The problem of Summer Melt on campus, and how institutions are fighting back

The final decision where someone pursues their education is one of the more exciting moments in their lives. However, in recent years there have been added distractions causing students to end up on a separate campus, or not on campus at all. An astonishing 10 to 20% of students who enroll at a college never get there, in what higher education calls “summer melt.”

It is easy for students to overlook letters and emails from colleges over the summer. They are transactional messages, asking students to complete financial aid forms, turn in important health documents, sign up for orientation and more.

Summer melt is a critical problem, especially among low-income students. Many high-school seniors planning to enroll in college for fall semester are knocked off-course if they do not obtain sufficient financial aid, miss administrative deadlines, or lack support from family and friends.

This isn’t the only danger of summer melt for higher education. In 2019, the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) decided to make changes to their Code of Ethics and Professional Practice (CEPP) and bylaws.

Prior to 2019, if a student was enrolled in classes for the upcoming semester, they were “untouchable” by other institutions; no other colleges or universities could contact that student or continue to do promotional outreach of any kind. With the change of the bylaws, this limitation has been removed, and students can now be recruited by other schools indefinitely.

So how do colleges prevent their students from getting poached by other colleges?

Ironically, in the instant gratification and digital communication era in which we all live and work, getting timely information out to these students continues to be a problem. Often the lack of effective communication is because higher education institutions are still trying to reach students through phone calls and emails, instead of adapting to the students’ preferred method of engagement; text and chat.

Emails on average have a 20% open rate, and of those who do open their email, only 6% respond to them. During this important opportunity for a college or university to increase yield and grow enrollment rates, a better strategy is needed.

For example, The University of California-Los Angeles received  111,322 applications in 2019. If UCLA were to send 30 emails in the summer to each of these applicants, a total of 3.3 million emails, just under 700,000 emails would be opened. Of those 700,000, only 40,000 responses would be sent.

The fact of the matter is if institutions are sending millions of emails, and only a fraction are getting responses because students have chosen other methods of communication. The numbers are telling; most emails are not even being seen by most of the prospective students your enrollment teams are trying to reach. Missing a quality education should not be the result of something so simple as a missed deadline or requirement because the student never opened your email.

Text vs email

The fix to this communications conundrum is simple; engage with students on their terms. Understand when students are available to talk, and through what channels.

While email open rates are at a steady 20%, text messages have an astounding 98% open rate. Oftentimes, students are overwhelmed by the sheer volume of emails sent to them, and many have simply turned off notifications.

We are all glued to our cellphones, and we read virtually every text message that appears in our notification bar. It makes perfect sense for higher ed institutions to reach students more effectively through text than any other channel. But like manual email engagement, no college or university enrollment staff has the time to send outbound text messages to every prospective student; automation is the key missing component.

Luckily, that problem is solved by implementing a chatbot to engage with these students 24 hours a day and ensure that your school stays at the top of their list. Not only do 95% of all text messages sent by our chatbots get read within two minutes, but our text messages enjoy on average a 36% response rate, more than 5x the average response rate to email marketing.

If we take our UCLA example and implement a chatbot for texting instead of email, 3.1 million emails are opened (instead of 700,000) and 1.1 million responses could be generated (instead of 40,000).

The financial aid burden

The problem of summer melt disproportionately affects low-income college students, and simple questions during the financial aid process may be overwhelming and disheartening to low-income families.

“How many times does a student or parent have to repeatedly prove they are poor,” said Michael Bennett, associate vice president of financial aid services, at St. Petersburg College in Florida. “Verification for our lowest-income students is a barrier to access, and when aid is delayed because of excessive verification, access may be denied. Is this what we want?”

A chatbot can go a long way in helping students get answers to tough questions on their own. Consumers are more likely to engage with a chatbot than a human when early on in their decision-making process, and for a high school student with important questions about sensitive topics like finances, engaging with a chatbot that you know will not pass judgement on you is much more comfortable than asking the same questions to a person.

During the enrollment process, students often have many questions, and the ability to receive an immediate response will help ease the stress for these students. Not only this, but a chatbot can help students apply for certain scholarships they may be unaware that they qualify for the upcoming semester.

Taking the extra step in helping students feel more comfortable during the application and enrollment process and showing them they have every right to a quality education as anyone else, will help your institution increase enrollment yield and decrease summer melt.

Not only will a chatbot improve the student experience, but the benefits to your administrative staff are immense. Allowing an automated system to engage via text with tens of thousands of students around the world will save your team hundreds of hours every month that they can use on more high-value tasks where a human is required.