Texas engages students to avoid “summer melt”

Photo by Brian Gurrola

As the end of the school year approaches, many high school seniors and their parents are looking ahead to the next big step in life — going to college. Whether the choice is a career/technical school, a community college or a university, high school seniors anxiously await acceptance letters and celebrate when they are received. But for far too many, that excitement somehow fades between spring graduation and fall enrollment.

This phenomenon is known as "summer melt," with large numbers of students failing to bridge that gap between high school and college. Key causes of summer melt include financial aid gaps, credit constraints, unanticipated costs (e.g., transportation, books), information barriers and lack of access to counselors, advisers and other professional support.

Historically, more than 90 percent of the 15,000 Central Texas high school graduates have said they will attend college directly after high school, but only 62 percent actually do. Across the nation, 10-40 percent of college-intending students, particularly those from low-income backgrounds, encounter enrollment barriers during the summer and fail to enroll in college the fall after high school graduation.

To counter barriers to college enrollment over the course of the summer, several initiatives have emerged across Texas. In summer 2013, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board provided funding to support the Austin Chamber of Commerce Central Texas Summer Melt Pilot Program at four school districts, including Austin, Del Valle, Hays and Pflugerville. The program aimed to boost direct-to-college enrollment for 6,000 college-intending high school graduates across 19 high school campuses.

An evaluation conducted by The University of Texas Ray Marshall Center, Johns Hopkins and Harvard University demonstrated direct college enrollment rates for key student populations, including low-income and underrepresented students, increased by nearly 10 percent.

The Coordinating Board expanded the text message outreach program, with seven universities and 22 community colleges to target students who were accepted to an institution but had not yet enrolled. The purpose of the summer outreach texting was to help inform and remind students of the steps they should take over the summer to be ready for postsecondary education. More than 100,000 text messages were sent to potential undergraduates of participating institutions.

The Commit! Partnership has also taken initiative in Dallas County to address the summer melt phenomenon. Commit! is a growing coalition of 50 regional institutions working together to ensure that all students in Dallas County have the opportunity for success in college and/or the workforce. In January 2015, four K-12 districts and 11 higher education institutions joined with Commit! to provide targeted, personalized and timely text message reminders to high school seniors. Engagement in the Commit! Partnership summer melt program was positive, with two-thirds of participating students stating the texts were “incredibly helpful.” A research and evaluation study showed participants were 13 percent more likely to enroll in a postsecondary institution in fall 2015.

To achieve the 60x30TX goals for higher education, Texas must continue to explore a variety of options for summer outreach to students, especially those who are first-generation and economically disadvantaged. Research shows that higher education pays off. Lifetime earnings for those with a  postsecondary credential, be it a certificate, associate's degree, bachelor's degree or beyond, increase significantly over those with only a high school diploma. Removing roadblocks to higher education benefits not just the student but also the state, the workforce and society.

Raymund Paredes

Texas higher education commissioner