Reducing Summer Melt: Helping 12th Graders Successfully Transition to College

How many students have you or a colleague helped get into college with a good financial aid package only to discover later that they never enrolled? Unfortunately, every year, thousands of 12th graders finish high school excited about going to college, only to fall off track. This is especially common among those whose families have little to no experience navigating the final steps they must take to matriculate. Students don’t always anticipate the tasks they must complete over the summer, may not know how to find their tuition bill online, or when they do, the bill may include more costs than their grants and scholarships cover.

With high school behind them, students see no place to turn for help and, feeling confused and overwhelmed, many give up their college hopes. Researchers estimate that 20 to 45 percent of the graduates of large urban school districts who had concrete plans to attend college in the fall following high school graduation changed their minds during the summer months—and became victims of “summer melt.”

Findings of a recent study, however, point to effective ways for mitigating summer melt. During the summer of 2012, Harvard University scholars Ben Castleman and Lindsay Page conducted a randomized controlled trial to test two different interventions with recent high school graduates who planned to go to college the following fall:

  • Text messaging: One group of students received a series of text messages regarding the steps they needed to complete at the college they planned to attend before they could matriculate, including information about placement tests, freshman orientation, the deadline for paying their bill, and how to accept any necessary educational loans. The text messages also provided students an easy way to connect with an advisor if they wanted additional help. 
  • Peer mentors: Another group of students were matched with local peer advisors who conducted outreach activities via phone, e-mail, Facebook, and texting to arrange in-person meetings. During the meetings, they provided students with the information and assistance to complete the tasks required for matriculation.

These interventions took place from mid-June to mid-August. 

uAspire (a national nonprofit helping students from low-income families find an affordable path to college), the Dallas (Texas) Independent School District, and Mastery Charter Schools in Philadelphia served as research partners and recruited students to participate. 

Both interventions resulted in increased numbers of students starting college that fall compared to control group participants. Peer mentoring increased students’ enrollment by 4.5 percentage points overall and seven percentage points when they had peer mentors of the same gender. Text-messaging had the greatest impact on college enrollment in communities where students had less access to college planning assistance—more than a four percentage point increase in Dallas and a seven percentage point increase in two Massachusetts cities where less than 17 percent of adults have bachelor’s degrees (compared to 39 percent of adults statewide).

Most striking about text messaging was that it produced the same outcomes as peer mentoring at a much lower cost—an average of $7.00 per student compared to $80.00 per student for peer mentors. These costs compare favorably to the $200 per student cost for high school counselors and community-based college access organization staff who provided the same information and assistance in the participating communities.

Replicating the Summer Melt Interventions
For those interested in replicating these interventions, Harvard University’s Center for Education Policy Research has produced an excellent resource titled, Summer Melt Handbook: A Guide to Investigating and Responding to Summer Melt, available at no cost. The Handbook provides tools that high schools can use to measure summer melt among their graduates and design interventions tailored to the needs of their students and the availability of community resources. Also available on the same site are academic papers summarizing research on summer melt and a case study on how an urban school district (Fulton County, Georgia) designed and implemented a summer counseling intervention system to help students through the transition to college.

Ann Coles is a Senior Fellow at uAspire, a national organization working to ensure that all young people have the financial information and resources necessary to find an affordable path to—and through—a postsecondary education. 

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