The middle to end of July is usually a great time for a college admissions officer to take a vacation. High schools are typically out of session. Too few students are on campus to make campus events as worthwhile as they might be during the school year. But too many college admissions offices face a situation called “summer melt,” where students who had signaled their intentions to enroll in the fall do not enroll at all. They may choose to enroll at another college, or not attend college at all.

Why does summer melt happen in college admissions?

Parents and students fail to anticipate all of the costs of attending a particular college, including the direct charges that appear on a their first term bill as well as the indirect charges such as books, supplies and transportation that they had not expected.

Parents and students receive official documents and paperwork that is written in a “language” that they cannot understand. The college compounds the problem by not explaining the language or making the letters and forms visually friendly to the readers.

There is a misunderstanding the academic requirements of the college and/or the degree program, including remedial coursework that carries no credit. This happens as early as summer orientations where future students take placement tests and found that they scored too low to take credit bearing Writing or Mathematics courses.

Students are offered a spot off the wait list for a college that they had preferred during the admissions process.  They want to attend that school so badly that they are willing to lose a deposit to another school.

I am writing this post on a very hot summer day not so much to advise recent high school graduates who are on their way to college, but to help high school students who are about to begin their senior year as well as the college admissions process. Summer melt can be avoided next summer when college bound students and their families follow some helpful tips.

Know your academic strengths and weaknesses and how they might relate to a possible college major. Most college majors require a Mathematics or Statistics course that features material beyond the high school level. Other colleges have general education requirements that include competency in writing or a foreign language. Be sure to take the courses during the senior year that will best prepare you to take the required credit-bearing courses in the freshman year of college, or allow you to waive them. It is also helpful to take Honors or Advanced Placement courses in the subjects that you are most excited about or relate directly to a possible college major.

Know where you might need help from a teacher. There are high school students who can walk into large-lecture classes and master the material. But there are also students who needed an experienced teacher to motivate and help them along. The larger public university, while having a lower sticker price, might not be best place for a student who needs a teacher’s help.

Know your finances. Colleges have Net Price Calculators on their Web site. The College Board and the US Department of Education also have calculators that can help you to find out what your Expected Family Contribution could be. Note that I stated “could be” and not “will be.” Most colleges do not meet the full financial need for their students and parents. If you have any questions, no matter how foolish they might appear, contact the financial aid office at your target schools. One way to judge the “quality” of a school is to learn how well this office will help you to understand what your family needs to do to cover the costs of a college education as well as the best ways to do it. A good financial aid office will go out of its way to help, as long as you’re not shy to ask. This is especially true after award letters have been sent and the college has money “on the street,” not knowing who will accept offers of aid until they have actually been accepted.

Know your college community. Sometimes the best resources for assistance will be others who are going through the college search themselves. If you are undecided between two or three schools where you have been offered admission, join their online communities on Facebook and other sites. Interact with other students and parents to learn why they are interested in the school and how they plan to get settled if they come. You might find friends who are willing to share more than advice after the school year begins.

I have frequently stated that a “good college” is one that is honest with students and their families about its costs and assets. College admissions or financial officers are not in the business of deliberately trying to deceive parents and students. However, they are also rarely in the business of volunteering large volumes of information, unless they are asked to provide it. The college search is a personal process for every student as well as their parents. Family finances are even more personal.

A good college admissions office as well as a good financial aid office respects this and tries to help privately as best they can. Information needs to be personalized as well as interpreted. The better that college-bound students and their parents understand their college options at the beginning of the admissions process, and learn to ask questions until the very first day of college classes, the more likely they will choose a school that will be awarding their degree.


4 Comments on “What Causes Summer Melt In College Admissions?

  1. As a parent of a first time college student, I’ve been really surprised at all the paperwork and chores associated with actually enrolling.

    The roommate form that asked all sorts of essay questions, when my daughter was still burnt out on personal essays. Health form. College email account. College portal account. College financial services account. College financial aid account. Permission for parents to access financial services to pay the bill (which is apparently private until the student says otherwise). Application for on-campus job.
    Bedding and other dorm supplies. Laptop must be running an approved anti-virus program or it’s not allowed to access the campus network. Online title IX training. Some kids are preordering their textbooks so they’re ready for the first day of classes, too.

    The newly-admitted parent’s board for my daughter’s college has a three page spreadsheet to keep track of things, but they cut-n-pasted from last years and the deadlines are not all correct. There was a one-week window to preregister for fall classes and some families missed it.

    I’ve allocated every Thursday since mid-June to spending at least a half-day with my child working on all this stuff and expect to get it all done by fall, but it’s been way more work than I expected.

  2. Hi Janet,

    Thank you for these comments. I know that college-bound juniors and their parents will appreciate what they have in store for them as they begin the admissions process.

    Your daughter is very fortunate to have your time and help. Most college-bound students are not so lucky.

    All the best,


    • Agreed that not everybody gets the help they need, but do the colleges have to make it so hard? There are so many things that someone looking at the enrollment process from the family’s point of view could make sooooo much better. Would it be hard to send out a spreadsheet with correct deadlines? To have an enrollment counselor who provides one-stop-shopping for incoming freshmen with questions or problems instead of sending them to four or more different offices in the school bureaucracy? Maybe even organize deadlines by what is best for students rather than the institution? (Didn’t happen to us, but some friends had hard deadlines right in the middle of their senior’s finals! My kid had the deadline for the advisor request form before the deadline for preliminary registration.) In addition to financial support, it seems that a little common sense and empathy for new students (and parents who can and want to help) could help with summer melt problems, too.

      • Hi Janet,

        These are all legitimate points, and I will add that some schools coordinate all of these things far better than others. In the ideal there would be a professional advisor assigned to every student who would be there to answer all of these questions and explain how to navigate the bureaucracy. I don’t believe this would be an issue when it came to choosing classes or getting acclimated to housing, extracurricular activities and the meal plan. When I was in college a RA in a residence hall as well as the sophomores who lived on my floor were helpful. However, financial aid and payment of a term bill are more personal matters.

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