Monday, August 14, 2017


The Many Meanings of “Summer Melt”

I went to college at a school with an incredible proportion of very wealthy students.  One of the ways you could tell who was rich was by whether they used the word “summer” as a verb.  “We summer in the Hamptons.”  Before I got there, I had only ever heard “summer” used as a noun.  I summered where I wintered and springed (sprung?).

Now I’m learning that you can tell which part of our education system you’re in by how you use the phrase “summer melt.”

In the K-12 system, “summer melt” typically refers to the learning loss suffered by students over summer break.  It’s where much of the class stratification of our system asserts itself.  Kids from higher-income families are likelier to spend their summers in academically enriching activities, whether that means computer camps, museum trips, or seeing the world.  Kids from lower-income families are likelier to stay home and, if old enough, work for money.  Over time, those differences add up.  Scholars of educational equity take “summer melt” as a major challenge.

In the four-year college sector, “summer melt” apparently refers to students who’ve committed in May to show up in September, but then don’t.  The effect on enrollments, and therefore budgets, can be dramatic; a student who committed to Hatfield College but then chose to attend McCoy College instead represents a loss of four years’ worth of tuition to Hatfield.  For tuition-driven private colleges with modest endowments, that’s no small thing.  This piece in the Wall Street Journal mentions that American International College in Springfield, MA, actually dispatches faculty to provide a sort of cheerleader/concierge service to prospective freshmen over the summer to make sure they don’t change their minds.  AIC is relatively small and tuition-driven, so every enrollment counts.

In the community college world, I’ve heard “summer melt” used to refer to students who were enrolled in the spring but didn’t return in the fall (and didn’t graduate).  Rather than a matriculation issue, it’s a retention issue.  

Part of the difference, I think, comes from deadlines.  In the four-year world, there’s a relatively widespread standard of May 1 as the “commit” date.  That’s not true here.  August is one of the most active months for the Admissions office.  (The difference makes course section planning much harder here, since the numbers don’t firm up until the first week of class.) Some of that probably reflects the other kind of summer melt, when students who had intended to go away are hit with family or financial issues that preclude it, so they come here instead.  More of it, I’d guess, is a function of the precarity of the lives that many of our students lead.  When you’re juggling part-time jobs with shifting hours, unreliable transportation, and the general drama of life, committing four months ahead of time may not be realistic.  

To the extent that our budgets have come to resemble those of tuition-driven four-year schools, the economic impact of our version of summer melt hurts more than it did.  As a sector, we’re starting to get more focused on getting students to return, but we make progress only incrementally.  (The challenge is particularly tough in an area with a strong summer tourism economy, since many students work extra hours over the summer to make money to tide them over for the rest of the year.)  I wouldn’t be surprised to see some of the practices of the AIC’s of the world start to show up at community colleges.  It’s increasingly an economic imperative.

Wise and worldly readers at community colleges, have you found effective ways to fight our distinctive version of summer melt?

I think we put a bucket out to catch the snowflakes as they melt away from more expensive alternatives. Seriously. I have to wonder if our enrollment this fall is a signal that the economy is getting worse.

We did change a number of things in our recruitment process and how we reach them and they reach us. Probably too many things changed to know which one(s) were responsible for the change. Only time will tell if it was us or some external factor. It could just be that one of our target universities got more selective, i.e. rejected a larger number of students who are then tempted to take the inside track to transfer there in a year or two. But even that only works if we get their attention.

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