‘Summer Melt’ Intensifies Amid Global Pandemic

By Owen Daugherty, NASFAA Staff Reporter

If “summer melt” is the annual exercise of institutions watching as many as a third of students who enroll opting instead to not attend in the fall, then those in higher education are fearful of what a “pandemic melt” could hold.

The summer before college is a critical time when many students lack networks of support that they had in high school and may need help completing forms and obtaining financial aid, along with the other stressors of transitioning into life away from home and taking the next step in their educational career. The impact can be particularly acute for first-generation and low-income students, leading them to cancel or postpone their postsecondary education at a much higher rate.

The combination of the COVID-19 pandemic derailing both the traditional high school and college calendars and the fact that resources are in short supply likely means this upcoming summer could see a melt of unprecedented scope, some have said.

An April survey from the higher education research firm SimpsonScarborough found that 11% of high school seniors who had planned to enroll at a four-year college said they no longer planned to do so. Notably, more than 50% of high school seniors said their family’s finances were impacted by the pandemic. Experts say those numbers are high before the typical obstacles associated with summer melt even come into play.

Reasons for the summer melt vary, said Karen Arnold, an associate professor of higher education at Boston College. From worrying about how to pay for tuition and other costs amid an economic downturn, to dealing with shuttered colleges and universities and concerns about health risks, the pandemic has also brought new challenges. Arnold said these next few months will be telling for fall enrollment and we could see summer melt “on steroids.”

“Now we are dealing with even worse financial hardship for the people who are already struggling, and a whole new group of people are facing financial hardship,” she said. “And then add the question of what college is going to look like in the fall.”

The answer to that question is still up in the air, but the uncertainty alone could lead many students to delay or cancel their plans. And research shows that low-income students who delay college and are not doing so for a gap year are less likely to enroll and ultimately obtain a degree.

Benjamin Castleman, an associate professor at the University of Virginia in the economics of education, said fixes must be made to the complex process of applying for and receiving financial aid if students are going to make decisions about their college future while adapting to a new economic reality.

NASFAA has previously called for a simplification to the FAFSA in part to address summer melt, and just two weeks ago, a bipartisan group of senators asked the Department of Education (ED) to make changes to the FAFSA form and website to account for changes to a student’s financial situation due to the pandemic.  

The senators wrote they are concerned that the financial situations of students who have recently filed or are in the process of filing the FAFSA are not “accurately reflected,” noting the high national unemployment rate. They added that ED should provide the necessary tools and support for financial aid offices to adjust a student’s family income if they already submitted a FAFSA.

Declines in both FAFSA submissions and renewals compared to this time last year have only amplified concerns, with data showing nearly 4% fewer renewals through May 15 and submissions from high school seniors down 3.3%, according to an analysis of federal data from the National College Attainment Network (NCAN).

One reason for the declines is the fact that when students leave high school for the summer, they are no longer connected to their network of resources to help them navigate the paperwork and financial aid maze, Castleman said. Some schools have yet to provide prospective students with financial aid offers, further complicating the decision-making process at this juncture.

“In the months after high school and before the start of the fall semester, students encounter a series of unforeseen financial and procedural tasks that they have a hard time completing, especially because they don’t have access to professional assistance over the summer,” Castleman said.

Research that Castleman conducted showed low-income students who were provided college counseling during the summer months had substantial improvements in both their rate and quality of college enrollment.

The onus largely falls on the colleges, as very few school districts retain their counselors over the summer. But that higher education institutions don’t feel as if the student is their responsibility yet, it leaves them in a type of summer limbo, said Laura Owen, an associate professor at American University and director of the school’s Center for Postsecondary Readiness & Success, which measures the impact programs designed to address equity and access issues have on students.

She added that this year, with virtually all high school students being forced into online learning in the spring, their interaction with counselors and resources is far below the typical level.

While there are examples of colleges and universities implementing structured summer programs and engaging with students over the break through text message and email campaigns, they are few and far between, Owen said. Those campaigns need to become more prominent and better suited to individual students’ needs, she added, saying relationship building and reaching out to students over the summer is key in bridging the gap and ensuring those who enrolled show up in the fall.

“How can we make sure we are providing additional support for students when they need those face-to-face interactions, when you can talk about a very personalized set of information for a student, because the whole process is so complicated?” Owen said. “Every single student’s situation is unique.”

Many schools are adapting to the pandemic in an effort to ensure students start school in the fall. More than 400 colleges extended the deadline for admitted students to submit deposits to June 1 or later to give students and families more time to make their decision, according to the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

Other schools are offering steep tuition discounts or waiving certain fees to keep their enrollment afloat. The University of Nebraska announced in April that it would waive tuition and fees for in-state students who are eligible for the Pell Grant or whose families make less than $60,000 a year.

Arnold predicted the full extent of this year’s summer melt won’t be known until the severity of the pandemic is fully realized and schools create plans for what the fall will look like on campus. In the meantime, she said high schools to colleges need to coordinate for students to fully matriculate in the fall.

“There's got to be a handoff,” Arnold said. “Handoff not only means the high school people in college access programs kind of taking them to the door, but the college and university people reaching out to their future folks.”


Publication Date: 6/8/2020

David S | 6/8/2020 12:19:13 PM

There's no sugarcoating it, 20/21 is going to be rough in ways we've never seen before. Examine your policies carefully, try to find ways where you can streamline packaging procedures and PJ cases, especially for students/families who have lost jobs/income. That might not be a cure-all, but we're only one office, we can only do so much.

That said, we may well be the most important office in all of this. Be ready to show your school's leadership and students what the Financial Aid Office has done to try to help as many students as possible and minimize both melt and attrition.

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