Stopping 'summer melt' – and getting more kids to college this fall

To help first-generation and low-income high school graduates follow through on the needed steps to get to college, customized text messages over the summer can make a difference, researchers have found.

By , Staff writer

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    A person walks at Princeton University in Princeton, N.J., Dec. 9, 2013. Research shows that between 10 and 20 percent of high school graduates who have been accepted into a college don't make it there in the fall.
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Spring is a time for high school seniors to celebrate college acceptances. But they might be shocked to discover how many ducks they have to get in a row during the summer before they can get their feet wet at college.

For students whose families aren’t familiar with the college process and aren’t able to nudge them to fill out paperwork and pay bills on time, college dreams can slip away.

Nationally, between 10 and 20 percent of high school graduates who have been accepted into a college and plan to attend end up not starting classes in the fall. In urban districts, it’s 20 to 30 percent.

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Researchers call it “summer melt.” And they’ve found a promising, cost-effective way to reverse it: customized text messaging over the summer, paired with counselor support for students who need more than just a series of reminders.

In a trial of text-messaging nudges, the rate of students enrolling this fall bumped up by 10 percent in working-class ​communities such as Lawrence, Mass., where there’s not a lot of college-access help available in the summer. The cost per student: just $7.​ 

“Six or seven years ago, [summer melt] was really overlooked. As administrators at high school, if we got kids to apply for college and financial aid, and choose where to go ... we felt our work was done and the students would seamlessly transition,” says Benjamin Castleman, an education and public policy professor at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, who conducted the summer-melt study with Lindsay Page of the University of Pittsburgh and developed the new text-messaging approach.

'Always on their phones'

Today, there’s a broader recognition that many students need a bridge between the support they’re used to in high school and the start of college. And college-access organizations, state governments, high schools, and colleges are starting to scale up the texting approach.

“Most kids do not check e-mails.... All the students are always on their phones, so texting is a good way to communicate,” says Lisbeth Valdez, a recent graduate of the Performing and Fine Arts High School in Lawrence, Mass.

Lisbeth plans to start at the University of Massachusetts in Dartmouth at the end of August. But without the help of the Boston-based uAspire college-access organization, which participated in Mr. Castleman’s study, she might have become another summer-melt statistic.

In late July, after already seeking out help from a uAspire counselor to understand her loans and bills, Lisbeth got a message reminding her about medical forms. “It was a wake-up call: If it wasn’t for them I would have completely forgot,” says Lisbeth, whose parents speak little English and didn’t attend college.

Watching it work

A customized text and Web portal facilitates quick personal interactions with students. For those attending the most common colleges in a given area, the texts include direct links to college websites, financial aid forms, and other relevant resources. Students can easily scroll through older messages, and counselors can track all the communications with a given student, who have the option to call or use walk-in office hours for extra support.

The rate at which students respond to the texts ranges from 10 to 60 percent, making it “the most powerful means we’ve ever seen,” says Brian Kathman, CEO of Signal Vine in Alexandria, Va., which provides the technology platform for Castleman and Ms. Page's texting outreach and other groups looking to replicate it.

When a charter school in Philadelphia sent out its first text, 90 percent of students responded, a level of engagement not seen with mailings, phone calls, or e-mails, Mr. Kathman says.

Because it’s so cost-effective, text messaging is seen as a promising way to scale up the number of students getting college help over the summer. About 100,000 students around the country already get assistance from access organizations, but millions of them need it, estimates Bob Giannino-Racine, CEO of uAspire.

Elsa Martinez-Pimentel, who oversees the Lawrence office of uAspire, says she’ll never forget the day this summer when a student came in saying he’d been getting a lot of text messages from them but wasn’t sure what “college stuff” he needed to do. Like many recent immigrants, he found it overwhelming and was thinking maybe he’d just go find a job instead of starting college.

Ms. Martinez-Pimentel discovered he had taken placement tests to start at the local community college, but he hadn’t filled out his application for federal aid. When she helped him do it online, they found out he qualified for the maximum federal Pell grant, worth $5,730 – enough to cover tuition and books.

“I told him, ‘This is a scholarship, free money the government is giving to you that you don’t have to pay back,” Martinez-Pimentel says. “I won’t forget his response: He said ‘Why would they give me that money?’ ”

She told him he had worked hard and deserved it, and his face lit up with excitement. They planned out his next steps, and soon he’ll be registered for classes.

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