Why summer melt happens—and how to freeze it

Each year, roughly 10% to 20% of incoming students gain college acceptances, tell the school they intend to enroll, and may even pay a deposit, but then… never show up on campus.

The phenomenon, called summer melt, can cost colleges hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost tuition revenue—at a time when shifting demographics are already creating other challenges for recruitment and enrollment.

The problem is particularly acute among low-income and first-generation students, writes Annie Yi for EAB's Student Success Insights blog. For instance, 13% of low-income students plan to attend college but don't enroll the following fall, compared to just 8% of more affluent students, according to one study from Benjamin Castleman, a professor at the University of Virginia, and Lindsay Page, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh.

Nudge students in the right direction

One reason low-income and first-gen students veer off the college-bound path is because they don't have a knowledgeable guide to keep them on track over the summer, argue Castleman and Page. One high school guidance counselor told Vox's Alvin Chang that a low-income student's path to college looks a lot like Hansel and Gretel's journey through the forest. During the school year, guidance counselors set out bread crumbs to lead students towards college. But once high school ends, the bread crumbs disappear and students no longer have someone to ask for directions.

Students who grew up in a college-going culture can rely on their parents to answer any questions and chart the path forward. But low-income and first-gen students are often left to find a path to college and overcome any barriers by themselves, writes Chang.

And when students feel uncertain about the next step, they may put off key tasks, like filling out the FAFSA. "Any kind of complexity can often stop us in our tracks," Page told Chang. "You must have times where you say, 'Oh, I don’t want to deal with that thing.' But when you actually bite the bullet and do it, you think, 'It wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be.'" 

Also see: How positive messages could combat summer melt at your college

Campus leaders are finding new ways to keep students on-track to matriculation, writes Chang. For example, Georgia State University (GSU) created a chat bot to guide students through their pre-matriculation tasks. Called "Pounce" after the university's mascot, the chat bot takes in data about each student's progress and creates customized messages to help each student complete the next step in the process, whatever that might be.

After implementing Pounce, summer melt at GSU dropped by 21%, and the system's regular reminders encouraged students to build a habit of proactively identifying and resolving problems.

Houston Baptist University (HBU) implemented a similar support program to ensure that students start each semester on the right foot: Project Day One. The program was implemented after HBU leaders noticed that students were struggling with financial aid paperwork and other tasks needed to start each semester, says James Steen, HBU's VP of Enrollment Management.

As part of the project, HBU adopted a mobile app to help students track their financial aid steps. "We know more than 95% of students have a smartphone in their pocket," says Steen. "So we had to figure out a way to get to them."

Other colleges can design effective nudges by continuously improving their services and prompts, writes Chang. "The first step is understanding what are the types of obstacles students face in a given context," explains Nicole Stephens, a social and cultural psychologist at Northwestern University. "It comes from an iterative process, which starts with looking at what existing theories and psychology have to say about the question. Then you develop ideas about what might be an effective intervention."

Help prospective students complete enrollment with email nudges

Understand the broader obstacles facing students

Reducing summer melt is not always as simple as nudging students forward, writes Ashley Smith for Inside Higher Ed.

Smith writes that a growing number of low-income students are being asked to verify income eligibility for federal aid by the Department of Education, and that students aren't completing the application process as a result. This phenomenon—known as "verification melt"—prevents students from receiving millions of dollars of much-needed aid.

"How many times does a student or parent have to repeatedly prove they are poor," says Michael Bennett, associate vice president of financial assistance services at St. Petersburg College in Florida. "Verification for our lowest-income students is a barrier to access, and when aid is delayed because of excessive verification, access may be denied. Is this what we want?"

During each FAFSA application cycle, the Education Department aims to verify about 30% of all federal aid applicants, writes Smith. But the majority of applicants selected for verification come from low-income families. In fact, the National College Access Network (NCAN) estimates that 50% of low-income students are selected for verification, and of those selected, 22% won't finish applying for aid. 

And that figure is expected to rise. For example, at Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA), the number of FAFSA applicants selected for verification increased from 18.4% (7,526 students) in 2016 to 21% (8,660 students) in 2017. Of those students selected for verification in 2017, 49.9% (4,320 students) failed to complete the process.

So why don't students complete verification?

Not only is the process cumbersome, but also many students' complicated family structures make financial aid verification particularly challenging. Even more, students might be "afraid they have done something wrong by being selected and walk away," says Joan Zanders, director of financial aid at NOVA.

"Many of our students think when they get a verification notice that it's some kind of ineligibility notice," says Kim Cook, executive director of NCAN.

Keep reading: 6 proven ways to boost your college enrollment

To prevent verification melt, colleges are working with the Education Department to make the FAFSA easier for students to complete. And student aid advocates are asking for more transparency in the filing process.

Karen McCarthy, a director of policy analysis at the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, says officials are asking themselves, "Is this process actually doing what we want it to be doing, or is just making people jump through hoops and putting extra work on families and institutions to verify information that doesn’t change the dollar amount?"

"These students might have pulled off going to school and enrolling without a Pell Grant," says Cook. "And in our experience, that is unfortunately not sustainable" (Black, Education Dive, 10/15/18; Chang, Vox, 8/3/18; Smith, Inside Higher Ed, 10/12/18; Smith, Inside Higher Ed, 1/24/17).

Read more about combating summer melt

How GSU reduced summer melt by 21%

3 ways to engage admitted students on social media


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