What is Summer Melt?
Summer melt is a form of pipeline leakage, where students who have been accepted by a college and intend to enroll, as evidenced by paying a deposit, do not matriculate in the fall. Their college plans change or fall apart during the summer after high school graduation and before college enrollment.
Summer melt attrition statistics are typically around 10% to 20% at 4-year colleges and 37% at community colleges, but can be as high as 40% at some colleges.
Causes of Summer Melt
The causes of summer melt include financial, administrative, and other challenges.
Financial challenges include:
- Changes in family financial circumstances can make the college unaffordable
- The student may need to work as the primary wage-earner for their family instead of going to college
- Sticker shock when the family calculates the actual total cost
- Changing perceptions of the value of a college education
- Students who are selected for financial aid verification are more likely to melt
Administrative and logistical challenges include:
- Overwhelmed by forms, paperwork and other requirements
- Inexperience with paperwork and processes required to enroll in college
- Missed deadlines, including financial aid deadlines, enrollment deadlines and bursar bill deadlines
- Remedial coursework requirements
Emotional challenges include:
- Second-guessing the decision to go to college due to self-doubt about academic abilities (e.g., imposter syndrome)
- Loss of support from school counselors after the student graduates from high school
- Anxiety about leaving home and moving to a new place
- Fear of the unknown
In some cases, a student will pay deposits at two or more institutions while they wait for financial aid award letters or try to choose among several colleges. This necessarily leads to summer melt at one or more of the colleges.
Summer melt is more likely to affect low-income, underrepresented and first-generation college students. Predictors of summer melt include high school GPA, admissions test scores, whether they completed or submitted all required financial aid application forms, income and a lack of family support.
Increasing Awareness of Summer Melt
There is very little data about the magnitude of summer melt or the causes. Colleges must take ownership of the problem of summer melt.
The first step is to track summer melt as one or more stages in the admissions funnel.
Then, they need to disaggregate summer melt statistics by factors that may be relevant, such as gender, race/ethnicity, socioeconomic status, academic performance, and first-generation college student status.
Colleges need to track important milestones from admission to matriculation, such as the commitment to enroll, submitting the final high school transcript, submitting the housing application and paying the housing deposit, paying the enrollment deposit, completing verification, paying the bursar’s bill, signing up for and attending new student orientation.
Strategies for Reducing Summer Melt
Here are several tips for avoiding summer melt:
- If you can’t afford the college or your financial circumstances have changed, contact the college’s financial aid office to appeal for more financial aid or ask for emergency financial aid funds. You can also contact the financial aid office if you run into problems with financial aid paperwork or verification.
- Talk to someone. Many colleges can connect you with a current student who may help you get through the administrative hurdles. There are also staff who can provide you with step-by-step help. Ask them about summer bridge programs, which can help you acclimate to the college environment and learn your way around the college campus.
- Everybody feels a little self-doubt about their academic abilities. Most colleges provide free tutoring, writing workshops, study skills workshops, academic advising, mental health services and other counseling resources.
The key to reducing summer melt involves helping students overcome obstacles, maintaining contact with the student and building their confidence. This can provide students with some support during the summer to help with the transition to college.
There are several methods of keeping in contact with the students periodically throughout the summer. These include sending them a monthly newsletter, having them meet one-on-one with a coach or peer mentor monthly, and sending weekly texts or other communications.
The text messages can be automated, but must be personalized and timely reminders of steps they should take. Provide the student with information when they need it. The student should be the recipient of the text messages. It may also be helpful to send a different set of text messages to the student’s parents.
The communications must be proactive, where the college reaches out to the student. Reactive communication, such as chatbots, will be less effective. However, chatbots can be helpful after hours, when about a quarter of student requests occur.
Summer bridge programs can help students acclimate to the college environment and learn their way around the college campus. Summer bridge programs will also provide social and emotional support by building a community.
Setting up a buddy system, where new students are paired together, can also help reduce summer melt.
Providing the students with step-by-step college transition checklists can be helpful. Often, students do not understand what they need to do and when they need to do it. These checklists should summarize tasks the student must complete and the deadlines.
- A financial aid checklist should tell the student to get an FSA ID and file the FAFSA and other financial aid forms if they haven’t already done so, review the financial aid award letter, accept or decline the specific awards on the financial aid award letter, and complete financial aid verification (if selected). If the student was awarded work-study, the checklist should tell them how to apply for a work-study job. It can be helpful to discuss and review options for covering the gap between financial aid and financial need, such as appealing for more financial aid if necessary, applying for scholarships, and requesting emergency aid. The checklist should include tips on how to understand the cost of attendance and the financial aid award letter.
- An enrollment checklist should tell the student to send their final academic transcripts, submit their Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) credits for evaluation, login to the college’s student portal, complete any required placement testing, sign up for orientation, submit a housing application and pay the housing deposit if they will live on campus, complete any health requirements and vaccinations (or medical waivers), register for classes, arrange for transportation to the college, pay the college bills, buy textbooks and supplies, select and activate the student’s college email address and check the student email periodically.
- All checklists should provide a short guide to student support resources, such as the telephone numbers of people they can call if they encounter problems. It should also provide information about tutoring, counseling, study skills workshops (e.g., note-taking skills) and academic advising resources. It is best to provide a single, one-stop telephone number where they can get help dealing with problems and concerns, as opposed to a collection of telephone numbers. This avoids situations in which the student feels lost, not knowing where to turn for help.