Stymied on the Cusp of College

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle

October 06, 2014

More than a million recent high-school graduates across the country have taken the next important step in their lives by enrolling in college. All of the promises associated with a college education are now before them.

Not so, however, for hundreds of thousands of their peers who were also accepted to college and who planned to enroll this fall but failed to. Nationally, 10 to 15 percent of those presumed to be headed to college do not matriculate at any postsecondary institution in the fall following high-school graduation. In urban communities, these rates are much higher: for example, 21 percent in Boston, 44 percent in Fort Worth. The young people who fail to matriculate are more often than not working in low-wage jobs with little promise for advancement.

The phenomenon of faltering in the transition to college, commonly referred to among admissions offices as "summer melt," is not new. Colleges have long factored it into their admissions models, understanding that a certain share of students whom they admit, and who intend to enroll in the fall, will not actually matriculate there. When students fail to show up, they aren’t necessarily missed, nor has their absence been of acute concern, given a prevailing assumption that the students just enrolled elsewhere.

Unfortunately, the number of students each year who do not matriculate would fill Yankee Stadium more than four times over, according to our research. The heart of the issue is that these students are disproportionately first-generation and from low-income households. Socioeconomic disparities in the share of students who do not matriculate are often pronounced within communities. In Fulton County, Ga., for example, 33 percent of low-income students melt away, compared with just 10 percent of their better-off peers.

For students seemingly on the cusp of their college careers, what stands in the way?

During the summer before college, students must complete complex tasks often unrelated to the academic skills and abilities that earned them college admission in the first place. These tasks include verifying income information on financial-aid applications, evaluating supplementary-loan applications, reviewing health-insurance options, and scrambling to cover the costs of attendance not paid for by financial aid. Students from college-educated families have parents, if not private consultants, who help them complete these tasks. Low-income and first-generation students, on the other hand, more often must navigate these hurdles on their own.

Fortunately, simple solutions can make a substantial difference in whether students overcome these summer obstacles. Outreach from a college counselor, or even a set of personalized task reminders via text message, can provide simplified information about steps they must complete and professionals they can call on. A summer’s worth of text messages costs as little as $7 per student to send—including the cost of retaining counselors to provide one-on-one advising when students need it—and can increase college enrollment among recipients by as much as 11 percent.

And summer support can also lead to lasting benefits. Students offered just two to three hours of help from a college adviser during the summer before their freshman year were significantly more likely to persist into the sophomore year than were students who did not receive such support. Broad use of these tactics could help tens of thousands of students each year.

Even among students who matriculate on time, however, the challenges are far from over after they enter college. Nationally, 50 percent of community-college freshmen and 25 percent of those at four-year institutions fail to make it to their sophomore year.

That results in part from students’ continuing to encounter confusing and complex bureaucratic procedures, which they struggle to complete even if they are excelling in the classroom. For example, 15 to 20 percent of Pell Grant recipients in good academic standing—students who stand to benefit from renewing their financial aid and who appear well poised to continue in college—do not reapply for aid at the end of their freshman year. Failure to do so is strongly related to a failure to return to college the following fall.

Just as small but targeted investments over the summer can help students enroll in college, low-cost strategies can similarly increase the probability that they stay there. For instance, in one study, we found that sending community-college freshmen personalized text messages with information and encouragement about renewing their financial aid increased by nearly 20 percent the probability that they would stay in college.

President Obama held a conference this year on improving college opportunities for disadvantaged students. Dozens of colleges attended, each committing to take steps to improve access and success for underrepresented students. A second White House meeting is scheduled for December.

We urge all higher-education institutions to respond to the president’s call. Institutions spend hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars per enrolled student in recruitment efforts. It is worth spending a fraction of that to help all students realize and maintain the postsecondary plans they have worked for years to make possible.

Benjamin L. Castleman is an assistant professor of education and public policy at the University of Virginia. Lindsay C. Page is an assistant professor of education and a research scientist at the Learning Research and Development Center at the University of Pittsburgh. Their book, Summer Melt: Supporting Low-Income Students Through the Transition to College, has just been published by Harvard Education Press.