with forms, procedures, and deadlines, and many times they are forced to figure it all out by themselves.
So how can we prevent summer melt and support low-income students that are affected the most? Based on research and industry best practices, we’ve compiled 6 ways to combat summer melt and support success for lower-income students in higher education.
Strategies to Prevent Summer Melt
- Frequent touch points and communications through social media, email, and print.
Many institutions spend a large amount of their admissions budget on marketing materials to try to get students to apply to their institution and confirm their offer if accepted. So what happens after they confirm? The marketing and outreach shouldn’t stop there. Admissions departments should have a clear “melt” outreach strategy that includes tactics like:
- Social media campaigns like Facebook Live events or Snapchat campaigns (like Eastern Kentucky’s) that congratulate students and help them in the process of enrolling, allowing incoming students the opportunity to ask questions about confusing processes, deadlines, and even life on campus.
- Email campaigns that contain content like how they can get involved on campus, student resources (like counselors and the career center), and upcoming events they can attend that fall.
- Get students excited through videos of events on campus or even personalized welcome videos featuring current students and their tips transitioning from high school to college.
While communication is key, be mindful of the amount of communications you send. Students receive hundreds of emails each week, so ensuring your communications are filled with useful, to-the-point content is key to grabbing students’ attention.
- Simplify the “post-acceptance” process.
The first step in assessing your process is getting a perspective on what a student sees from his/her end. Take an audit of all materials that are sent to an accepted student after they pay their deposit. How many papers are there? Does the process and flow make sense? Can you understand the next steps? If you are feeling overwhelmed by your forms – chances are your students are too.
One institution was able to drastically reduce their melt by 30% — and a team member believes that was largely due to their restructure and design of their bill.
While many institutions still send forms through the mail, providing a “digitized” version of the process can be extremely helpful for incoming students, considering they are digital natives. Providing students with an option to have an overall view of the tasks they need to complete (and including resources if they have questions about particular tasks) can help them feel organized and supported. Texting platforms like SignalVine can help remind students about important deadlines and guide them through the orientation and registration process, making these processes seem less daunting.
- Create a community where incoming students can connect with one another for support.
Research shows that this incoming generation values peer opinion over all other influencers. This means your most impactful outreach will be programs that foster a connection between peers.
After a student accepts an offer, the paperwork starts rolling in. Between housing and tuition bills, financial aid forms, orientation information, and registration details, a student can easily become overwhelmed and stressed – especially if they are a first-generation student who doesn’t have family members who have experienced the process.
Developing a space for a community — ideally online to remove location barriers for students – can create a more organic type of support system for incoming students. UC Davis created an online portal to give admits the opportunity to network with one another. This gives them the opportunity to ask questions in an environment where everyone is experiencing a similar transition. Creating different “channels” for students, like FAFSA or Housing or Billing, can be a good way to segment information for students so they don’t feel overwhelmed.
- Connect with government-funded programs like Gear Up.
Programs across the country, like Gear Up Iowa, are seeking to increase the number of minority and low-income students in partner schools who graduate from high school prepared to enter and succeed in postsecondary education. This includes creating a “college going” culture, like supporting families as they plan, prepare, and pay for postsecondary education.
Many departments of education, like the New York City Department of Education, have created programs to work with current college students to work with recent high school grads to encourage and support them through their “final leg” before enrolling in the fall.
If your institution is already connected to programs like these, then making sure that students and alumni are aware of the programs and opportunities to volunteer in is crucial. A key component to these outreach programs is support from mentors that have gone through the pre-enrollment process.
- Create an Early College Awareness support group using your students and alumni.
Early College Awareness programs can be extremely helpful in supporting high-school graduates on their journey to enrolling in the fall. For some high school seniors, counselors play a big role in preparing them for the next steps in their education and guiding them through paperwork. However, studies show that 1 in 5 high schools in the country have no counselor at all. Even more troubling, the average time a counselor spends with a high school student over 4 years is just 22 minutes.
For lower-income or first-generation students, if they are unable to connect with a counselor, it can be very difficult to navigate the steps needed in order to enroll in a higher education institution in the fall. Universities know that awareness is key – after all, only 45% of students nationally apply for FAFSA. That equates to students missing out on $2.7 billion in free FAFSA college aid.
To create more awareness, Harvard utilized its strong alumni network to develop a community service program to run events that promote Early College Awareness.
They provide alumni with the tools and resources needed to run an ECA program, encouraging them to:
- Hold a half-day/one-day community wide program
- Partner with local school outreach
- Hold an in-school assembly
- Provide in-class speakers to connect with students
Harvard even created a “go-to” guide on hosting these types of events, which could easily be turned into an online orientation. By giving students and alumni the resources needed through an online orientation, they can become well versed in the process and understand key barriers that lower-income students often face.