COVID-19 Worsens Enrollment Outlook for College-Bound Students

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COVID-19 Worsens Enrollment Outlook for College-Bound Students
portrait of Anne Dennon
By Anne Dennon

Published on August 18, 2020

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Every spring, the pomp and ceremony of high school graduation and acceptance letters buoys students toward college. But many who gain admission to college end up not going. This phenomenon is known to admissions officers as "summer melt."

Some colleges lose as many as 40% of enrolled students between spring and fall. This summer, the coronavirus pandemic and its impact on the economy has caused even more students to change their plans.

“The combination of the COVID-19 pandemic derailing both the traditional high school and college calendars and the fact that resources are in short supply likely means this upcoming summer could see a melt of unprecedented scope.” Source: — Owen Daugherty, NASFAA Staff Reporter Link: More Info

Low-income, underrepresented minority, and first-generation students — many of whom are already overrepresented in the annual summer melt — are especially vulnerable to what's now being called "pandemic melt."

Paperwork and unanticipated expenses can pose obstacles to students whose families lack a college-going tradition. In an effort to help students successfully jump through the hoops, a growing number of colleges are using counseling and texting programs to remind students to check their email, complete financial aid forms, and register for classes.

Up until recently, colleges didn't view summer melt as their responsibility. But universities lose hundreds of thousands of dollars each year to the phenomenon. Helping students cross the summer divide not only makes financial sense for colleges but is also vital for student outcomes, as on-time enrollment is linked to academic success.

1 in 3 College-Bound Students Doesn't Make It

Somewhere between 10% and 40% of students who register for college don't show up for fall classes, even after putting down a deposit. Many college-bound students get stuck on small challenges over the summer — such as how to complete insurance forms or sign up for courses — and lack both the guidance and confidence to push through.

Data shows that summer melt disproportionately impacts low-income and first-generation students. Unable to rely on their families to coach them through college preparation, first-generation students tend to suffer more than others without the immediate support of counselors and teachers.

“An astonishing number of students who walk across the stage at graduation with plans to go to college never get there. Too many students overlook the letters and emails colleges send over the summer.” Source: — Patrick O'Connor, Homeroom by the U.S. Department of Education Link: More Info

Over the summer, colleges send fat envelopes with deadlines and directions about orientation. Some students only get around to reading their award letters once the mail starts piling up and college begins to feel more real. Consequently, many don't even realize until late summer that financial aid packages that initially looked like full rides actually include lots of loans.

The college loan process is a serious hurdle for first-generation students. Aside from covering tuition, students may struggle with the many smaller expenses associated with starting college, like airfare to get to campus. During COVID-19, these expenses take on new risk as campuses may be forced to reclose.

Even in non-pandemic times, the summer after high school maroons too many students who dream of college. High school and college support programs are the first steps toward alleviating this problem and steering higher education toward greater equity.

Helping Underprivileged Students Make the "Last Mile"

Summer roadblocks for college-bound students include confusing paperwork, missed deadlines, and lost motivation. Many of these obstacles can be removed by the just-in-time counseling offered by summer bridge programs. Simple text reminders can help students solve logistical problems and keep them excited about school.

“There’s this whole group of low-income students who make it to college, … but the pipe’s leaky. And something happens in the last mile, the summer right before they go to college, and they don’t show up in college in the fall.” Source: — Shankar Vedantam, NPR Link: More Info

Text nudges about deadlines and key tasks have been found to reduce summer melt. One high school that brought counselors back over the summer to reach out to college-bound students from low-income families witnessed a 10% drop in its annual summer melt rate.

The positive effects of maintaining contact with counselors and mentors over the summer could be even more far-reaching, as feeling integrated early on in the college enrollment process remains a strong predictor of persistence and completion.

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