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Stopping the summer melt: how colleges can become masters of matriculation

Summer melt: the phenomenon of prospective students applying and gaining admission to a chosen college and then, for whatever reason, failing to show up. It’s certainly nothing new but it costs higher education institutions (HEIs) millions of dollars every year and the evidence suggests that it’s on the rise with some colleges reporting losing as many as 40% of their enrolled students to the summer melt. (Best Colleges, 2020)

Toby Margetts

Written by

Toby Margetts
‎Digital Strategy Lead – Squiz
7 January 2021

In this blog post we’ll explore why so many would-be students are falling at the first hurdle and what Higher Education Institutions (HEI)s can do to patch up their increasingly leaky admissions process.

Why is the summer melt accelerating?

It’s a well-established fact that the US possesses one of the most expensive Higher Education systems in the world for both domestic and international students. That makes it especially vulnerable to economic downturns, the likes of which we’ve seen grip the country in 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Forbes estimated that the USA’s GDP fell by an astonishing 31.4% in the second quarter of 2020 (Forbes) – numbers not seen since the Great Depression. In addition the unemployment rate hit 14.7%, the highest in the post World War Two era.

Simply put, the average American has fewer disposable dollars in their pockets and so the luxury of pursuing higher education becomes too expensive, too risky or too stressful in such uncertain times. Those for whom money wasn’t necessarily a problem still faced the prospect of an ostensibly diminished student experience as colleges were forced to vacate campuses and deliver courses exclusively online. The anxiety that accompanies every ‘what if that happens’ and ‘how will that work?’ inevitably lead to students feeling even more unsettled that they otherwise would. This is especially pronounced for first-generation students and those from low-income families. It is a recipe for drop outs and will likely reduce the diversity of college students even further.

Freezing the melt

So how can HEIs become masters of matriculation? The first thing to understand is that this should never feel like a ‘smoke and mirrors’ exercise. If it does, then there are fundamental issues with the current student experience that must first be addressed.

But with a solid foundation HEIs can implement a number of different tactics that will help ensure a greater percentage of admitted students turn up for their first semester.

Here are six practical tactics for reducing summer melt:

1. Orientation chat bots

In 2016, Georgia State developed a chat bot named Pounce that was designed to help prospective students through their orientation. The 24/7 assistant was there for students who perhaps lacked the confidence to engage with a human and delivered sophisticated answers to free-text questions such as “when is my tuition due?” and “how do I send my ACT scores?”. It was even able to correctly guide a student who wanted to know whether or not they could bring their pet salamander to their dorm for the start of the semester.

2. Personalized, automated messaging

It’s important that colleges consider prospective students that have accepted an offer as ‘warm leads’ rather than converted. Failure to engage this cohort of ‘warm leads’ is often what leads to a sense of disconnection between prospective students and college.

Colleges will have a wealth of valuable data on prospective students that have accepted offers. Using technology like Squiz Datastore, they must use this to their advantage by continually engaging with this audience until the day they enroll. These could be automated emails with information about a specific course the recipient has signed up to. Perhaps a sophisticated, highly targeted advertising campaign on Instagram that promotes colleges services aimed specifically at the individual viewing the ad.

3. Virtual orientation 

The ability to visit campuses has been compromised with Covid-19 but that shouldn’t stop colleges from showcasing their services and helping students to feel as comfortable as possible during a daunting stage of their lives.

Squiz partnered with Griffith University in Australia to help create a virtual orientation platform designed to help students navigate their pre-college administration.

4. Facilitate student to student connections

Your biggest, best and most trusted advocates are your current students. Providing a platform through which prospective students can engage with current students to ask questions, seek opinions and get reassurances is invaluable to convincing prospective students to enroll in the fall. This could be a bespoke college platform delivered via your website or even through social media apps such as WhatsApp.

5. Engage parents

While prospective students are clearly your most important audience type in the context of summer melt, parents play a key role in mentoring, guiding and advising their children through the process. The influence they have cannot be underestimated and colleges need to ‘influence the influencer’ in order to make the proposition of higher education more powerful.

Consider physical and digital communication channels that target parents directly with personalized, context-laden messaging about their children’s future.

6. Deliver useful information that prospective students didn’t even know they wanted

The role of search on a college website now goes way beyond connecting prospective students to a course. With sophisticated search tools like Funnelback it’s possible to serve web users contextually relevant results to an initial search query that encourage the user to dive deeper and engage further into the college’s offering.

For example, searching ‘Computer Science’ could and should return results beyond just a link to the computer science course. It should show users the biography of the lead professor teaching the course, a virtual tour of the computer science lecture theatre and perhaps a list of successful alumni that did the very same same course. Instantly the prospective student is immersed in supplementary, ultra-relevant information about the experience that joining the college will be.

For more information about how Squiz can help you reduce your summer melt and maximize your student experience, check out this short video on Squiz for Higher Education.

Toby Margetts

Written by

Toby Margetts
‎Digital Strategy Lead – Squiz
7 January 2021

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