By Sean Nyhan
There are reasons why you don’t hop in the car and head straight to college after opening your acceptance letter. You have months of preparation ahead, checklists to complete, orientations to attend. That’s why college counselors advise students to keep their momentum going even after accepting an offer. For some students, the summer after senior year can be a minefield of distractions. In that window between acceptance and matriculation, researchers have determined that somewhere between 10 and 20 percent abruptly end their educational careers. They call this phenomenon “summer melt.”
Most students have probably heard the term “senioritis.” In the waning months of senior year, it can be hard for some students to focus on schoolwork. Counselors advise students to maintain their focus, or else face academic probation, or in some cases a revoked admission offer. Summer melt also strikes around this time of year but extends past graduation. For some students, who number in the hundreds of thousands, getting through the end of the school year is just half the battle.
Why might a student in good academic standing, who has already accepted a letter of admission, and maybe even submitted a deposit, not make it to college? According to NACAC Associate Director of Research Melissa Clinedinst, college costs play a big role. While financial aid may be available, navigating the steps to receive that funding is not easy for all students, especially those filing the paperwork on their own. “They may not realize their true out-of-pocket costs or understand the level of student loan debt they agreed to,” says Clinedinst. “Even ‘small’ unexpected expenses can derail low-income students—health insurance, housing, books.”
In addition to financial concerns, there are other hurdles to overcome. Some students become distracted with part-time jobs. Others become fraught with anxiety at the thought of leaving home. First-generation students don’t have the same support system as their peers who rely on older siblings, parents, and other family members for guidance. Even for students with access to college-educated family members, the modern college experience is very different than it was just 10 or 20 years ago.
Just like the distracted student with a bad case of senioritis, students in danger of succumbing to summer melt can avoid falling off their college track by staying motivated. “Since many students don’t have access to their school counselors during the summer,” Clinedinst says, “outreach from postsecondary institutions to educate and remind students about summer procedures and deadlines has been shown to be helpful.”
The Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard University studied some of these intervention techniques. In one case, a school district had been losing 48 percent of college-bound students to summer melt. Using a combination of post-graduation counseling visits, support filling out financial aid forms and sending transcripts, and emotional counseling for pre-college anxiety, the counselors were able to stay connected to nearly 1,500 students during the vulnerable summer months.
“The issue seems to be more related to an information deficit rather than a motivational one,” says Clinedinst.
The bottom-line: Stay connected to your admission office and, if possible, your high school counselor. Studies have shown that even periodic text messages can keep students on track. One case study even proved that automated reminders from a “chat-bot” powered by artificial intelligence reduced summer melt in one district by 20 percent. Peer mentors can also be great motivators. It’s the summer, after all. There should be plenty of college students in or near your hometown who can offer advice.