Voices in Education

Where Have All the Graduates Gone?
Across the country, valedictorian speeches have concluded, graduation barbeques have ended, caps and gowns have been folded and stowed away in closets. Local newspapers have proudly run reports of where local graduates will attend college in the fall.
But how many will actually enroll?

Up until a few years ago, educators largely assumed that students who had been accepted into college and who planned to attend as of the end of high school would successfully matriculate a few months later. Recent research demonstrates, however, that students encounter a complex array of financial and procedural hurdles in the months between high school graduation and the start of the fall term. These challenges range from finalizing financial aid and evaluating additional loans to completing placement tests and traveling to attend orientation. For students from college-educated and more affluent families, parents often play an active role in helping their children complete required summer tasks, often completing financial aid applications and making tuition payments on their children’s behalf. Lower-income and first-generation college-going students, by contrast, more often lack the same informed guidance at home, and are typically also isolated from professional advising supports. During these summer months, high school counselors are typically “off-contract”, and many students are unaware that there are advising resources available at their college before they arrive on campus.
As a result, a surprisingly high share of lower-income high school graduates who have done everything they are supposed to in order to get to college—they have applied and been accepted to school, in most cases have applied for financial aid, and have chosen where to enroll—fail to enroll anywhere in the year after high school. This phenomenon, to which we refer as “summer melt,” occurs from sea to shining sea: melt rates range from 21 percent of students in Boston, MA, to 29 percent of students in Albuquerque, NM, to 44 percent of students in Fort Worth, TX.
Promisingly, we also find that students and their enrollment decisions are very responsive to additional outreach and support during the summer months. Over the last several summers, we have designed and conducted a variety of interventions to mitigate attrition from the college-going pipeline among college-intending high school graduates. We have implemented these interventions with different types of organizations, including nonprofit college-access organizations, school districts, universities, and state education agencies.  Together with our partner organizations, our summer efforts have ranged from having school counselors or peer mentors reach out to students to offer in-person support to creating an automated text messaging campaign, through which we sent students personalized reminders of tasks to complete at their intended college. These interventions have been inexpensive, costing as little as seven dollars per student for the text messaging campaign, and have generated substantial impacts on whether low-income, college-intending students actually enrolled in college. For instance, students in Lawrence and Springfield, MA who participated in the text messaging campaign were over ten percent more likely to enroll in college than students who were not randomly selected to receive the texts. In addition, by utilizing data from the National Student Clearinghouse to track students’ semester-by-semester enrollment, we find that such summer support can improve not only initial college matriculation but also college persistence several semesters later. Compared to the billions of dollars invested to improve college access through entitlements such as the Pell Grant, this type of investment certainly seems worth it. 
So, as we enjoy the early days of summer, let us also be mindful of students, particularly those from more disadvantaged backgrounds, whose summer will be far less carefree and who have labored for years to achieve the dream of being the first in their family to go to and graduate from college.  Proactive outreach and a modest amount of support can make all the difference in helping students realize these important dreams.

About the Author: Benjamin L. Castleman is an assistant professor of education and public policy at the University of Virginia. Lindsay C. Page is an assistant professor of education and a research scientist at the Learning Research and Development Center at the University of Pittsburgh. They are the coauthors of Summer Melt: Supporting Low-Income Students Through the Transition to College (Harvard Education Press, 2014).