Jul 13 2023

Combating Summer Melt with Technology in Higher Education

Facilitating a sense of connection and belonging on campus can pay big dividends in terms of enrollment, especially for first-generation college students.

High school students work hard to get into college. On top of the years of elementary and secondary education, they make time for in-person or virtual campus visits, complete arduous admission and scholarship applications and weigh the pros and cons of the schools that accept them before ultimately making what in many cases will be a life-altering decision on where to spend the next four or more years of their lives.

Then, after all that is completed and the choice has been made, an alarming number of students never reach the point of enrollment.

The phenomenon of summer melt is well known, especially among higher education admissions officials. But despite awareness of the problem there are still major obstacles to solving it. Summer melt is a complex problem that, research has found, disproportionately affects low-income and minority students, who are often overburdened by the mountains of paperwork and daunting financial decisions they’re asked to navigate on their own.

Precise data on summer melt is difficult to compile, but Harvard University estimates that anywhere between 10 and 40 percent of “seemingly college-intending students” do not end up attending college in the fall after they graduate from high school. The reason students from certain backgrounds are more susceptible to this is in many ways connected to broader social issues, says Alisha Ali, an associate professor at New York University who led a multiuniversity study on summer melt.

“Low-income students are the most affected by summer melt because they’re most likely to attend high schools that don’t have sufficient resources to provide proper counseling around applying to college,” she says. “They also are more likely to come from families that don’t have social capital, the connections to people who are influential in the realm of college admissions. And, of course, in the U.S., race is correlated with socioeconomic status, so many students of color are at risk of summer melt.”

In New York City, at least one group has popped up at the high school level to help keep students on track to reach campus. But the onus — and financial incentive — to prevent summer melt falls primarily on higher education institutions. So, what are they doing about it?

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How Can Higher Ed Institutions Combat Summer Melt?

One of the keys to solving summer melt is communication. Maintaining an open dialogue with incoming students creates a sense of community among them, even if they haven’t set foot on campus yet. It can also help students find their way through the labyrinth of forms, documents and more that are part of the enrollment process.

In some cases, Ali says, universities have hired and trained staff specifically to address summer melt, with an emphasis on those low-income students who are most at risk.

“That can be effective, because those individuals can be trained to inform students about options for support and aid that can allow them to attend college, even if they thought their circumstances wouldn’t allow them to attend,” she says.

Technology, too, can play a role in communicating with students, especially with the rapid advances in artificial intelligence-driven large language models, like the engine that underpins ChatGPT.

Jenay Robert
It’s important for students to feel they belong at the institution and are part of a community.”

Jenay Robert Senior Researcher, EDUCAUSE

To stay in touch with students throughout the year and especially during those crucial summer months, some universities have created their own branded chatbots, like CSUNy at California State University, Northridge, or Pounce at Georgia State University, which claimed to reduce summer melt by a staggering 22 percent from 2015 to 2016.

When an AI chatbot (and not an actual person) is communicating with students, making sure the chatbot has a human-sounding voice is important. But even prompting students with robo-generated reminders can have an impact.

“The key is to utilize a range of ways to connect with the students,” says Ali. “Having a personality is important because it makes the process more accessible and less intimidating for them.”

Intimidation can be one of the things that causes students to melt away from enrolling, she continues, describing the process as “very scary” for some, especially those who are the first in their family to attend a higher education institution. The NYU study she helped lead used a texting program that sent out deadline reminders, provided answers to frequently asked questions and, most important, facilitated “personal interactions” between incoming students and a group of mentors with similar backgrounds.

“Our interventions include firsthand stories from actual first-generation college students who, in their own words, describe their experiences of adjusting to college,” says Ali. “It’s important to have messages that are tailored to the students’ needs, and that’s something that AI-powered chatbots can do for a large number of students, as opposed to human counselors who are more limited in the number of students they can serve effectively.”

LEARN MORE: Universities use AI chatbots to connect with students and drive success.

Can Other Technologies Assist in Reducing Summer Melt in Higher Ed?

Other institutions, meanwhile, have been able to connect to their students without relying fully on AI by using existing technologies like Slack, InScribe and even Facebook, says EDUCAUSE Senior Researcher Jenay Robert.

“These technology tools can make a powerful impact by enabling students to share their experiences and learn about others’ experiences, bolstering their sense of belonging,” she says. “Technology tools can also help students connect remotely and facilitate onsite events and meet-ups.”

Regardless of what technology institutions use, building and reinforcing that sense of connection between students and campus should be at the heart of whatever tactics universities are using.

“It’s important for students to feel they belong at the institution and are part of a community,” says Robert. “It’s important for institutions to ask themselves: Do students feel seen and heard? Do they have ways to meaningfully participate in activities? Do they feel represented in the institution’s faculty, staff, media and curricula?”

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