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Putting a Freeze on Summer Melt

By Michelle Hodara | June 10, 2019

Michelle Hodara
Michelle Hodara leads research and evaluation projects on programs, policies and practices that improve students' college access and success.

For many high school seniors, late May or early June marks the beginning of an exciting period: the summer before college.

However, when fall rolls around, some college-bound students do not show up on campus—even though they have signaled that they plan to enroll in college and have taken all the steps to do so (such as submitting applications for financial aid).

Known as summer melt, this phenomenon is relatively easy to define, but it can be difficult to identify and measure; it requires that districts collect and analyze data on seniors’ intent and postsecondary matriculation after high school, which can be challenging.

Researchers estimate that 10 to 40 percent of students who intend to go to college do not matriculate in the fall (Castleman, Page, & Snowdon, 2013). In addition, summer melt rates are higher among low-income students.

Making a Plan

The Summer Melt Handbook describes various approaches to help districts determine the number of graduating students who intend to go to college immediately after high school, as well as how many students actually do so.

This resource (which is geared toward school and district leaders, high school counselors, and community-based organizations) also recommends ways to reduce summer melt—specifically, various interventions different stakeholder groups can implement the summer after high school completion.

These range from electronic "nudges," such as text messages that remind students of upcoming deadlines, to one-on-one sessions with college counselors.

Examining the Potential Impact of Oregon Promise

REL Northwest is working on a study that focuses on Oregon Promise, a financial aid program designed to help cover the cost of community college tuition for eligible students.

Although it will not tackle summer melt directly, the study will examine the relationship between Oregon Promise and postsecondary enrollment and persistence among all students in Oregon, as well as students from historically underrepresented backgrounds.

Further, because students who receive funding through the program must enroll in college within six months of completing high school, the study may indirectly shed some light as to how Oregon Promise has helped college-intending students become actual college students.

Considering Other Questions

It is important to remember that there are many paths to postsecondary education.

For example, some students may begin a career directly after high school. Others may start college, stop attending for a while because they have to work, and then return after they have earned enough money to cover their educational expenses. Other students may go to college part time for several years before they are able to enroll full time.

Along those lines, nontraditional students are becoming more and more common in postsecondary education programs; according to the National Center for Education Statistics, the enrollment of students 25 and older in degree-granting institutions is expected to increase 8 percent from 2015 to 2026.

These factors do not diminish the significance of summer melt, but they do underscore that it is an issue that disproportionately affects "traditional" students.

To expand the conversation, future research may want to address the big question of: How do we get all students to recognize the importance of—and ultimately pursue—a postsecondary education?