The Summer Melt: Why Some College-Bound Kids Don’t Go

After students are accepted to college, a percentage don't attend. Learn how to spot signs of the summer melt phenomenon – and freeze it in its tracks.

Stopping the summer melt

Think your job’s done when your child gets accepted to college? Think again. College plans can get the kibosh between acceptance and attendance. It’s called “summer melt,” and it thwarts some students’ post-secondary plans.

It can happen for a variety of reasons, too. Sometimes focus shifts. Other times things can crop up that complicate matters. This was the case for Ken Allen in Oakland County.

Everyone expected Allen to go to college. “It’s been preached to me my entire life,” he says. But as he neared his high school graduation, that clear course of action started to blur.

Between his parents’ divorce and his transfer from Birmingham Seaholm to West Bloomfield High School midway through his junior year, Allen wasn’t focused on academics and his grades suffered.

“I knew that if I had this same attitude in college and didn’t go to class, it would be a waste of money,” he says. So even though everyone around him remained certain he was college-bound, Allen began thinking about the real possibility of taking a year off.

APEX Scholars – one way to avoid summer melt

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Then Allen got a letter from Wayne State University. He had been admitted – but it was conditional. Because his GPA and test scores did not quite meet the university’s admission standards, he was offered the chance to participate, free of charge, in a program called APEX Scholars, short for Academic Pathways to Excellence.

If Allen were to successfully complete a rigorous eight-week summer program designed to bridge the gap between high school and college, he could enroll for fall classes right on schedule.

“At first I was upset,” he says. “I felt bad that I wasn’t good enough to just get in. But now I realize how lucky I was to be put on this path.”

Indeed, Allen could have been a summer melt statistic. According to the U.S. Department of Education, one-third of college-intending students fail to enroll the fall after high school graduation, for reasons ranging from financial to logistical to emotional.

Most of us have heard stories of kids who fall off the rails during the summer between high school and college. But Allen wasn’t one of them. He triumphantly passed his APEX Scholars classes, gaining so much confidence during the campus-immersion program that he was cheerfully offering directions and advice to fellow freshmen on move-in day that fall.

“Programs like this are all about the second chance,” says APEX Scholars director Mark Jackson, Ph.D., who notes that Wayne State is among many colleges and universities that reach out to underperforming applicants instead
of simply turning them away. “Some of these students are coming from seriously underfunded schools. If we can identify and support the ones with big dreams, they tend to catch fire fast.”

Before a student is placed in Wayne State’s APEX Scholars program, they must first undergo an interview process, “and if we talk to 500 students, we will hear 500 different stories about how they got to that point,” Jackson says.

Reasons summer melt happens

This “summer melt” affects students across the socioeconomic spectrum but the rate is disproportionately high for low-income, first-generation students. Reasons include:

  • Anxiety about leaving home
  • Financial reality setting in
  • Loss of high school support system after graduation
  • Failure to attend orientation
  • Change of heart about career goals
  • Deciding to enter the workforce full-time
  • Taking a gap year to travel or volunteer
  • Concerns about academic abilities
  • Buyer’s remorse about college choice
  • Missed financial aid deadlines
  • Overwhelmed by forms and requirements

With full awareness of summer melt and knowing that the admission and enrollment process can overwhelm all families – not just those encountering college for the first time – higher ed is now making a concerted effort to communicate with students early and often.

Wayne State, for example, stays in touch with incoming students through email, snail mail and social media, and is developing a series of one-minute instructional videos for its YouTube generation. Where contact used to be event-driven – inviting freshmen to orientation, for example – now there’s a multifaceted communication plan timed around checklist items.

Urging students to make their orientation reservation is still a key message, but it’s one of several touch points: Have you filed your Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA)? Would you like to meet with a financial aid advisor to review your scholarship and loan options? Are your housing plans in place? Do you need to purchase a parking permit?

“We also call students after they attend orientation for a wellness check,” says Katie Rawlings, Wayne State’s associate director of new student orientation.

“Questions usually come up once they get home from their campus experience. Our goal is to help them take care of all the important details so that by the time fall semester starts, the only thing they need to focus on is their classes.”

Rawlings says that when summer melt occurs and students decide not to return to campus in the fall, she hears a range of reasons during those post-orientation phone calls.

“Sometimes they haven’t taken all the costs into consideration, and once they see the total bill they decide it’s too much of a financial stretch. Other times, they’re overwhelmed by the course load their advisor has recommended and opt for community college with plans to transfer to Wayne State later.”

WSU works to keep everyone else engaged by automatically enrolling students in a peer-to-peer message board service after orientation. In this safe and staff-moderated space, students ask everything from “When is tuition due?” to “How do I find out which textbooks I need?”

Not only do they help each other with answers – turning to peers instead of searching Wayne State’s website, with an occasional assist from Rawlings – they commiserate and connect. And that e-camaraderie just might be keeping summer melt at bay.

Getting an early start

At Franklin High School in Livonia, every senior leaves graduation with the career counselor’s email address and cell phone number.

“Just because we aren’t in the building over the summer doesn’t mean they can’t reach out to us,” says Chris Ferrell, who’s been a FHS counselor for over 10 years and a Livonia Public Schools employee for over 20.

But that’s far from the first time Ferrell and his team talk to students about their post-secondary plans. “We meet with kids in eighth grade, before they even start high school, to get them thinking about what comes after graduation,” Ferrell says.

“We know the transition from high school to college is a marathon not a sprint, and we offer assistance each year, every step of the way.”

Ferrell says it’s important to acknowledge that college is just one of many pathways for high school grads. “Getting cold feet the summer before freshman year might be a better alternative than failing all your University of Michigan classes,” he says.

“Changing your mind and moving on to Plan B, even if it means you’ll lose deposits, could save a lot of money and frustration in the long run.”

He says defining a back-up plan is crucial, whether it’s enrolling at a community college for prerequisite classes or taking on a full-time job. “Be clear with your student that sitting on the couch and playing video games is not an option.”

Oakland Community College student Joel Zizi didn’t feel prepared for the leap from high school to a major campus. So he enrolled at OCC to start working toward his occupational therapy degree by getting his general ed credits out of the way.

“This was cost-effective and allowed me to experience college without actually being at a university,” he says, adding that he’s confident OCC’s transfer process will help him when it’s time to take the next step.

When students commit to Wayne State with trepidation similar to Zizi’s, learning communities and initiatives such as the Warrior Vision and Impact Program can be game changers.

Starting with workshops in the winter of their senior year and continuing in the fall with a range of support to help boost time management and study skills, Warrior VIP acclimates students who might otherwise hit a bumpy road.

The university has found that Warrior VIP students who work with advisors, peer mentors and tutors earn a higher GPA in their first year than students not taking advantage of the university support program.

As with APEX Scholars, key Warrior VIP services are in place until commencement.

“In addition to providing study skills and connections to internships and career services, we want to make sure students see themselves as part of a supportive community,” says Michelle Hunt Bruner, director of Wayne State’s Academic Success Center.

“It’s all part of the student experience and making sure students are thriving and accomplishing the goals they’ve set for themselves.”

Courageous conversations

From pre-K through graduation, schools at every step communicate directly with parents, who then trickle down key information to their kids. That script flips in college. Now almost all communications go straight to the student, and it’s up to them to share details with their folks.

Wayne State holds parent orientation on campus concurrently with student orientation, and nearly 90 percent of students have a guardian attend. But the presentations are not identical.

“We warn students that we are not repeating everything we’re telling them to their parents down the hall, and we warn parents that we’re giving them some information, but that they also need to keep asking their students questions,” Rawlings says. “Ideally, this is the beginning of an ongoing family conversation.”

And some of those conversations might need to be courageous ones, says Franklin High School’s Ferrell. “Your son or daughter may look like an adult, but their brain is still developing,” he says.

In fact, science tells us that the connections between the emotional part of the brain and the decision-making center aren’t fully formed until around age 25. Good judgment and an awareness of long-term consequences is not something teens excel in, no matter how smart they are.

So when it comes to getting ready for college, Ferrell says, “Students need their parents to help them through this process.”

A checklist for avoiding the summer melt

It’s OK for parents to “hold their big kid’s hand” when it comes to bridging the gap from high school to college. Making sure all the crucial pre-college boxes are checked isn’t hovering – it’s helping. Here’s how you can help your student evade summer melt.

Connect with counselors in high school and college.

Before June, ask your student to see if his guidance counselor is available by email over the summer. If they’re anything like Franklin High School’s Ferrell, they’ll say yes.

Bookmark the college website.

There is probably a page designed specifically for incoming students, with checklists and links to crucial information. Your student might also have a personalized portal with specific details and messages – have them check in at least weekly.

Read everything the college sends.

In addition to staying current with parent communication, ask your student to forward key emails so you can follow up as needed.

Fill out the FAFSA, even if you don’t think you’ll qualify for aid.

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid is often required for scholarship consideration, so it’s definitely worth an hour or two of e ort. Watch for FAFSA workshops hosted by your child’s school and don’t hesitate to call with questions.

Stay on top of financial aid.

This can be a confusing area. Students should not be expected to navigate it solo, and parents don’t have to either. Most colleges will offer seminars or one-on-one sessions to help fill out paperwork and explain options.

Take a realistic look at costs.

Don’t wait until that first fall bill is due to find out you’re being charged for not just credit hours but also housing and fees. And keep in mind that other expenses like books and football tickets are right around the corner. Don’t shy away from these numbers and work as a family to budget through them.

Go to orientation as a family.

Make sure you child attends the earliest possible session, too. This will clear up misconceptions and erase doubts that could creep in and cause melt. It also gives your family time to complete tasks as needed, instead of rushing around at the end of August. At Wayne State, the student ID handed out at orientation allows access to a range of campus services that could come in handy well before the first day of fall semester

Encourage your student to keep his or her brain busy over the summer.

“Students should read anything that is interesting to them even if the parent doesn’t think it’s particularly beneficial,” says
Kenya Swanson, Wayne State’s Warrior VIP coordinator. “Graphic novels, magazines, comic books – they all count when you are encouraging your child to read.”

Lean on mentors.

If your student is apprehensive about college, ask an older sibling, cousin or neighbor to check in with them to o er stories of their recent campus experience. I t helps to hear from trusted sources that everyone gets the jitters.

Ask questions.

And keep asking until you get an answer that makes you confident about your next step. Whether it’s an only child who knows her parents dread the empty nest or an older child who helps care for a sibling, students often feel guilty about leaving home.

It’s our job as parents to be the grown-up and give dry-eyed assurance that the time is right to take flight. Even as family dynamics change, you want your student to soar.

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