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Ways to Reduce Summer Melt

5 min read

Thaís Roberto

Every year, 20% to 30% of high school students who intend to go to college fail to follow through with their enrollment.

Although not new, this phenomenon continues to pose new challenges for institutions as they search for ways to overcome any barriers between the students and the university. 

But, what is it that universities can do to reduce the effects of 'Summer Melt'?

What is Summer Melt?

‘Summer Melt’ is what education experts call when students graduate from high school with the intention of going to university, but end up never enrolling when the first semester comes. 

Ben Castleman, a professor at the University of Virginia, estimates that about 20 to 30 percent of students who intend to go to college change their minds and decide to follow a different path.

There are many reasons why students may give up on going to college. In 2020, the State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE) surveyed over 600 high school graduates from Tennessee who intended to attend university but ultimately could not due to external circumstances, and the responses help shine a light on what causes so many students to ‘melt’.

The report concluded that the top reason students chose not to attend college is starting a job, followed by personal reasons such as family responsibilities or health. The third most cited reason why students don’t attend college is that they are unable to afford it. Some students also claim to be confused by the application and enrollment process, while others claim no interest in pursuing a degree.

SCORE also reports that low-income students are disproportionately impacted by summer melt - especially low-income students of color. Being a first-generation college student also poses some challenges, as students usually have more difficulty navigating the application and enrollment process without an experienced family member to guide and encourage them.

Even though many of these students may have already completed their applications and even received admission letters, they may struggle to take the following steps necessary for enrollment without the guidance of a high school counselor. Tasks like budgeting, filling out housing and funding forms, registering for orientation and classes, and taking placement tests may confuse students who lack specialized support throughout the process.

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There are several initiatives universities can take to guide incoming students from application to enrollment and reduce summer melt. Here are some recommended strategies:

Have a transition team for incoming students

Lack of information and personalized guidance is one of the main reasons why students feel overwhelmed before even starting university. Although many aspects of student recruitment can be automated nowadays, the power of a more personal approach can’t be forgotten. A team of counselors dedicated to reaching out and guiding students through the application and enrollment process can help prevent many melting cases.

These counseling services can be delivered digitally, through chat messaging or videoconferencing, or via a phone line that students can call for assistance. While hiring and keeping a counseling team may incur extra expenses for the administration, the high success rates in reducing summer melt are worth the investment.

Notify students of upcoming steps

Between graduating and starting university, students are going through substantial life changes that leave them with a lot to deal with. During such a turbulent period, keeping up with deadlines for tasks like making deposits, filling housing applications, and registering for class may come as another challenge.

A simple automated notification system that reminds students of upcoming important dates will help students stay organized and on top of the process and ensure they don’t miss any deadlines. 

Notifications can be emailed, but an even better alternative would be to reach them via text messaging. Nearly every teenager has their phone on them at all times, which makes the open rate for texts significantly higher than that for emails.


Assign student mentors for incoming students

Although assigning staff counselors is a great way to provide professional assistance to students, some may feel more at ease accepting help from a fellow student. Student mentors can easily meet incoming students at their level and help them in a more informal and comfortable setting.

Besides receiving assistance from an experienced student, this strategy allows students to start making connections with other members of the campus community before beginning classes. Establishing early connections and a sense of belonging between the incoming student and the school’s community is another excellent way to motivate students to attend university and lower the melt rates.

Hold information sessions on subjects students might have questions about

Online information sessions are an excellent opportunity for students to chat with university staff members. Topics like budgeting, class registration, scholarship opportunities, and residence options are some of the biggest worries among prospective students, and a simple one-hour videoconference open to all interested students can help them clarify any questions they may have about the enrollment process.

In addition to resolving possible questions, information sessions demonstrate the university’s commitment to supporting its students, helping improve their trust in the institution. When students feel connected to and supported by their school of choice, they will feel more encouraged to follow through with their enrollment.

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Offer a well-rounded and personal support system

High school students spend months building a connection to their chosen university. During this period, every promotional effort they are met with - brochures, website pages, virtual and in-person fairs - shows them the best the school has to offer, making them excited to attend. From the moment they are accepted, however, they are confronted with the more bureaucratic aspect of starting a college education - a shift that can overwhelm the students who don’t have the proper support to go through the process.

However, if the institution gives these students the proper care, they will have one less reason to drop out. If, instead of directing students to different offices, universities assign a team of counselors the student can rely on and trust to handle their case with individual attention, the students will feel cared for and be less demotivated by the daunting processes of application and enrollment.

Not every cause for summer melt is within the institution’s control. Nonetheless, by having their students’ backs and providing them with a welcoming environment they can see themselves belonging to, universities can start setting their students up for success long before they attend their first class.


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