Given COVID-19 pandemic-related student enrollment declines, many colleges are seeking not only to tackle the seasonal "summer melt" but longer-term drops in student enrollment.
Summer melt refers to what happens when high school graduates who accept a college admissions offer do not matriculate by the end of the summer before fall classes start. This can happen if students miss deadlines for completing housing paperwork, financial aid verification forms, or taking other required enrollment steps.
“What we’ve seen in the last two years is a much bigger concern than just summer melt,” said Dr. Doug Shapiro, vice president of research and executive director of the research center at the National Student Clearinghouse (NSC), a nonprofit that provides educational reporting, data exchange, verification, and research services. “The declines in the number of freshmen overall have been quite staggering since the pandemic."
Shapiro noted that the NSC does not track summer melt, but it counts students once they arrive at college.
“We have two years now in which the total numbers of freshman enrolling have been down about 9.5%," he said. "And there is really no sign of that improving.”
Community colleges have been hit hardest, added Shapiro. Freshman classes at community colleges have been down around 18% for each of the last two years. At four-year colleges, the enrollment declines have gotten worse from the first year of the pandemic to the second year of the pandemic.
“The only exceptions are the most selective, elite four-year colleges, which have really bounced back to pretty much where they were before the pandemic,” said Shapiro. “But all the other, less selective four-year colleges and the more broad-access institutions have actually declined more in the second year in the pandemic than the first.”
Shapiro and other experts noted that affordability concerns in a tight labor market are likely central factors in enrollment declines today. Many students are questioning the return on investment of a degree.
“I think the affordability issue is particularly pertinent because, if you look at summer melt, the students who are often most impacted come from underserved, under-resourced communities,” said Chris Lucier, director of partner relations at Othot, a higher education analytics division of the company Liaison, and the former head of enrollment management at the University of Vermont and the University of Delaware. “Many low-income students, first-generation students, and students of color may be questioning if there is a need to stay home and work for their families right now instead of going to college.”
Dr. Martha Parham, spokesperson for the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC), said that colleges have been voicing such concerns in recent months.
“We’re hearing from community colleges across the country that their local entry-level jobs are paying in some cases $25 an hour,” said Parham. “So, these potential students are working full-time at an entry-level job for a decent wage that includes benefits. That’s tough to compete with.”
Studies show that long-term earning potential is higher for individuals possessing a college degree as opposed to individuals without a college degree. Still, that kind of calculation is tough for many to make at this moment.
“It’s very tempting for students — especially those concerned about the cost of college and fearful of taking out student loans — to trade that long-term potential earnings gain from going to college for a short-term advantage in the labor market where they can earn what seems like a very good wage,” said Shapiro.
There are strategies, however, to combat summer melt as part of mitigating larger enrollment drops, noted Elizabeth Morgan, chief of external relations at the National College Attainment Network (NCAN). NCAN, a nonprofit advocacy organization, focuses on helping students prepare for, apply to, and succeed in college.
“One thing that is really helpful is to identify students who might be the most likely to melt — and make sure you are offering personalized, relevant support to those students to make it through all of the tasks needed to matriculate,” said Morgan. “This includes helping them understand what their financial aid award will cover or complete paperwork for housing.”
Lucier added that technology can target those students who may be susceptible to that melt.
“Predictive analytics can tell you what are the reasons this person is likely to melt,” said Lucier. “And then the institution can direct the resources to that student, whether ensuring that the student gets the academic support they need or that a student affairs staff person reaches out to them.”
Parham said that community colleges that may not have the resources necessary to implement high-tech enrollment management strategies can still build partnerships with local high schools and businesses, even churches, to make a difference.
“The bottom line is to partner across the community to get the word out about the benefits of these programs as effectively as you can,” said Parham. “We are also seeing a lot of schools go back to what we call old-school tactics of just calling students that stopped out or may be likely to not matriculate — and let them know that we’d love to help them through the program."
The National Student Clearinghouse (NSC) additionally has a StudentTracker for High Schools that can be useful to higher ed institutions when it comes to enrollment management. This tool can match a high school’s graduates with NSC's database of college enrollment records, which cover about 98% of enrolled students nationwide. High schools can then get a sense of which graduates did not end up going to college in the fall — and work with local colleges to try contacting those graduates to find out what happened.
Shapiro stressed that keeping the bigger enrollment picture in mind is critical.
“Whatever you might think you should do to reduce summer melt, you probably should do that two or three times over with a much longer-term melt in mind,” said Shapiro. “Think about the freshmen who didn’t show up last year and didn’t show up the year before — and try to find ways to reach them. Because at this point, there are far more of them than the ones who you may typically think of as summer melters.”
Rebecca Kelliher can be reached at email@example.com