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How positive messages could combat summer melt at your college

March 9, 2016

Could the way your institution talks to students actually be contributing to “summer melt”—those students who accept offers from schools but fail to show up on campus in the fall?

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The relationship between communication style and enrollment success may sound far-fetched, but recent behavioral science research and EAB best practice studies suggest there’s actually a pretty strong connection. From complicated orientation instructions to financial aid requirements loaded with administrative jargon, even well-intentioned institutions can make the journey from application to registration feel like a game of chutes and ladders.

This problem is especially acute for low-income and first-generation students, who may interpret their frustration with the process as another reason they won’t do well in college. What’s more, we’ve found there’s a demonstrated link between the messages people receive and their ability to cope with difficult situations.

The resilience gap

A recent EAB study on student self-direction found that one of the key differences between well-resourced students and students of lower socioeconomic status is what we call the “resilience gap.” Many low-income, first-generation, and minority students are vulnerable to doubting their ability. These students question their place at the university and may take any one misstep as a sign that they shouldn’t be there.

As a first-generation student at the University of Texas at Austin observed in a recent PBS interview: “A lot of people who are at UT come from these high-income families…You feel different…That difference is really—it’s in the back of your mind. Getting into that mental head space can, I don’t know, be very—could be damaging.”

Psychology researchers have found that students are particularly prone to these bouts of self-doubt at moments of educational transition—which makes navigating the summer months between the end of high school and the start of college really important.

The power of messaging

As it turns out, it doesn’t take much to instill a sense of belonging that will prepare students for college life. In a recent experiment, psychology professors David Yeager and Greg Walton at the University of Texas at Austin tested the power of resilience messaging. In May, before they even left home, rising freshmen logged into UT’s online orientation portal. As part of their requirements, they read articles and then reflected on what they read by writing a personal message to another student struggling to acclimate to college.

The experimental group read articles that emphasized both growth (the brain is a muscle that you can build and improve over time) and belonging (the idea that it is common and normal to feel out of place when acclimating to a new environment and that everyone finds others to connect with over time). Meanwhile, the control group read neutral articles about Austin’s climate and culture.

For the group exposed to messages about resilience and belonging, the gap between disadvantaged and advantaged students completing over 12 credits shrank by half. The control group registered no change in the completion gap. Without denying the difficulties of acclimating to a new environment, these early messages gave students the mental tools to tackle new challenges.

Connecting the dots

This got me thinking: Why couldn’t this principle work for schools that experience high rates of summer melt? The very same doubts that discourage disadvantaged students from persisting likely keep them from enrolling in the first place. Schools are already adopting effective practices like persistence messaging to decrease summer melt. But can’t we go a step further as we think about what we’re actually saying in those messages?

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