Updated July 2021. Originally published on April 10, 2020.
Each year, colleges have students who indicate they plan to attend in the fall—but aren’t there when classes begin. Most of us refer to this as “summer melt,” and colleges have tried and true strategies they roll out to engage students across the summer and maximize fall headcount. During this summer that is so unlike others, I wanted to provide three strategies to help you fight summer melt.
To tackle this challenge head on, I wanted to provide three strategies to help you fight summer melt.
1. Communicate strategically
Your college likely has academic programs and student life to suit any interest, and it makes sense to share these resources widely to build enthusiasm for enrolling in the fall. Unfortunately, many colleges overload students with information from the moment they apply until the first day of classes—and beyond. Yet, today’s students have more on their minds than ever before, so we must prioritize this flood of information. Between financial aid forms, registration information, and promotions from campus clubs and organizations, students can easily become overwhelmed by emails and miss critical information and enrollment steps.
This makes your communication strategy especially important. Coordinate communications with other campus stakeholders to prioritize what information needs to be sent to all students and what should be sent to much more tailored groups. While it is crucial to share information about activities that build belongingness on campus, communication should feel relevant and important to students. For example, at Robert Morris University early engagement in student activities was a top priority, so administrators sent students a quick poll asking about their interests. Students then received targeted outreach inviting them to information sessions on clubs related to their interests, which was far more effective in building excitement among new students.
2. Streamline onboarding
Onboarding new students will be different this year as we incorporate new insights and lessons learned from virtual onboarding. Technology has likely shifted to a more central role in your new student engagement strategy. And this is a great way to make the process clearer.
The most essential steps students must complete include administrative tasks for enrolling. Many of our partners use Navigate, in conjunction with hands-on process re-design work, to simplify the onboarding process. Using technology, they can build customized paths for students that include only those steps appropriate for each student with clear deadlines for completion. This minimizes stress—and possible fight or flight reactions—that students face during enrollment, and provides a clear path into your college this fall.
3. Build interpersonal relationships
It is tempting to try to automate the entire onboarding process in our quest for improving accessibility, but it can also lead prospective students to feel anonymous and disconnected from the school. Our research partners have access to a secret shopper experience in which we have an EAB staff member go undercover to identify potential pitfalls of the onboarding process. They consistently report how impersonal the experience feels. Allow your students to choose how they wish to engage. Consider how you can use technology as the foundation of your onboarding process, with human touchpoints incorporated at key moments throughout the process. The warmth of an in-person or web-meeting with an enrollment specialist or academic advisor can provide opportunities for engagement and building enthusiasm about the college, as well as someone to answer questions.
Colleges nationwide are preparing for the academic consequences of the remote educational experiences of the past year and a half. However, student needs are going to extend beyond the reach of an academic skills bootcamp. The pandemic led to a rise in mental health concerns among students and introduced more volatility in family economic situations. Personal touchpoints from the college and staff can be instrumental in getting students connected to the resources and support they need to start college on the right foot.
More than half a million fewer students enrolled in our community colleges last year compared to the previous year. Most of these lost enrollments were prospective students new to higher education who have not yet enrolled elsewhere. To bring these students into your college classrooms this fall, we have to address the implications of the last year to meaningfully curb summer melt. Now is the time to show our new students that we are here to support their aspirations for a college credential. We have the resources to support their needs and we are ready to help them reach their goals.
Address enrollment challenges
EAB’s lead community college researcher, Christina Hubbard, and Rufus Glasper, CEO of The League for Innovation in the Community College share the latest insights on why we saw enrollment numbers plunge and how innovative community colleges can address enrollment challenges with peer-tested, student-centric strategies.