Why Poor Kids Who Are Accepted To College Don’t Matriculate

Many students who graduate high school and get accepted to college don’t matriculate at a two-year or four-year college. This scenario happens enough to earn its own name: summer melt. Promising students simply melt away from the college process. How can kids, and their families, work for years towards a goal of higher education and then stop a couple months from the finish line?

The Origins of Summer Melt

As illustrated in a recent Vox article, there are several reasons for summer melt.

One obvious answer is money. Students who get accepted to college may not have the money to pay for it. They also might not get the amount and type of financial aid they need. Higher education might not seem worth incurring student debt.

A more pervasive answer is that the process of entering college is difficult to navigate. There are multiple deadlines from different organizations. Students need to gather and complete educational, financial, and medical paperwork and submit it on time. When they’re in high school, counselors are available to help and nag them towards compliance. Once students graduate and leave high school for the summer, that support dries up.

If knowledgeable parents, siblings, relatives, or friends don’t step in to fill the void, college-bound students can get easily distracted, confused, or discouraged. Many disadvantaged and first-generation college prospects don’t have that support system around them.

This is really a system design problem. The path towards actually matriculating into college is complex and very difficult to navigate for the first time. We all put off difficult tasks when we feel daunted or overwhelmed. It’s hard to fault teenagers for doing the same thing when faced with the huge bureaucracy of higher education.

A Smoother Path Helps Students Matriculate

System design problems require a systems thinking mindset. I’m usually an optimist but not when it comes to making college bureaucracy easier. Each state, each county, each education system has its own process and procedures. Plus, the academic world has a unique and unfamiliar vocabulary that obscures the way forward: matriculate, registrar, provost, dean.

A more likely approach for fighting summer melt is smoothing the existing path towards matriculation.

As I explain in a previous post, people use both rational and emotional systems for making decisions. The emotional system is far more powerful than most people consciously realize. Deciding to persevere and matriculate is no exception.

You can think of moving towards a decision as akin to riding an elephant down a path. The rider is your rational system of seeing and deciding. The path is the course towards your decision or goal. And the elephant, that’s your emotional system.

Getting to the end of path certainly requires the rider doing his or her part. But the more powerful ways to reach the end are coaxing the elephant and smoothing path. Because it’s hard to move an elephant who has encountered a barrier and decided not to budge.

Promotion Smooths the Path to Matriculation

College-bound students do better with support from knowledgeable adults regarding the college entry process. Start-ups and researchers are finding ways to provide that support for students who lack it in the crucial few months before matriculation.

Researchers found that having counselors reach out to students over the summer greatly increased the percentage of kids who enrolled in, and remained in, college.

Counselors are usually older adults dealing with modern teens. They discovered that teens today respond much better to texting and Facebook messaging rather than phone calls and email.

This realization spurred the start up AdmitHub to build an AI-powered chatbot that reminds students about requirements and deadlines. The chatbot is a cost-effective method for colleges who don’t have the human resources, especially during the summer, to personally follow up with all incoming students.

In the mindset of marketing the social good, this type of support is really a form of promotion: informing your target audience about your product or service. Yes, in the case of higher education, the product could be designed better. Until then, promotion is an effective tool to improving the customer experience.

Coaxing the Elephant After Students Matriculate

Once disadvantaged and first-generation college students actually matriculate, they can feel different and separate from their more affluent cohorts for whom higher education seems to be second nature. In particular, researchers found that disadvantaged students abandon degrees in STEM fields after struggling in introductory classes. We are social creatures and want to belong. When we don’t, we feel the urge to search for places where we fit in.

The researchers tapped into our social nature for methods to overcome these feelings of being outsiders or others.

One approach is basically group therapy for freshman. The researchers gather together students from across the socioeconomic and higher-education spectrum to talk about their anxieties of being in college. Disadvantaged students saw that they were not unique or alone in their concerns. Seeing the similarities helped them to persevere.

Another approach put students through a session in “difference education.” It explored how different class backgrounds shape college experiences.

These two social approaches are also types of promotion.

Until the day our higher education system becomes more coherent and comprehensible, leveraging our social nature and a marketing mindset can help more students avoid summer melt and matriculate into college.

(Image courtesy of NASA)

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