Post #3: Summer Melt

In my last two blog posts, I’ve discussed how college access programs can help disadvantaged students reach higher education. Studies have shown mixed results about the effects of these programs, but there are several tactics that can help them better support student achievement, from starting early to targeting more disadvantaged students.

Most recently, I read about the phenomenon of “summer melt”: when high school seniors enroll in college but then withdraw between graduation and their first semester. Studies seem to show that for those with low socioeconomic status (SES), this can often happen when unexpected financial issues disrupt their plans, but college advising over the summer can help them stay on track.

Even after low-income and first-generation students complete the journey of becoming academically prepared for college, filling out applications, being accepted, and choosing a university, many find their plans thwarted right before the fall semester. One 2009 study interviewed low-income high school seniors at 7 college-preparatory schools. The vast majority had enrolled in college, but many ended up changing their plans over the summer after graduation. During these few months, 15% reconsidered their decision but remained with their school, 25% switched schools, 15% switched from a 4-year school to community college, and 15% decided against attending college at all, leaving only 45% total adhering to their original plan (Arnold et al. 2009). Many changed their minds because they received smaller financial aid packages than expected, or they discovered new expenses on their tuition bill like health insurance payments. If similar statistics of “summer melt” apply across the country, support over the summer is crucial to helping underserved students matriculate in college.

Studies have shown that offering college advising over the summer to rising college freshmen can make a significant impact. Counselors, whether from a high school, college, or other organization, can help students negotiate financial aid packages and communicate with their university. In one experiment, students in the same 7 college-preparatory schools as before were randomly assigned to receiving counseling. 41% of those with the intervention ended up attending 4-year colleges, while only 26% of the control group did (Castleman et al. 2012). In a similar study targeted at a different set of students, those receiving summer counseling had 3% higher matriculation rates, 4% higher continuous first-year enrollment, and 5% higher freshman retention rates than those without (Castleman et al. 2014). This intervention also only cost $100 to $200 per participant. It seems that the guidance college counselors provide, particularly about financial aid, can keep students from falling away from college plans.

Other “summer bridge” programs also offer courses that help incoming freshmen prepare for college-level coursework. In another study, one of these initiatives had an impact on some student outcomes. This program, located at 8 community and non-selective colleges in Texas, offered college-prep math, reading, and writing courses and college counseling to randomly assigned students. Although the treatment group had no difference in college persistence, they had higher rates of passing non-remedial college math courses: 11% versus 5% for the first semester, and continued effects for the next several semesters. Students had smaller but also measurable improvements in passing writing courses, despite insignificant results in reading (Wathington et al. 2016). Perhaps in math especially, the summer seems to present an opportunity for college-bound students to catch up on content so they can succeed in college-level courses right away. As all of these studies show, college access programs should consider extending their support through high school graduation into the first year of college.

Although summer counseling and “bridge” programs seem to demonstrate successful outcomes, not every study had these results. In another experiment, students graduating from Albuquerque public schools and planning to attend the University of New Mexico were offered college advising. Overall, those with and without counseling attended UNM at similar rates, showing that the initiative had an insignificant effect (Castleman et al. 2016).

These results should lead us to consider what makes summer advising more effective. In this scenario, a large percentage of the Albuquerque students attended UNM anyway, so perhaps summer support programs should target more at-risk or lower-SES students who might need it more. Interestingly, in this study, the male Latino participants did actually have 10% higher UNM attendance rates when offered counseling. This population often faces more educational disadvantages, and they benefited more from college access support. The second study I discussed, conducted by Castleman and colleagues in 2012, also found that lower-income students had greater gains than others from summer college advising. This reinforces that summer bridge programs should focus more on serving lower-SES students.

As the plans of many rising college students can hinge on financial aid concerns, another study showed that help completing the FAFSA can make a big difference in college enrollment. In this experiment, as accountants at H&R Block helped clients file their taxes, they identified customers who were parents of high school seniors and had financial need. They then offered some of them assistance completing the FAFSA via a computer program. The high school students whose parents had received this assistance went on to enroll in college at significantly higher rates: 42% versus 34% (Bettinger et al. 2012). These striking results reinforce the fact that tasks like filling out the FAFSA can present barriers to financial aid, which strongly influence students’ ability to attend college. Financial aid is clearly an essential area of college preparation that organizations should help students navigate.

Overall, the articles I read pointed to the necessity for college access programs to continue serving their participants after high school graduation. They need to extend over the summer into the college years, and should focus on helping those who most need it complete the daunting processes of securing financial aid and transitioning to college. No one program can provide the end-all-be-all solution, but the guidance and support they offer, combined with the determination of their students, can have a significant impact for student success.




Arnold, K., Fleming, S., Deanda, M. Castleman, B., & Wartman, K. L. (2009). The summer flood: The invisible gap among low-income students. Thought & Action, 23-34.


Bettinger, E., Terry, B., Oreopoulos, P., & Sanbonmatsu, L. (2012). The role of application assistance and information in college decisions: Results from the H&R Block FAFSA experiment. The quarterly journal of economics, 127(3), 1205-1242.


Castleman, B. L., Arnold, K., & Wartman, K. L. (2012). Stemming the tide of summer melt: An experimental study of the effects of post-high school summer intervention on low-income students’ college enrollment. Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness, 5(1), 1-17.


Castleman, B. L., Owen, L., & Page, L. C. (2016). Stay late or start early? Experimental evidence on the benefits of college matriculation support from high schools versus colleges. Economics of Education Review, 51, 113-124.


Castleman, B. L., Page, L. C., & Schooley, K. (2014). The forgotten summer: Does the offer of college counseling after high school mitigate summer melt among college-intending, low-income high school graduates? Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, 33(2), 320-344.