When Accepted Students Don't Show Up at College

I had a discussion with some colleagues after listening to an episode of NPR's Hidden Brain podcast about research that shows that between 10% and 40% of the kids who intend to go to college at the time of high school graduation don't actually show up in the fall.

I'm doing some consulting for a community college this summer and I asked if this seemed accurate for that school. It turned out that the previous week staff at the college had been asked to "cold call" students who registered for fall courses but were dropped for non-payment and never re-registered. The college's enrollment is down 10% and it is a big concern.

meltingThis phenomenon is sometimes called "summer melt."

It is puzzling why kids who made it through the admissions process and were accepted to a college of their choice, applied for and received financial aid, never showed up for classes.

At my urban community college, financial aid was the most common reason. They registered, but aid did not come through in time to pay the bill. The odd part - the "melt" - was that when their aid did come through, they didn't re-register.

Why? Some had lost interest or felt discouraged by the process. Some reevaluated going to college. Some were just lazy. A few staffers were able to walk students over the phone through re-enrolling, so part of the problem might be information and support from the college.

In the podcast, Lindsay Page, an education researcher now at the University of Pittsburgh who did research while at Harvard, said "The rate with which kids who are college-intending do not actually get to college in the fall is surprisingly high. In one sample that we looked at in the Boston area, we find that upwards of 20% of kids who at the time of high school graduation say that they're continuing on to college don't actually show up in the fall."

This nationwide loss of seemingly college-intending students is particularly evident for those from low-income backgrounds.

But research has also identified relatively low cost interventions that can have a significant impact on alleviating the summer melt phenomenon and increasing college enrollment rates.

Page's research at Harvard was published in the "SDP Summer Melt Handbook: A Guide to Investigating and Responding to Summer Melt." In the report, they use “summer melt” to refer to a "different, but related phenomenon: when seemingly college-intending students fail to enroll at all in the fall after high school graduation. 'College-intending' students are those who have completed key college-going steps, such as applying and being accepted to college and applying for financial aid if their families qualify. In other cases, they have concretely signaled their intention to enroll in college on a high school senior exit survey. We consider a student to have “melted” if, despite being college-intending, she or he fails to attend college the following fall."

Some of their interventions go back to students' high school day and records, such as senior exit surveys, and survey high school counselors. They also provide examples of summer task lists, both personalized for specific institutions and generic, and sample documents for proactive personal outreach, such as an initial outreach checklist, assessment meeting checklist, intake form, and counselor interaction logs. 

Download the report and other resources at sdp.cepr.harvard.edu/summer-melt-handbook 

LISTEN to the Hidden Brain podcast on this topic  npr.org/2017/07/17/537740926/why-arent-students-showing-up-for-college