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6 minute read

What is Summer Melt and How Can It Be Prevented?

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Students’ senior year of high school is a time to determine next steps, often consisting of  getting accepted into college. It’s also known as a time for slacking off, especially once college acceptance letters have gone out. Many high school students use this time to enjoy the rest of the year with their friends, while the pressure is off of their studies. For high school students who plan to attend college in the fall, receiving their acceptance letters is not the end – it’s just the start of what can be an overwhelming process. This, combined with the effect that summer break often has on students’ learning as they return to school each year – a phenomenon known as summer slide, or summer learning loss – causes some serious hurdles for education leaders.

What is "Summer Slide"?

Researchers first coined the term “summer slide” in 1996 with the publishing of one of the first studies investigating the phenomenon. The study showed that students lost a significant amount of previous reading and math knowledge over the summer months, and this loss of skills continues to occur each year, as in somewhat of a snowball effect. A later study of third through fifth graders found that these students were 20% behind in reading and 27% behind in math upon returning to school following summer break. While these studies focused more on the elementary school level, preventing summer learning loss is important at the high school level as well – something we will soon explain in more detail.

How Summer Slide Can Transition to Summer Melt

For high school graduates planning to become first-year college students, summer slide can easily transition into summer melt – defined as the failure of incoming college students to enroll in the fall – which can have a profound effect on their future. According to research conducted by Harvard University’s Center for Education Policy Research, a whopping estimated 10-40% of these students fail to enroll because they have a lack of resources needed to complete the steps to do so.

Measuring the Effects of Summer Melt

When explaining the phenomenon known as summer melt, it’s important to understand how these statistics are measured. The senior exit survey given to graduating high school seniors is an excellent place to start. These surveys are helpful in determining how many high school seniors intend to enroll in college in the fall. While high school students may not necessarily understand the importance of these types of surveys, gathering this data can prove critical over time. Then, data must be obtained to get a clear picture of how many of the students who intended to enroll in the fall actually did.

Part I: Develop and Effective Senior Exit Survey 

While high school students may not necessarily understand the importance of these types of surveys, gathering this data can prove critical. Developing an effective exit survey by knowing what questions to ask is key to getting the data you seek. The other challenge can be to increase survey completion rates. Harvard’s Strategic Data Project Summer Melt Handbook is an excellent resource. It emphasizes the importance of three key features: 

  1. Asking specific questions
  2. Addressing students’ post-graduation plans
  3. Determining whether students have paid their enrollment deposit if attending college in the fall

Part II: Examine Data from the National Student Clearinghouse (NSC)'s StudentTracker for High Schools

While the high school senior exit survey serves as a way to determine students’ intended post-graduation plans, examining data from the NSC’s StudentTracker for High Schools shows how many of these students actually enrolled. This data can provide helpful insights into what types of students are impacted the most and which high schools have the highest numbers of graduates who do not fulfill their intentions of enrolling in college following high school graduation When examining this data, certain patterns are likely to emerge which highlight key factors that could be standing in students’ way the most.

Why Does Summer Melt Occur and Who is Affected Most?

According to the National College Attainment Network, those most impacted by summer melt include first-generation college students, students of color, and students from low-income households. Many of these students have completed the initial steps to get accepted to college in the fall, but this is only the beginning. Prior to enrolling, students are inundated with a wealth of paperwork, either online or on paper. Some of it is quite complicated, and these students need help to complete it. 

First is the complex world of financial aid. The paperwork can be confusing, and many students may be the first in their household to attend college, so their family and friends may be unable to help them. According to the New England Board of Education, during the time that students have received their college acceptance letters and the start of the fall semester, these students and their families may acquire new information regarding the costs of attending or may have difficulty obtaining financial aid – these obstacles could prevent them from attending. 

Additionally, for instance, if students plan to live on campus, they will need to complete paperwork for this. Much of the paperwork requires students to set up an account to log into the school’s online portal. If students lack internet access at home, they can be stopped in their tracks. For example, they might put it off until they can get to the library. The summer can fly by before the student remembers that they missed the deadline, thereby putting a halt to their plans to enroll in the fall semester.

The Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard University conducted a study known as the Strategic Data Project, which consisted of pooling data from three large school districts in Massachusetts, Texas, and Georgia as well as conducting a nationwide longitudinal survey.  Based on the data collected, summer melt tends to be higher among students from lower-to middle-income households, among academically underperforming students, and those whose parents have lower education levels. These rates also tend to be higher among students who plan to attend community college compared to four-year institutions. As the data suggests, schools with a greater population of students qualifying for free or reduced-cost lunches also tend to have more students who fall victim to summer melt.

What Are Some Potential Solutions for Preventing Summer Melt?

More than one solution to prevent summer melt has been proposed and put into action. Most solutions emphasize the practice of either personal or digital outreach on behalf of high schools and/or institutions of higher learning.

Text Messaging Reminders

One solution to increase enrollment numbers of first-year college students is through digital outreach in the form of text messaging reminders. In 2019, the National College Access Network implemented a program known as the Summer Melt Texting Campaign. This program, in partnership with Signal Vine, consisted of a four-month text messaging program. The customizable text messages included both specific program information as well as reminders regarding important dates and upcoming deadlines.

High School and College Counseling Programs

Another potential solution to prevent summer melt is to offer personal outreach to students in the form of counseling support. Offering these students just an additional two or three hours of extra support over the summer can reap big benefits. According to Education Northwest, research has found this additional support to increase fall semester enrollment by an overall rate of 3-4% and by 8% percent among students from lower-income families.

These support programs can be offered by either higher education institutions or high schools. One such program implemented at the high school level is the Summer Link program at the Fort Worth Independent School District, which was piloted in 2011. The program offers high school graduates up to two hours of counseling assistance in the first five weeks following graduation.

Incoming Student Transition Teams

The Chronicle of Higher Education highlights a similar type of program that involves the implementation of student transition teams. These teams help to streamline the often complex process for incoming first-year students by connecting students to key individuals – not just phone numbers to offices – that can assist them in their transition to college in the fall. Such teams might include an admissions counselor, a financial aid counselor, an academic advisor, a peer mentor, and a contact in the billing office. This information can be provided to students early – often as soon as they submit their enrollment deposit – so they can begin this transition right away.

Smarter Planning

Another potential solution to summer melt is simply smarter planning on behalf of college admissions and enrollment management departments, as pointed out by The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Oftentimes, students are inundated with paperwork all at once, possibly towards the end of the summer. Students can become easily overwhelmed and fail to meet important upcoming deadlines. Spacing out the distribution of this information and the deadlines involved can mitigate this issue and give students more time to complete these important tasks so they don’t all pile up at once. Or, offices of enrollment management can provide incoming students with helpful cheat sheets or checklists that break down the various tasks into simple to-do lists.

Case Study: Summer Link Program at Fort Worth Independent School District

Let's see an example of these programs in action. The Summer Link program at the Fort Worth Independent School District was piloted in 2011 to provide high school graduates up to two hours of counseling assistance in the initial five weeks following graduation.

Initial Challenges

In 2010, the summer melt rate was significantly high for this school district, particularly among Latino graduates (59%) and those from lower-income families (56%) compared to only 19% for white students.

Program Implementation

In 2011, 500 of the district’s 1,422 high school seniors were provided with as much as two hours of counseling assistance in the first five weeks after graduation. This assistance consisted of either in-person meetings or phone conversations. Approximately one-third of these students received help with completing financial-aid forms, while another one-third obtained assistance with compiling their transcripts. About 10% of students received emotional support to help them manage their anxiety due to the transition.

Summer Link counselors consisted of teachers, counselors, and staff from the district who worked part-time during these five weeks. Staff were hired and trained in the week prior to graduation, and program marketing outreach to students took place in the week leading up to graduation. During the program, each Summer Link counselor provided students with helpful checklists, worked with representatives from local colleges and universities to connect with these students, and served as an encouraging source of support to guide students on the path to enrollment. A program fellow measured the success of the program to determine where changes were needed.

Results Achieved

Overall, the program received a lot of praise from its staff who said a program such as this was greatly needed and encouraged it to continue. Their main recommendation was to begin program planning much earlier than just days before graduation. This would have provided valuable time needed to connect with students and promote the program’s services.

From this example, the power of student support initiatives prove invaluable for increasing college student enrollment. Even once enrolled, college students can benefit from additional support to guide them on the path to success. This includes student persistence and retention. Suitable is a partner to many colleges and universities looking for ways to boost student enrollment, retention, and persistence as well as student engagement and student development and skill acquisition.

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Mark Visco Jr.

Mark Visco Jr.

Chief Executive Officer