Editor’s note: EAB’s Annie Yi and Natalia Alvarez Diaz presented this information at our national Student Success Collaborative summit, CONNECTED19. Their speech has been lightly edited and adapted for the web by Emily Arnim.
While student success leaders want to learn how they can help students successfully navigate pivotal moments—or the decision points that students inevitably encounter during their college careers—they often struggle to communicate to students which moments might be pivotal and why.
After all, students can’t successfully navigate the moments they don’t know about.
One college that has restructured their communication strategy to elevate pivotal moments—and ultimately reduce summer melt—is the Community College of Denver (CCD).
Like many colleges, CCD experienced high levels of summer melt. In CCD’s case, melt is defined as students who show up to orientation and register for classes, only to not make it to census. In fact, 23% of CCD students who chose classes did not take their seat in them. The melt rate was even higher among minoritized students: for instance, black male students experienced a 44% melt rate.
To combat their melt problem, CCD began interviewing students to learn the causes of melt. They learned that students didn’t return because they couldn’t pay their tuition fees, which disproportionately affected low-income students. Their inability to pay was exacerbated by the fact that many did not complete the financial aid paperwork that they had started during orientation.
Students often enter community college under the assumption that it’s the most affordable option in higher education, Tami Selby, executive dean of enrollment management at CCD, told EAB’s Annie Yi and Natalia Alvarez Diaz. What these students don’t always realize, adds Selby, is that completing financial aid paperwork is essential to lowering overall college costs.
The problem: Ineffective communication
Students are often inundated with emails during the summer and shortly after they arrive on campus; they receive seemingly urgent communications from nearly every department on campus, making it difficult to prioritize next steps. Even more, students are unlikely to understand the consequences of a wrong action, and when they are confused or need help, schools rarely know.
At CCD, this information overload and lack of follow-up guidance prevented students from understanding the importance of completing their financial aid paperwork.
The solution: Clarify what students need to do and when
Selby’s team redesigned orientation from how to get “enrollment ready” to how to get “financially ready,” and overhauled their communication strategy accordingly.
CCD orientation strategy
- Students receive all enrollment information over the summer or at the start of the semester
- Communications from each department on campus seem urgent
- Students receive no follow-up or assistance
- Students receive information when it’s timely and relevant
- Students receive customized checklists with on-boarding requirements
- Case managers provide wraparound support to help students complete financial aid paperwork
Now, when students arrive to orientation, they receive a customized checklist that reflects the status of their various on-boarding requirements, such as course registration and placement tests. At the end of orientation, students must check out with a case manager to get their ID.
The case managers ask students for permission to call every week to follow up on incomplete tasks. The case managers update their lists weekly based on information that financial aid shares, then check in with students to ensure they finish any incomplete items—particularly those related to financial aid.
The case managers lower the stress of these action items by providing wraparound support beginning during orientation and continuing throughout the semester.
By restructuring orientation, CCD ensures that students receive critical information when it’s timely and relevant—rather than receiving an information dump over the summer or at the start of the semester.
Since redesigning orientation to focus on “just-in-time information,” CCD has seen an 8.6 percentage point decrease in summer melt rates from fall 2018 to 2019, including reduced melt rates for the black student population.