“Summer Melt” refers to a phenomenon in which high school seniors are accepted into college during the spring, but over the course of the summer, they decide against attending a postsecondary institution. It’s also the title of the book written by researchers Lindsay C. Page and Benjamin L. Castleman to document their findings and provide suggestions for reversing this trend that affects anywhere from 10% to 40% of high school seniors each year.
In addition to being the co-author of “Summer Melt,” Page is also an assistant professor of research methodology at the School of Education and a research scientist at the Learning Research and Development Center at the University of Pittsburgh. She explains some of the issues facing these young adults, many of whom come from low-income families and are navigating the college admissions and financial aid process alone.
Why students fail to show up for class
From the time a student completes high school to the first day of class, there are several actions that must be taken. “Despite these requirements, summer is a period of time when students typically aren’t connected to a particular institution because they have completed high school … and have not yet matriculated to college,” Page explains.
“Students can get hung up in completing required tasks, and it’s not a given that a knowledgeable adult is keeping tabs to keep them on track.” Also, with first generation college students, Page says that their parents wouldn’t have experience with the college admissions and financial aid process.
The role of financial aid
A survey of parents and students reveals that filling out financial aid forms is more stressful than applying to college – so imagine how difficult the process would be for students who have to fend for themselves.
“During the summer, students may still be working to complete the FAFSA or they may be required to complete the process of income verification, where they must provide additional documentation to all of the colleges to which they have applied to verify the financial information reported in their FAFSA,” Page says. “Ironically, lower-income students are more likely to be flagged for income verification.”
In addition to completing forms, some students may be grappling with the realities of not having enough aid to cover tuition.
“Students may also find the process of signing a master promissory note challenging or may face charges – such as those for student health insurance – on their tuition bill that were unexpected.” These factors can often be overwhelming. “In a recent project with Georgia State University, the GSU admissions and financial aid staff identified financial aid as the key domain that contributed to their summer melt,” Page explains.
Helping students navigate the process
So, what can be done to help these students make it to the first day of class? Page says it’s important to be proactive.
“It’s not sufficient to just tell students that help is available should they need it and wait for the students to follow up.”
She recommends that either high schools or colleges reach out to students to check on their progress and offer assistance and guidance.
“We have done this with low-tech strategies – such as counselors reaching out to students one at a time, and with more high-tech strategies like sending students personalized but automated text-message outreach regarding tasks that they need to complete.”
In fact, Page continues to work on ways to overcome Summer Melt.
“Recently, Hunter Gehlbach and I worked with a technology partner (AdmitHub) and Georgia State University to implement and test an artificial-intelligence enabled text message chat bot to support students with the summer transition.”
The messages were customized to address the students’ needs – for example, if a student needed to verify income, the bot would initiate contact to provide the necessary information and guide the student through the process.
“This system was used extensively by students, and our experimental results showed that it improved student completion of pre-enrollment tasks and also timely enrollment among students who committed to attend GSU.”
However, since this isn’t a national model, Adrian Ridner, CEO and co-founder of Study.com advises students to contact a school counselor or a friend who is in college for advice and guidance.
“If you don’t have a specific form or record that’s required by the school, you can always contact your future university to see if there are any work-arounds.”
He says the school’s enrollment officer might be the best source of help.
Sometimes, recent grads might not feel prepared to tackle college-level classes.
“Online courses are a great way for students to get a taste of college-level material while earning credit,” Ridner says. “Online courses also help students practice self-directed learning, which is an important differentiator between the high school and college learning experience.”
Ridner also provides a variety of other tips to help students navigate the enrollment process and succeed in college:
- Take advantage of alternative credit options to graduate faster and save thousands on tuition. Supplement the traditional college experience with low-cost mechanisms for earning college credit like AP exams, College Level Examination Program (CLEP) exams or online courses. Not only are these more affordable, but online courses are much more convenient.
- Understand the difference between merit-based aid (like scholarships), need-based aid (like grants), and aid that you need to pay back (like loans). Sites like College Board have lots of resources available to help you search for scholarships, maneuver aid like the Pell Grant and FAFSA, and explain the details of taking out student loans. Set reminders and keep diligent track of deadlines.
- Don’t worry about the college “brand name.” Most employers today aren’t as focused on which university you graduate from; they care more about the degree and your ability to learn. In many cases, paying a premium for brand-name university simply isn’t worth it. Think more about what’s marketable in your desired career and focus on refining those particular skills.
- Recognize that a four-year college is not a one-size-fits-all solution and there are more flexible ways to attaining a college degree. Nearly half of all students graduating with a four-year degree have had some experience with a two-year institution, like community college – which is often a more affordable pathway and can fit into changing lifestyles.
- Make sure you graduate on time. At most 4-year public universities, the majority of students won’t graduate on time due to things like impacted classes, lack of prerequisite credits and more. Not only does this affect tuition, but living expenses (housing, transportation, meals, books) add up significantly. Check your university and your department’s graduation rates and try to stay on track with your course load.