Summer melt might sound like something that happens to an ice cream cone in July. But in the world of college access, the term refers to a more troubling phenomenon: the significant number of high school graduates (some 10 to 20 percent nationally) who have been accepted to college and plan to attend but never show up in the fall.
The problem is even more acute among low-income, first-generation, college-bound students. Like their peers, they are faced with a significant number of tasks during the summer between high school and college, from understanding health insurance and filling out housing forms to figuring out the university web portals that are used for course registration and signing up for orientation.
But while lots of students need help navigating these tasks, those from disadvantaged backgrounds often can’t get much family assistance. No longer able to work with high school counselors and not yet connected to support systems in their intended colleges, too often they fall out of the college-going pipeline.
There’s some good news on this front, however. A study presented today at the Society for Research on Educational Effectiveness spring conference finds that a remarkably cheap and easy technology “nudge” can keep students on track to matriculate. Harvard researchers Benjamin Castleman and Lindsay Page, who have studied summer melt for several years, show in the new paper that reaching students where they spent so much of their time — texting — can yield impressive results. Just 10 to 12 text messages sent to low-income students over the summer raised college enrollment by more than 4 percentage points in a large southwestern school district and by more than 7 percentage points in two urban Massachusetts districts.
In the randomized experiment, involving thousands of students, the researchers sent personalized texts to high school grads in the treatment groups to remind them about tasks, such as signing up for freshman orientation and placement tests, and offering help with deciphering financial aid letters and the like. The project was coordinated with the colleges that most district graduates attend, so the links and reminders were tailored to the specific deadlines and requirements of each student’s intended institution. Interestingly, although each text offered the option to connect students to live counselors for personalized assistance, very few students sought such help.
The total cost of this technology nudge: $7 per student, including the cost of counselors’ time.
Why was the intervention so effective? “The summer is a uniquely nudge-free time in students’ educational trajectory,” says Castleman, who expects to receive his doctorate this spring from Harvard’s Graduate School of Education and will become an assistant professor at the University of Virginia in the fall. Given that so many college-intending adolescents receive few reminders about completing key tasks — and that so many are also prone to procrastination — well-designed texts can fill a void.
The success of the texting campaign is due in part, according to Castleman and his coauthor Page, a researcher at Harvard’s Center for Education Policy Research, to the way the texts capitalize on adolescent impulsiveness. The web links in each text can be followed immediately, and a task completed quickly, before the teenager moves on to something else.
“The text intervention has the potential to be several times more cost-effective at increasing college entry among students from disadvantaged backgrounds than other comparable interventions,” such as additional college counseling during the summer after high school graduation, Castleman said in an email.
This study surely won’t be the last word on summer melt. Many factors prevent disadvantaged students from enrolling in college; Castleman, Page, and other researchers continue to explore numerous ideas for tackling those barriers. But as policymakers seek to improve college-going rates, a cheap, scalable, personalized, technology-based intervention like the Castleman-Page texting campaign seems to have an awful lot of appeal.
Photo Credit: DREAMSTIME