Taking a Look at a Phenomenon Called “Summer Melt”

In this article, we wanted to draw your attention to a recent NPR Hidden Brain Podcast episode from July 17, 2017 on the topic of what researchers have dubbed “summer melt.”

According to the U.S. Department of Education, in fall of 2017, approximately 20.4 million students are expected to attend U.S. colleges and universities. This number constitutes a 5.1 million enrollment increase since fall of 2001. Yet despite this reported increase, the rate at which college-intending students do not actually get to college come fall is surprisingly high, according to Harvard education researchers Lindsay Page and Ben Castleman, authors of the book Summer Melt: Supporting Low-Income Students Through the Transition to College. In one sample that the pair studied in the Boston area, 20 percent of students with plans to attend college in the fall failed to actually show up. Amongst low-income students, the number was even higher. So what causes this phenomenon? What is it that happens in the summer between high school graduation and the first day of college that knocks these kids off track? Researchers call this phenomenon “summer melt.”

Looking more macroscopically, the rates of summer melt can be quite high. Nationally, rates range between 10 and 40 percent, and are highest for at-risk kids from lower-income backgrounds whose parents may not have been through the college application process themselves. This is a crucial key to the story, in that students who lack family support during the application process are often at a disadvantage compared to peers who have college-educated parents who are familiar with the process and can help their child through it.

The financial aid process is notorious for being complex to navigate. For first-generation students, their parents may not have experience completing the paperwork necessary to complete the aid process. College counselors may not be easy to reach during the summertime, and when school starts they may be overwhelmed with requests from hundreds of students, so it may take them time to meet the needs of a request from any single student. Calling admissions offices can be a daunting task, and depending on the volume of calls that day, a caller might easily be left on hold for 30 or 40 minutes before receiving a response.

Scott Burke,  associate vice president and director of undergraduate admissions for Georgia State University in Atlanta, wanted to find a way to help. When he first started working there, he noticed the university’s melt rate stood at 12 percent. At its height, it was 18 percent. So he reached out to researchers Page and Castleman to devise a solution.

Together, they developed an artificially intelligent chatbot called Pounce which would send text messages to students if there were financial aid issues they needed to address and answer students’ questions via text about said issues. To test whether or not Pounce was effective, they staged an intervention in which half the incoming students would receive text messages from Pounce while the other half would not.

At the end of the intervention, administrators found that Pounce had worked with great success -- the chatbot was able to answer approximately 90 percent of the students’ questions. For the remaining 10 percent, a human responder would step in and Pounce would learn from the responder to be able to answer similar questions in the future. Burke saw small percentage increases in the number of students who were more likely to submit a final high school transcript, attend orientation, submit immunizations, and more. These small increases began to add up and Georgia State saw its summer melt rate fall from 18 percent to 14 percent as it saw a 300 student increase from 2015 to 2016.

In the podcast episode, NPR host Shankar Vedantam went into depth profiling the story of Austin Birtul, now a rising sophomore at Georgia State University. Austin is a first-generation college student who grew up in a working-class family in the Atlanta area. He was one of the many students who was affected by Pounce, and -- had the chatbot not been there for him -- he might never have gotten around to fixing the error in his Social Security number that was preventing him from receiving the scholarship he needed to afford college.

Summer melt is a critical phenomenon for us to address in the U.S. As a society, we invest hundreds of thousands of tax dollars in students’ academic success from the time they start kindergarten to their last day of high school. For many students, this investment makes all the difference in the world as they are able to graduate with a high school diploma, and are able to apply for and get accepted to colleges that will serve as pathways to greater professional success in the future.

By addressing summer melt and making this additional small investment in the gap between high school and college, we can ensure that society’s initial investment is seen through to the finish line as more and more students are able to continue their academic careers beyond high school. And in fact, as shown through the success seen at Georgia State with its simple chatbot, perhaps the best solutions to issues such as this one are surprisingly simple and mostly unglamorous. In the end, however, they prove to be extraordinarily effective.


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