The summer after high school is a period of preparation and relaxation for most college-going students. Typically, that time is simply an extension of the stable path they’ve been on for so long. For many students, especially those first in their families to attend college, however, that path can get disrupted once the supports provided by the public school system are no longer in place. This is when the phenomenon of “summer melt” occurs.
What is “Summer Melt”?
Chelsea Jones, Associate Director of Student Programs at I’m First! explains:
“Summer melt” applies to those high school seniors who have already been accepted to college, and in some cases are already enrolled, but don’t actually attend in the fall. According to Dr. Benjamin Castleman and Dr. Lindsay Page, leading researchers on summer melt, this phenomenon affects up to 40% of college-going students. First-generation students** from low-income homes are historically the most vulnerable to this “melting” phenomenon.
There are many explanations as to why this “melt” may occur. Students, generally, may struggle with social anxieties about being in a new environment, may feel overwhelmed with paperwork, or may be discouraged once they realize how much college will actually cost. These effects may be particularly strong for first-generation students, whose parents or guardians may be unfamiliar with the complicated processes required to apply for college and financial aid, as well as the logistical processes that occur between the time of application and the first day of school, such as finding housing, signing up for classes, and meeting tuition deadlines. Transitioning into the postsecondary world is not just a formality that occurs once all the boxes are checked – it is an ongoing, comprehensive lifestyle change that affects so much more than a student’s education, which can lead many students to feel isolated or lack a sense of community.
In addition to these barriers, there may also be institutional-level factors that make it difficult for first-generation students to succeed. Despite the fact that large numbers of first-generation students enroll in college, evidence indicates that many postsecondary education institutions are ill-equipped to help them matriculate and eventually graduate, due to a lack of information and support. For example, first-generation students are more likely to work while in school – an obligation that many postsecondary institutions do not accommodate well. In reality, it is likely a combination of these and many other factors that contribute to the summer melt phenomenon.
What Can We Do About It?
A variety of programs exist to bridge the gap between high school graduation and the first day of college. Programs like those mentioned below are particularly valuable because they ”can help students prepare for and combat the issues that cause many students to fall by the wayside during the summer months before heading to their college campus,” said Chelsea Jones, Associate Director of Student Programs at I’mFirst! These programs are designed to help facilitate first-generation, college-going students’ transition to the postsecondary world, ensuring that the “hand-off” is as smooth as possible.
These programs send targeted text messages to students during their senior year and over the summer before college to help them navigate the transition. These text message reminders are little “nudges” to ensure that students remember to turn in various forms, to complete certain FAFSA requirements, to pay their tuition, and other logistical and deadline reminders so that students without parental or counselor support do not fall through the cracks. These programs have been shown to be highly effective at improving FAFSA completion and college matriculation rates, especially among first-generation students, who may not be receiving these “nudges” elsewhere. It is also worth noting that text message initiatives are highly cost-effective – generally about $7 per student or less.
These programs are designed primarily to help college-going students envision college life, and they are especially important for those who can’t afford a college visit. In most peer mentoring initiatives, a current college student, preferably one with a similar background, is paired with a college-going senior to answer questions and provide support as needed. Like text messaging programs, peer mentors also provide students with reminders of deadlines, as well as assistance with various logistical processes. For example, in the Urban Assembly (UA) Bridge to College Program in New York, UA hires and trains college coaches who are UA school alumni and are currently enrolled in college. These coaches mentor students with financial, personal, and logistical difficulties faced during the high school-college transition. The unique benefit of peer mentoring programs, and likely one reason they are so effective, is that they help put a face to what it’s like to actually be a college student.
Like text messaging and other technological initiatives, social media programs provide a mechanism to give support and answer students’ questions via a platform that the vast majority of college students are already familiar with. College admissions offices can engage the incoming class community via a Facebook page, a specific group, or even a separate app community (such as the Schools App). A recent University of Michigan study indicates that social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter can be powerful tools to provide support to first-generation students. According to the study, first-generation students who used social media to obtain information indicated that they felt much more confident about their knowledge of the application process. Additionally, students using the Schools App have been shown to be far less likely to “melt” than non-users. Social media interactions are most often student-to-student, aiming not only to provide information but also to reduce social anxieties by creating a sense of community. This initiative combines the effects of using a generationally-relevant communication platform, as seen in text messaging initiatives, with the benefits of student-to-student interaction, as are present in peer mentoring programs.
Starting college is tough for any young person, as they find themselves in a new and very different environment without the supports that they had as a high school student. First-generation students face even more challenges, but the programs and efforts described above are helping more and more of them get to college – and stay there.
Stay tuned for our webinar series: Providing Year-round Supports to Increase Postsecondary Success for First-generation, College-going Students, in which we will outline programs and policies which can help address issues such as summer melt.
* I’m First! is a nonprofit organization designed to reach out to the specific population of students discussed in this blog post. For more information, visit www.imfirst.org.
**The term “first-generation student” refers to a student who would be the first in his or her family to attend college.
Carinne Deeds is a Program Associate with the American Youth Policy Forum.