Preventing Students from Dropping out of College Before They Arrive on Campus


Wally Gobetz
“Summer melt” is the phenomenon that college-intending high school graduates fail to successfully transition to college (Boston University).

With graduation season looming, many high school seniors may already be looking forward to the postsecondary horizon ahead. College applications are submitted, and students may feel inclined to take their foot off of the gas during the spring semester. Yet, even for seniors whose college acceptances arrive in the near future, barriers remain on the road to college that can contribute to high rates of “summer melt” – the phenomenon that college-intending high school graduates fail to successfully transition to college.

Nationally, we estimate that approximately 10 percent of students who by high school graduation are on the path to college fail to matriculate. This rate is even higher among low-income students. Across the country, the number of students who melt each year would fill the University of Michigan football stadium—with a capacity for over 100,000 spectators—more than twice over.

Fortunately, it is possible to stem this tide of summer melt and improve college outcomes for low-income students. For the past several years, we have investigated a variety of strategies to support college-intending students in the summer transition to college. For example, proactive, counselor-led outreach can substantially increase the rate at which low-income, college-intending students enroll and persist in college. We have found automated, text-based outreach to also be an effective and low-cost strategy for providing students with personalized information and connecting them with individualized assistance when they need help. Interventions such as these are feasible and inexpensive for school districts and non-profit organizations alike to implement.

Over the past several decades, policymakers have employed a broad range of strategies to reduce disparities in college entry and success among families with low-to-moderate incomes. These policy initiatives have included efforts to boost students’ academic preparation for college; to increase college affordability for low- and moderate-income families; and to simplify information about college and financial aid. Relatively few of these initiatives, however, have had an explicit focus on the summer period after high school graduation.

Per_Castleman_Figure2.jpg

Ed Uthman
The benefits, monetary and otherwise, of higher education are substantial, and may be particularly pronounced for low-income students.

Yet, even after students have been accepted to and decided to attend college, successful matriculation is contingent on students completing a number of tasks during the summer, at a time when they no longer have access to support from their high school counselors and have yet to access support resources at their intended college. For instance, colleges typically require students to take placement tests and complete an abundance of paperwork, including housing and medical forms, over the summer months. Completing these tasks may pose particular challenges for low-income and first-generation college-bound students whose family members may lack experience with the college-going process. In addition, it is only during the summer after high school graduation that students must confront the reality of paying the first college term bill, which often includes unanticipated costs, such as required health insurance coverage. For college-intending students, successfully navigating the post-high school summer and this host of pre-matriculation requirements thus necessitates a level of financial and college literacy that may be unrelated to their ability to succeed in the classroom. As a result, students who have already overcome many obstacles to college enrollment and who would potentially earn high returns from postsecondary education may, nonetheless, fail to matriculate. We refer to this phenomenon as “summer melt.”

Dropping Out Before Enrolling

Beyond the estimated national melt rate of 10 percent, summer attrition is even more prevalent among students of low socioeconomic status (SES). The trend in Boston, where approximately one in five students failed to enroll in the fall, is consistent with evidence from multiple school districts serving large shares of low-income students, including the Fulton County Schools, Fort Worth Independent School District, the Chicago Public Schools, and the Dallas Independent School District. These estimates are also consistent with the findings from qualitative interviews indicating that, even after paying a deposit to a particular college, low-income students struggle to evaluate financial aid offers and complete all necessary requirements to enroll.

What’s Stopping Kids from Making It?

The benefits, monetary and otherwise, of higher education are substantial, and may be particularly pronounced for low-income students. Traditional models of human capital investments assume that students are aware of these benefits and predict that students will pursue a college education if the present discounted value (PDV) of the benefits of higher education exceeds the PDV of the costs of going to college (Becker, 1964). For low-income students, however, the time, effort and psychic costs associated with completing college and financial applications may be particularly high, and these costs may deter academically-qualified students from pursuing higher education. A number of studies document how informational barriers at early stages in the college and financial aid application processes can lead students to make sub-optimal decisions about whether to enroll in college. Informational barriers continue to be problematic during the summer months, even for those students who have gained acceptance into a college or university. Students receive a considerable volume of required paperwork from their intended college or university over the summer months. For students and families lacking college and financial literacy, it may be particularly difficult to complete these forms properly. In addition, colleges and universities increasingly distribute this paperwork and other college-related information to students via school-specific web portals. Lack of regular computer and Internet access over the summer therefore creates additional barriers to students receiving and responding to procedural and paperwork requirements in a timely way.

Per_Castleman_Figure3.jpg

sea turtle
Text messaging as an intervention substantially increased college enrollment among students who had little access to college planning supports during the school year and over the summer (University of Washington, Seattle).

Furthermore, recent behavioral research suggests that short-term costs weigh heavily in individuals’ analyses, even if they believe the investment would result in long-term benefits. As a result, even minor cost barriers may deter students from completing key stages of the college application or choice processes. The tuition bills students receive during the summer after high school often contain unanticipated charges that are particularly likely to trigger this short-term cost aversion. For instance, Massachusetts state law requires all colleges and universities in the state to enroll by default students attending more than half time in their institution’s health insurance. If students are covered by their parents’ insurance, they can opt out of the college plan by submitting a waiver. If students do not submit this waiver, the tuition bill that they must pay in July or August may be anywhere from $500 to $2,000 higher than expected, since health insurance is typically not included in published estimates of the cost of attendance or in the financial aid award letters that students receive in the spring. This unanticipated expense may sufficiently increase near-term costs so much so that students on the edge of enrolling decide not to matriculate. In short, traditional and behavioral economic theory suggests a variety of reasons for low-income, college-intending students changing or abandoning their postsecondary plans during the summer months.

Making Enrolment Easier

Over the past several years, we have designed, implemented, and tested the effectiveness of a variety of promising, low-cost strategies to help recent high school graduates successfully transition from high school to college. In one set of interventions, which we evaluated using random controlled trials, high school counselors or community-based financial aid advisors provided proactive outreach to recent high school graduates with specific college intentions. Counselors offered students support in handling issues, concerns, and required college-going tasks in a timely manner. For example, students received assistance in understanding their financial aid packages and lobbying for additional aid; completing required pre-matriculation paperwork; setting up tuition payment plans and waiving unnecessary fees; and managing social-emotional challenges faced during the college transition. Students were particularly responsive to outreach via text and Facebook messaging.

Across sites, just a few hours of counselor support generated substantial improvements in college entry. Students who received outreach and support were 5 to 14 percentage points more likely to enroll immediately in college than students in the control group. Where we have been able to track students for subsequent semesters in college, we find that the pre-college, summer proactive outreach had an even more pronounced impact on whether students remained continuously enrolled into the fall of their sophomore year in college. Students who were offered additional counseling the summer before freshman year were nearly 8 percentage points more likely to enroll and persist into sophomore year than students who were not offered summer support. These persistence impacts suggest that summer support promotes more stable enrollment beyond the first semester. The summer outreach was particularly beneficial for the lowest-income students in each site. In Boston, where available data included students’ Expected Family Contribution (EFC) to the cost of college,1 the summer outreach improved on-time enrollment by 12 percentage points among those students whose family income level meant they were not expected to be able to contribute anything to the cost of college. In Fulton County, where available data indicated whether students qualified for free/reduced price lunch (FRL), summer outreach and support increased immediate enrollment by more than eight percentage points among FRL students.

The results of these studies suggest that additional counselor outreach and support during the summer months can increase college enrollment among low-income high school graduates in particular. Building from this foundation, we further investigated how to increase student take-up of the offer of additional assistance and how to most effectively provide students with high-quality and personalized information about college-specific tasks and requirements. To do so, we implemented two subsequent summer interventions. The first intervention, implemented in four urban school districts, was a text messaging campaign in which we sent recent high school graduates and their parents 10 text message reminders of key tasks to complete over the summer. The reminders were customized to inform recipients of the tasks that had to be completed for the students’ intended institutions. The texts also allowed students to respond and request follow-up assistance from a counselor. The second intervention was a peer mentor intervention, also implemented in four urban districts, through which college students were hired and trained to reach out to college-intending high school graduates and support them in their transition to college. The peer mentors provided encouragement and first-hand perspective on the college experience, helped to assess students’ readiness to matriculate in college, and connected students to professional counseling when needed.

Per_Castleman_Figure4.jpg

Beraldo Leal
The summer after high school is also in many ways an ideal time for policy intervention to help more academically accomplished low-income students pursue postsecondary education (Columbia University, New York).

Both interventions yielded positive impacts on students’ on-time college matriculation. The text message intervention substantially increased college enrollment among students who had little access to college planning supports during the school year and over the summer. For instance, students in Lawrence and Springfield, MA who received the messages were over seven percentage points more likely to enroll in college than students who did not receive the messages. The peer mentor intervention increased four-year college enrollment by 4.5 percentage points, with effects again largest for those students with the fewest college-going supports.

The cost of these summer interventions ranged from $7 per student for the text-based intervention to under $200 per student for the counselor-based outreach. Compared with other policy alternatives to increase college access among underrepresented populations, summer support can thus be a cost-effective intervention for promoting college enrollment among low-income students.2

Reducing Summer Melt to a Trickle

A surprisingly large number of students planning to enroll in college at the time of high school graduation fail to actually matriculate in the fall. Summer melt is a generalizable phenomenon to which students from disadvantaged backgrounds are particularly at risk. Nevertheless, the summer after high school is also in many ways an ideal time for policy intervention to help more academically accomplished low-income students pursue postsecondary education. First, students who have been admitted and paid a deposit to a college have already surmounted several key obstacles to college access. Targeted information and assistance can help them overcome the remaining obstacles they face over the summer. Second, students may be more responsive to outreach and support over the summer months. Whereas college may have seemed years away in the waning days of high school, students may feel a greater sense of urgency when they receive their tuition bill during the summer. Third, there is an ample supply of high school counselors to assist students in the summer, since many of them are contracted by their school districts only for the academic year.

Compared to many other interventions aimed at improving college-going outcomes among low-income and disadvantaged populations, the summer melt strategies summarized in this article are especially low-cost. Given the clear need that students have for additional supports during the summer between high school and college, as well as the low associated costs, we recommend a broad investment in these types of strategies to ensure that high school graduates who are college intending continue on as actually-attending college students. Targeted summer supports, such as those that we have implemented, can go a long way towards reducing the current torrent of summer melt to a mere trickle.