Growing Number Of Schools, Education Bodies Work To Combat Summer Melt

By Brittany Hackett, Communications Staff 

As summer looms, high school students across the country have much to look forward to, including graduation and college enrollment. But for a large number of these students, the summer months present unexpected obstacles to college, including difficulties in accessing financial aid.

It’s a concept known among higher education researchers as “summer melt:” the period in a student’s life when they have been admitted to college and paid the necessary deposits but, for a myriad of reasons, fail to enroll come the fall. While the melt can occur among all students, it is particularly high among low-income and first-generation students, according to Ben Castleman, assistant professor of education and public policy at the University of Virginia and a leading expert on summer melt. 

Castleman, who has been studying summer melt and ways to combat it for nearly a decade, said that a number of obstacles can prevent a student from enrolling in college, including the need to work in the summer, not being aware of deadlines, and a general lack of knowledge about the enrollment process. He said that his research has indicated that timing can really impact how a student completes their summer college tasks, particularly for financial aid. 

For example, low-income students are more likely to file their FAFSA after the priority deadline established by their school, leading them to miss out on some types of aid and receive their aid packages and award letters later in the summer. A substantial number of low-income students are also flagged for the verification process, which can further delay the financial aid timeline. So in a lot of cases, students fall through the cracks in the summer “by virtue of a lack of their own experience,” Castleman said. 

As the problem of summer melt becomes more prevalent, many college and financial aid offices are working to more actively engage with their students throughout the summer, including implementing programs with different delivery methods and more personalized content. One model that Castleman has helped develop is a text-messaging program run by the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission. 

Launched in January 2014 with funding from the Kresge Foundation, the Commission’s program focuses on students’ overall transition from high school to college and addressing things like FAFSA completion, understanding award letters, and enrollment tasks like setting up housing. 

Jessica Kennedy, director of communications and outreach for the Commission’s Division of Student Affairs, said the program was created as a way to connect students to campus-level resources earlier in the enrollment process, and to provide support during the first year of college and increase persistence. 

The Commission decided to use text-messaging  because the medium is already familiar to students and is “a very immediate way to reach them.” Text messages, she noted, can help create a sense of urgency while being intimate enough to not intimidate students. 

“Students just need information in a timely manner,” Kennedy said, adding that the text messages allow her and her staff to address easy things like deadline reminders quickly, leaving them more time for in-depth counseling for students who request more information. The messages, which cost the Commission about $18 per student over the 18-month program, were crafted with the assistance of campus partners, including financial aid offices, to ensure clarity and relevance to students.

The state program currently has two cohorts of students, with 1,024 students from 10 West Virginia countries enrolled in the 2014 cohort and 1,995 students from 17 counties in the 2015 cohort. The students were selected on factors like need, income status, and race. The program currently has six higher education institutions as partners, with plans to expand statewide. 

“I think we really look at this as very much a component of our work on access and outreach,” Kennedy said. “It’s hard to isolate those impacts, but we do see this project as something that contributes to access and persistence.”

Although the Commission has not yet done a thorough evaluation, Kennedy said they have received enough anecdotal evidence and positive feedback to feel confident in the program. The 2014 cohort, for example, has had a response rate of 60 percent in the first 15 months of the 18-month project.

Castleman, who will serve as the external evaluator for the Commission’s project when the time comes, said that the West Virginia project is just one of many moving toward behavior-centered approaches to summer melt. And there are ways for the federal government and policymakers to get in on the action, he said, such as building text-messaging campaigns into existing financial aid programs like GEAR UP. He also suggested providing incentives for schools competing for federal grants to adopt these and similar strategies. 

It is also important to better provide schools and higher education groups with  access to college student cell phone numbers and other data, Castleman said, noting that the FAFSA “would be a great access point.”

But what is perhaps the most important thing is to attempt to reach students earlier in the college process, before they complete the FAFSA and decide where to go to school.

“In some ways, it’s more important that we start early and that college start early, and equally important to continue to support them after the summer,” Castleman said, adding that the goal is not only getting them to school, but increasing their probability of success.


Publication Date: 5/5/2015

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