Imagine that you have a big trip coming up to someplace you have never been before. You’ve been thinking about this trip for a long time, and many people have helped you plan it and figure out how to pay for it. Along the way, you’ve managed to book the ticket and reserve a place to stay. You are apprehensive about going, but all of your friends are getting ready for similar trips, and there is great comfort in that. You try to focus on how exciting it will be to set out on your adventure.
A few weeks before the big day, questions begin to surface in your mind. Why are you taking this trip? Can you really afford it? Are you really prepared? Will it be as good as you imagine? The last-minute details are overwhelming, and other things need your attention. It seems easier to put off the trip. Nobody will care if you don’t go, and some people might be happier if you remain at home. Maybe you can take the trip later. As your doubts pile up, you make a decision to skip the trip. You let your ticket expire.
This is what happens in summer melt, an all-too-common phenomenon that predominantly affects low-income and first-generation students during a critical 100-day period between high school graduation and what should be the first day of college. Some students who have been accepted to college simply do not show up to enroll.
Admissions officers nationwide have long confronted the summer melt phenomenon, but documenting the size and scope of it has been difficult. Strategies to address it have been stymied by the nagging question of who is best positioned to intervene. Following on the seminal work of Benjamin Castleman, Lindsay Page and others over the past five years, the State of Rhode Island decided that summer melt was an issue that could no longer be ignored. Boosting educational attainment rates would help the state compete better economically, so reducing summer melt became a priority.
In 2013, the Rhode Island Office of the Postsecondary Commissioner, the Community College of Rhode Island and the College Crusade of Rhode Island created an initiative to combat summer melt. The approach uses data analysis and insights gained from personal relationships with students to identify students at risk of melting. Throughout the summer, these students then receive proactive supports including consistent outreach, ongoing relationship building and site-based experiences. For example, students can sit down with an advisor for a one-on-one conversation to make sure their financial aid package will cover the cost of attendance, and if not, can get help identifying additional resources. During personalized counseling, students might also learn how to apply for work study, pay an invoice, or register for courses.
The College Crusade, a nonprofit college access organization that serves thousands of Rhode Island students from low-income communities, is a significant partner in this effort. Its mission is to increase high school graduation, college and career readiness, and college completion. Founded nearly 30 years ago, the organization is funded by the U.S. Department of Education GEAR UP program, private foundations, and individuals. A recent study analyzed its positive impact. The College Crusade leverages its data systems to identify which students in its program might be at the greatest risk for summer melt. Of particular concern are students who do not proceed to grade 12 on time, who lack an SAT score, or who communicate intent to enroll at the community college. The College Crusade advisory staff then reaches out personally to each individual student to keep them on track to matriculate.
The process begins early in the summer as College Crusade advisors schedule one-on-one meetings with students to talk about getting ready for the upcoming semester. This includes a review of enrollment procedures, financial matters, transportation and key deadlines. The advisory team follows up with texting, texting, and more texting to maintain student contact and motivation. In addition, because getting students onto campus as early as possible is crucial, College Crusade advisors connect students who wish to attend the Community College of Rhode Island (CCRI) to a comprehensive Summer Bridge Program hosted by the college.
At the annual Summer Bridge launch event in June, the president of CCRI has personally welcomed 215 students and families so far, helping to set the stage. The six-week program includes free Accuplacer test-prep classes and workshops in study skills, time management and relationship building. Students who participate become more familiar with the campus and the class format, and gain insight into the student-faculty relationship. As summer continues, College Crusade advisors hold welcome events on campus to maintain student commitment and to strengthen their confidence that they are academically and socially ready for college. Advisory staff members are near-peer young professionals with experience in college access and success programming.
Watching students grow and achieve is a strong testimony. A student named Aaron, who starts his sophomore year at CCRI this fall, attended the 2016 Summer Bridge Program. It made a difference. His College Crusade advisor, Josh, said, “Summer Bridge gave Aaron the opportunity to build relationships with future classmates and staff on the CCRI campuses. After a few early missteps that most college students encounter, Aaron hit his stride and started to excel. He went from visiting my office weekly to nearly every day. We were both were excited to see his dedication to the classroom. Aaron is looking forward to his sophomore year and I am looking forward to assisting in his growth once again.”
Thus far, the results of this initiative are promising. The College Crusade has seen a 35% reduction in summer melt among students at CCRI. This percentage is derived from students’ self-reported enrollment intentions as compared to actual enrollment verified by the National Student Clearinghouse. Although the sample sizes are small, persistence rates among these students are higher than the overall rate at CCRI. Our ultimate goal is to eliminate the summer melt phenomenon. We want to ensure that every Rhode Island student who has a college dream, like Aaron, uses their ticket to achieve it.
Andrew Bramson is president and CEO of The College Crusade of Rhode Island. Sara Enright is vice president of student affairs/chief outcomes officer at Community College of Rhode Island.
Photo by Stephen G. Harney.