As college acceptance letters arrive and families celebrate, there’s a unique sense of excitement that surrounds it all as graduating seniors plan and prepare for futures filled with possibilities. Among those possibilities, unfortunately, is that those plans might be derailed: anywhere between 8-40% of graduating high schoolers who enroll in a postsecondary institution in spring never make it to campus in the fall, thanks to a phenomenon known as "summer melt".
Identifying the problem: defining summer melt in 2021
What is summer melt, and what makes some students so susceptible? Certainly, some students simply change their minds: they decide to attend schools other than the ones they initially enrolled in. But there’s a more troubling kind of summer melt that accounts for the wide gap between intending to go to college and actually getting there. Increasingly, the term is used to refer to students who are capable, willing, and plan to go to college the summer after high school graduation, but encounter barriers that they aren’t able to clear before they do. These barriers will look familiar to anyone who has worked with first-generation, low-income, or underrepresented student groups — or has ever been a part of one themselves. These barriers vary, but they all contribute to summer melt, and they end up affecting these groups more than any other, making the rate of melt in these at-risk groups much higher than in the general population..
In fact, students who belong to one at-risk group often belong to another, compounding the factors that make getting to college in the fall will be even more difficult. First generation college-intending students, for instance, are more likely to be in the lowest 25th percentile of socioeconomic status, more likely to belong to a minority group, and more likely to enroll in a community college, all of which make them more likely to melt.
Here are the reasons students 'melt' between high school and college
For these students, the tendency to melt isn’t simply a matter of a change of plans. It’s the result of encountering unexpected obstacles in the summer months, including financial infeasibility or a lack of support and resources. Often these reasons can cascade into one another:
Universal research on summer melt is limited, but we do know that one study found that up to two-thirds of Pell-eligible students never completed their FAFSA simply because they did not know the status of their application or understand that it was incomplete. Without a complete FAFSA, students miss out on financial aid resources, which in some cases, determines whether or not they can afford to matriculate in the first place. Add the process of verification — where students must take additional steps to demonstrate their financial need — into the mix, and a lot of students simply stay in the weeds, stuck between needing the money and not knowing how to tackle the complicated process of proving it.
There’s even a name for it: verification melt. In 2015, it was responsible for 20% of Pell recipients melting away from matriculation.
Even the most competent, seasoned adult can struggle with red tape, so it’s no secret that so many students do. The complexity of the FAFSA process, plus all of the other paperwork, deadlines, and to-do’s college-bound students must cross off of their lists before they can start class in the fall is daunting, no doubt.
That’s true if you have the benefit of the experience of family members who have gone before you. It’s doubly true when you don’t have that experience to draw on, as is the case for first generation students. While students are still in high school, they have the support of their guidance counselors and teachers to help bridge the experience gap. After graduation day, many are faced with the prospect of simply going it alone. Combine all of this with the unexpected upheavals every student could potentially experience — a death in the family, a cross-country move, or a global pandemic, to name a few — and you have a recipe for summer melt that affects at-risk groups disproportionately.
What school districts can do to help protect students from summer melt
Understand what seniors plan to do after graduation
You can’t tackle a problem until you know the size of it. Chances are that you have a system in place already for identifying and offering additional support to students who are in at-risk groups. Do you know what those students are planning to do after they graduate? A senior exit survey is one way to collect this information. By reviewing the information you collect when students turn theirs in, you can get a clearer picture of which students will need an extra push over the finish line.
This also gives you an opportunity to identify trade schools, colleges, and universities where students intend to enroll. Counselors can use this to gather critical information about the timelines, documents, and policies specific to those places to support students more effectively in navigating them.
Offer additional support after the school year ends
There’s research that shows that even two or three hours of additional guidance over the summer can bump up the percentage of matriculating students by four percentage points. By giving students the opportunity to meet with counselors in the interim summer months you’ll increase the chance of catching them as they encounter obstacles and pointing them in the direction of the resources they need.
Connect with students over the summer
School districts that sent personalized messages out to students over the summer saw an even bigger increase in matriculating college intenders - about seven percentage points. For students that have work schedules to manage on top of preparations for the upcoming college school year, an email that reminds them that the deadline for submitting a housing application at their intended university may be just the nudge they need to get it done in time.
Find ways to collaborate with colleges
One group that’s particularly susceptible to melt? Community college students. You likely already collaborate with a local community college to offer early college credit or to supplement work-based learning. Extending that relationship to include a dual effort to get students enrolled is one way to start protecting the most vulnerable students in your district from summer melt.
A study conducted in Albuquerque, New Mexico, showed that collaboration like this improved enrollment rates by around 12%, which is extremely promising for at-risk students.
How SchooLinks can help school districts put the chill on summer melt
Better data collection at every stage
Gathering the information you need to make swift and smart interventions for students is a key part of SchooLinks’ platform. That can easily extend to students who are at risk for summer melt. Senior exit surveys are easy to create, upload, administer, and collect in SchooLinks, and the ability to tag students gives counselors the opportunity to collect student data and act on insights at the cohort and individual level.
Engage students from SchooLinks even after they graduate
Counselors and students rely on the easily configured custom to-dos and automatic reminders in SchooLinks all year long. Because SchooLinks is free for students for life, that doesn’t have to change after graduation day. By creating custom to-dos within SchooLinks, students can continue to receive automatic reminders via email, including personal email once school districts collect that information from them. By prompting students to log in to their alumni portal on SchooLinks, counselors can stay in touch with students even after they no longer have access to district email accounts. Whether it’s a reminder about upcoming financial aid or college registration deadlines, or a simple email that checks in with students and invites them to reach out when they need help, districts can use SchooLinks tools to keep track of and support students who need a little extra attention after they graduate.
Foster near-peer mentorships with alumni who have 'been there'
Sometimes, the best way to support students is by putting them in touch with peers that have already been through the process they’re about to navigate. This is where the alumni portal on SchooLinks can be especially helpful.
In the same way that students can reach out to real-world professionals within the SchooLinks network to ask questions about what it’s like to work in their field, alumni can field inquiries from students and answer them by uploading content like selfie videos for districts to approve. Once they do, every student in the district can access that content, too.
Collaborate with higher education to get students over the finish line
A major component of the experience SchooLinks provides is the ecosystem of support that communities and districts can work together to build on the platform. This includes engagement with partners in higher education. If you use SchooLinks, consider inviting reps in before the end of the school year to interact with students that intend to enroll in the schools they represent. Sometimes, putting a name to a face or collecting supplementary information like registration and housing paperwork deadlines or contact information for the financial aid office at the college students plan on attending can help solidify student plans for the fall.
Bring everything full circle with National Student Clearinghouse data
Our partnership with National Student Clearinghouse helps SchooLinks’ districts create a clear picture of the effectiveness of their efforts to reduce summer melt as they undertake them — or give them a place to start from if they haven’t yet begun. By comparing senior exit survey responses and NSC data, school districts can continue to identify, improve, and innovate for students without the need for piecemeal solutions or endless spreadsheets.
Summer melt happens is a problem with more than one root cause, and it requires a solution that’s just as multifaceted. SchooLinks is proud to be a part of that solution for tens of thousands of students across the country. Get in touch today to see how we can partner with your school district to be a part of the solution for your students, too.