LRDC Newsletter

Volume 6
Issue 3

How Higher Ed Can Help Students Matriculate
In college admissions-speak, “summer melt” refers to the subset of accepted students who pay their deposit to reserve a spot in an institution’s freshman class but ultimately enroll elsewhere. School of Education faculty member Lindsay C. Page, a research scientist at the Learning Research and Development Center, is redefining the term. Page explained the phenomenon in an April 13 presentation to the University Senate admissions and student aid committee. Her 2014 book, Summer Melt, describes a more distressing trend that disproportionately is seen in lower-income and first-generation college-bound students who have been accepted, yet aren’t matriculating anywhere in the fall.The book sprang from research Page and co-author Benjamin L. Castleman (now a faculty member at the University of Virginia) undertook as students in the Harvard Graduate School of Education.Their work — which finds that text messages effectively reduce summer melt — has been featured in higher-education publications as well as in mass-media outlets including Time, National Public Radio, The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times.

Castleman first became interested in the phenomenon as a school administrator in Rhode Island: He found that many students who appeared to be on track to proceed to college “actually weren’t getting there in the fall,” Page said. “After this discovery, Ben and I were interested in discovering together how much is this happening with kids all across the country?” The numbers are significant, ranging from 21 percent in Boston to roughly one-third of college-bound students in Philadelphia, Providence, Dallas and Albuquerque, to as many as 40 percent in Fort Worth, Page said. Students who complete high school and take the necessary steps to apply to college still have numerous hurdles to overcome after they’ve been accepted: Some need to complete their FAFSA forms, or they may be flagged for further verification of income information. Tuition bills must be deciphered. Orientation and placement tests must be scheduled. Housing must be arranged. Health insurance must be documented. And there may be loan applications to complete. “There are really a number of decisions that need to be made, processes that need to be navigated. And we’re talking about kids who are 17 or 18 years old,” Page told the University Times.

Simple Solutions
Through various interventions, Page and Castleman found that while the paths students must navigate are complex, the solutions need not be complicated or resource-intensive.Outreach focused on three aspects: helping the students navigate the bureaucratic complexities; simplifying the information to help students focus on what needed to be done, and facilitating access to support.In randomized control trials, researchers tested strategies including outreach by high school counselors, peer mentors and other counselors, such as through the Boston-based nonprofit college-access organization uAspire.The initial summer outreach intervention resulted in improved timely enrollment in college (83 percent for the students who received the outreach, compared with 78 percent in the control group). And, despite attrition in both groups, 81 percent of the intervention group was still in school during the spring term (compared with 74 percent of the control group) and 72 percent returned for their sophomore year (compared with 64 percent of the control group.)“We actually see the largest impact for the lowest income students,” she added.“It was important for us to see our differentials persisted over time,” she told the Senate committee, noting that there was no additional intervention beyond the initial summer help.Text messaging was found to be an effective way of connecting with students, Page said. She said fewer than 4 percent of students opted out of receiving the texts, and most have viewed the messages in a positive or at least a neutral light.

“The first message is really quite important,” she said. “You need to get their permission. Set up who you are, what you’re going to be doing and how they can communicate with you,” she advised. It’s also important to be clear about what action needs to be taken, Page said: File your FAFSA. Register for housing. Come in during office hours. “What is the thing you need the student to do?” One intervention was based on a set of 10 personalized text messages that focused on meeting milestones — such as signing up for orientation or making a plan for paying fall tuition bills — and offering help. While the texts were pushed to students using an automated message platform, counselors stood by to assist students who replied, Page said. By nature, text messaging is an instant-gratification form of communication. If students are going to respond to a text, they typically do it within minutes. “When these automated messages go out, we really do need counselors and advisers to be at the ready,” she said.

While it’s understandable that students are ready to put high school behind them, there are some caveats to keep in mind regarding this approach: In the hands of for-profit institutions, could texts become a form of predatory behavior? And students often change their minds when choosing a college. “If we want to allow for that shifting to happen, and for students to be supported regardless of how their plans might diverge, then support coming from an entity that is not postsecondary institution-specific would make more sense,” she said, pointing to organizations such as uAspire, which are not affiliated with a particular institution.

It’s also important to put a human face on the sender, she said. In an outreach to high school seniors currently underway in Delaware, a team of staffers follows up on students’ responses, but text messages all are signed by one individual. “We try to present them as a real person,” Page said. “We don’t want to be using the technology as a replacement for the human element, but as a way to facilitate that human element more efficiently.”

Additional applications
Page said text message interventions are being expanded to help at other important points in students’ educational careers.

“We implemented an intervention to remind students about FAFSA re-filing and we found that this had very positive and sizable impact for continuation to the second year for community college students,” she told the University Times.

And, rather than targeting students after graduation, text messaging now is being tested in the context of helping high-school seniors in Texas stay on track with FAFSA filing tasks. Likewise, Delaware’s statewide effort aims to provide ongoing support to seniors during the school year and through summer. About 5,000 students — more than half the seniors in the entire state — have opted in to receive text reminders about once a week.

“I do see broad-ranging capabilities for this,” Page said, noting that text messages to parents are being examined as a way to combat chronic kindergarten absenteeism in the Pittsburgh Public Schools and to improve attendance in adult literacy programs for GED seekers.

— Kimberly K. Barlow