How Can Communities Ease the Transition to College for Graduating High School Students and for Adults?

October 2015

The transition to college is challenging for all students, but especially for those whose family experience did not include college. To ease the transition and to increase college readiness and success, students should be assessed early on and take the necessary remediation coursework. In addition to bolstering students’ academic skills, communities need to help students develop non-cognitive skills. Workshops on finances, college life, and soft skills can help students get to and through college, especially during the first few semesters.

By working with community-based organizations, higher education institutions, school districts, and those within the technology sector in particular, communities can help students to maintain momentum toward enrollment, avoid summer melt, and integrate into the college campus environment. Cross- sector collaborations can also yield innovative models of intervention, such as two-way texting geared toward reducing summer melt.

Furthermore, when working with students, communities should keep in mind the unique challenges different student populations face. Specifically, adults moving from adult-based education programs to postsecondary education may require help navigating institutional bureaucracy to ensure that they are awarded for their prior learning experiences. By addressing both students’ cognitive and non-cognitive needs, communities will be able to ease the transition to college for all students. Below are a few examples of successful programs.

Non-Cognitive Courses: Does your community want to equip students with skills that help them handle problems that they may face in college? These courses are designed to help hone students’ soft skills and prepare them for college life. They teach students how to access campus resources and adjust to college life, covering topics such as time management, study skills, and note taking.

Prior Learning Assessments: Does your community want to award college credit, certification, or advanced standing toward further education or training for adult learners? Recognizing that adults have rich life experiences, institutions of higher education can accelerate adult learners’ pathways to postsecondary credentials by offering college credit for learning that occurred outside traditional academic environments. Institutions may award credit for work experience, participation in employer training programs, military service, and community service.

Summer Bridge Programs: Does your community want to provide college-prep opportunities in the summer? These programs focus on introducing students to college expectations and success strategies. Some programs target high school students, teaching them how to select college courses, adjust to campus life, and access campus resources. Other programs target adult students who would like to refresh their academic skills before taking placement exams.

Summer Melt Programs: Does your community want to increase the rate of college matriculation for students who have been accepted into college? To reduce the number of college- intending students who then fail to enroll the fall semester after graduation, these programs provide free counseling to students on financial aid, housing, and other transition issues. This type of intervention can have a significant impact on college enrollment rates at a relatively low cost.

The following section features an interview with the vice president of research and evaluation of uAspire’s Summer College Connection, in Boston, Massachusetts, who explains the necessity of reaching out to students during the summer to remind them about important college requirements and deadlines. We also include a sample summer task checklist from uAspire that outlines summer tasks for students planning to attend Bunker Hill Community College, a transition course syllabus to provide guidance on how communities can implement their own programs to ensure that students feel prepared and know what to expect before they enroll in college, and a prior learning credit predictor to help adult students anticipate how many college credits they may be able to earn. This chapter ends with a list of additional resources, where you can find more information on how you can help your community’s students more successfully transition to college.

uAspire, Boston, Massachusetts: Reducing “Summer Melt” through the Summer College Connect Program

  • Alexandra Chewning, Vice President of Research and Evaluation, uAspire

IHEP spoke to Alexandra Chewning about her work at uAspire, a national non-profit organization that partners with high schools, community organizations, practitioners, and colleges to provide college affordability support to thousands of young people and their families each year. In 2011, uAspire started the Summer College Connect program to ensure that students who plan to attend college following high school graduation actually matriculate in college the following fall. Read this interview to explore the most effective interventions and models for reducing the phenomenon known as “summer melt.”


IHEP: What was the impetus for launching the Summer College Connect program?

Our organization’s direct service programming serves primarily low-income and first-generation high school students. In 2010, in collaboration with Drs. Ben Castleman and Lindsay Page, we looked at our data to assess whether students who expressed the intent to attend college at the end of their senior years actually matriculated to a postsecondary institution in the fall. We had been operating under the assumption that when students said, “I’m heading to college—I’m all set,” or “I got accepted to college; I’m good to go” at the end of their senior years that they would attend college in the fall. When we looked at the data, however, we found that about 20 percent of our students never enrolled in college. This phenomenon is commonly referred to by practitioners as “summer melt.”

Many students, especially first-generation students, may not yet feel connected to their colleges even post-admission; during the summers, they wait to hear from their colleges or wait until classes begin to engage with colleges. Colleges do communicate with students over the summer through online portals, but students who do not have computer access at home, or may not have Internet access during the summer when they’re no longer connected to their high school computer labs, do not receive these messages. Even if they have computer access, they may not be aware a college portal exists or appreciate its importance. There was a very real disconnect for students during the summer, where they were largely detached from support on both the high school and college side.

IHEP: What goals did you set to achieve?

Once we saw those data, we decided that we needed to ramp up our summer programming to support the students we had served during high school in their transitions to college. In the past, we had had very little contact with students during the summer. In the short term, we wanted to build students’ awareness of the tasks that are required over the summer in order to ensure that those who plan to attend college actually matriculate in the fall. Our long-term goals were to reduce summer melt, increase college enrollment, and, ideally, make an impact on student persistence from the first year to second year of college.


IHEP: Which community partners did you work with?

Though we collaborate heavily with high schools and community organizations to serve students during the academic year, we were largely on our own during the Summer College Connect programming. We realized that a lot of practitioners, understandably, thought that once students were accepted to college, it was time to move on to serving other students. When we found that there weren’t a lot of other players in the summer space, we wanted to help both postsecondary and K–12 systems realize the opportunity for connecting with students during this unique time: high schools could carry students longer into the summer, and postsecondary institutions could engage students a little bit earlier and with more structure during the summer.

Through our work, we have become veterans with Signal Vine, a premier text messaging platform built specifically for live student advising. Programs delivered via Signal Vine regularly demonstrate high student engagement and statistically significant outcomes. We helped the company build its texting platform, and it is now one of the leaders in the educational texting space. Signal Vine is engaged in projects with higher education institutions, school districts, and state departments of education, and it works all across the country—anyone wishing to move the needle on student outcomes can seek to partner with them.


IHEP: What kind of help did students need over the summer?

Over the summer, we started working with uAspire students whom we had previously engaged during the school year because we already had their contact information and had provided them with college affordability advising as high school seniors. Instead of placing our advisors physically into the school system, as we traditionally do during the academic year, our advisors are located at our uAspire offices during the summer. Based on our advisors’ experiences and what we learned from our implementation data, we were able to communicate with individuals within the higher education sector. Many higher education institutions were quite receptive to hearing from us and learning from our experiences.

It was incredibly eye-opening for us to see the content that students brought to us. We’d had no idea how much confusion there was during the summer. Take something as “simple” as missing an e-mail from the college that says you have a bill waiting to be paid. If the student doesn’t think they have to pay for college until after the first year, they could be completely dropped from being able to register or even enroll. So, we created one-pagers on this kind of information, based on our knowledge of what tasks students were going to need to complete over the summer in order to successfully enroll.

We have also expanded outside of our traditional focus area— affordability—to address administrative topics, like housing, placement tests, and orientation. While we offered this varied support, we still saw that the greatest need for advising revolved around affordability and financial aid tasks; we observed that students often found themselves at crisis points, not knowing if they were going to be able to go to college because of the financial hurdles they were facing in attempting to plan for and finance college.

IHEP: Why do you use a random control study design to analyze the effects of summer melt counseling?

In 2011, we implemented our first summer melt pilot, which was uAspire’s first experience ever engaging with the random control trial (RCT) design. I think it’s really exciting to see a non-profit in an education space engaging in an RCT, when it’s appropriate and comfortable for the organization, because the opportunity for learning is so large. There were a few factors that led to this decision. Because we had not previously done formal summer programming, we felt that any programming that we were able to provide was a new add-on, so we didn’t feel that we were turning students away or reducing services—which I know can often be a sticking point for other organizations thinking of using RCTs. We simply didn’t have the capacity to serve all students over the summer, so we needed to triage and only serve a subgroup. We felt that an RCT design, where we randomly assigned students to either receive the summer services or not, was appropriate for us.

One important qualifier was that any student who reached out to us proactively, on his or her own, would get as much support as he or she needed from uAspire. In that way, our control group actually mirrored what we had been doing for 20 years, which was being on call for students who reached out during the summer. But we were also piloting a brand-new treatment in the form of proactive summer outreach and support. As we continued to run Summer College Connect, we tweaked those treatments each summer to better understand what worked well and what needed improvement. In summer 2011, we used Proactive Advisor Outreach programming. In summer 2012, we used a peer mentoring approach as well as a one-way texting model. In summer 2013, we moved to a two-way texting model; by summer 2014, we were using two-way texting with supplemental in-person advising, as we found this model to be the most effective. Our geographic coverage changed over time, too. In 2011, we were only running Summer College Connect in our Boston site. In 2012 and 2013, we expanded it to include two other uAspire sites in Massachusetts: Springfield and Lawrence. In 2014, we added Fall River, Massachusetts, and Miami, Florida. In 2015, we added San Francisco and Oakland, California.

Over time, we became more efficient and were able to serve more students per advisor, which led to cost savings. Because of texting, we went from 40 students per advisor in 2011 to over 400 students per advisor last summer. In fact, we stopped calling and e-mailing students in summer 2014 because we had more than enough data to demonstrate that texting was the most efficient method.

IHEP: Starting with the first intervention used in summer 2011, Proactive Advisor Outreach, what happened when you tried to reach students?

In 2011, in Boston, we had small caseloads of about 40 students assigned to each advisor. The advisors were tasked with communicating with students through phone calls or e-mails, and getting students to come to the office for an in-person meeting. There was also an incentive; we had a $25 Target gift card for any student who attended an in-person meeting. At first we found that students were very hard to reach, because they tended not to call us back or seemed not to listen to voicemail, and we sometimes had wrong numbers or outdated e-mail addresses. But by July, students would start getting notified of deadline-driven tasks, like paying a college bill, and we finally started to reach students and see more engagement. We ended up seeing almost 50 percent of the students in the office, and we also connected with a few more over e-mail and phone.

IHEP: What happened when you tried using peer mentoring and one-way texting in 2012?

We thought that having current college students serve as peer mentors to initially reach out to students, conduct a high-level needs assessment, and make appointments for them with uAspire advisors would increase our efficiency. We assumed that students might be more likely to engage with their peers, but we found that they were uncomfortable talking to someone they didn’t know, even if that person was young and in college. This dynamic may have been enhanced by the fact that students needed to discuss personal financial situations and concerns, and had already built trusting relationship with uAspire staff. In the end, the peer mentor model was not the efficiency win we had hoped for. However, we found peer mentors to be very powerful when we invited groups of uAspire students to come in for events and get “the real story” on college success from a panel of current college students who had graduated from the same public school system as our students.

When we started texting, we translated the one-pager of summer tasks we had built into bite-sized nuggets and sent texts based on those tasks to students. The first text would be about signing on to your college portal, the second might be about orientation, and the third might say “Your bill is due on ___.” All of the messages contained information specific to the student’s intended college; it was customized nudging. A text about the online portal could literally say, “Congrats on UMass-Boston. Have you had a chance to log in to your UMass-Boston COIN account?” And there would be a link to that specific online portal.

The limitation in our first texting model was that even though we were sending texts out, we couldn’t see in-bound responses. The advisor would get an e-mail that said the student had texted back and would then have to call him or her, bringing us right back to the 2011 situation of calling students who weren’t answering. However, we saw quite a strong impact on college matriculation even with one-way text nudging, especially in Springfield and Lawrence, which are smaller towns in Massachusetts. This led us to believe that students were reading the text messages and taking action to complete the tasks, even if we weren’t always able to speak with them one-on-one.

IHEP: How did you begin using two-way texting, and what results did you see?

In 2013, we started using Signal Vine, a two-way interactive texting portal. We had a very positive experience, as we were able to respond to students in real time. The following summer, we gave every advisor across Massachusetts and in Miami his or her own caseload on the texting portal. This is an online platform for us, but it looks like normal texting to students on their phones. We used the same approach as in one-way texting, where we customized the texting content based on a student’s college, but each text would also invite students to text back with questions or to set up an appointment with an advisor for an in-person meeting. Over time, we became more efficient and were able to serve more students per advisor, which led to cost savings. Because of texting, we went from 40 students per advisor in 2011 to over 400 students per advisor last summer. In fact, we stopped calling and e-mailing students in summer 2014 because we had more than enough data to demonstrate that texting was the most efficient method.


IHEP: Do you recommend one particular intervention for every community, or does it vary?

I think it depends. The most important piece, I would say, is being in contact with the student over the summer months, whatever “contact” looks like for a particular community or relationship. For a long time, we were very wedded to the idea of in-person meetings, so texting was a bit outside of our comfort zone. We eventually learned that this work does not require in- person, face-to-face interactions, and practitioners may need to be more open to using technology to support students and achieve impact. Texting has been incredibly powerful for us and it’s been the best way to get students to respond. However, if a practitioner has a very small cohort and/or has other successful methods to engage students over the summer, then there may be different ways to serve them.

IHEP: How has summer-melt counseling helped low-income students in particular?

The reality is that low-income students often face gaps— sometimes quite large gaps—between the financial aid they were offered and the college’s cost of attendance, which means there are out-of-pocket costs due before they even set foot on campus. A student may not be able to enroll if he or she can’t come up with, say, $3,000 to pay a bill due three weeks after that bill posts to the portal. Our summer work on bills, for example, is a combination of helping students to anticipate and plan for costs before that bill posts and helping them find ways to cover their costs once it does. Without summer counseling, students may not proactively anticipate or manage their costs, which can prevent them from attending college altogether.

In each of our summer intervention models, we see a statistically significant impact on college enrollment. This is hugely encouraging because it provides anecdotal evidence for the type of impact we experience each day during Summer College Connect. Additionally, our data show that those students who have an expected family contribution of zero on their Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) are especially likely to benefit from summer-melt counseling. These low-income students are eligible for Pell Grants and likely received free or reduced-price lunch while in high school. They are also more likely to be first-generation college students.

For a long time, we were very wedded to the idea of in-person meetings, so texting was a bit outside of our comfort zone. We eventually learned that this work does not require in-person, face-to-face interactions, and practitioners may need to be more open to using technology to support students and achieve impact.

IHEP: How has uAspire been sharing the results seen from the Summer College Connect program with other organizations or institutions?

We have been doing a lot of conference presentations on the national circuit. We also conduct trainings for local school- and community-based practitioners, and run webinars on summer-melt issues. You can find more information on these offerings on our website. In Boston, we sat down with several directors of financial aid from many of the institutions that have partnered with the Success Boston initiative. We had them do activities where they mapped out the summer timeline in terms of tasks, deadlines, and departments that are overseeing these tasks at their particular institutions. We put everything on a big whiteboard, and the misalignment from a student perspective was eye-opening to them.

We also communicate to higher education institutions that it can be difficult for students to navigate the college’s various online portals, especially if they have limited Internet access. We at uAspire even have trouble navigating these portals. Moreover, higher education can be very siloed, and so students will be tasked with navigating the bursar’s office, financial aid office, academic advising, and orientation before they start classes or have an understanding of how to navigate these systems. Some of the tasks don’t make chronological sense, and each campus department may be diligently marching ahead without necessarily seeing where their office fits more holistically within the enrollment pipeline. For example, the health insurance waiver in Massachusetts is very important; otherwise, students are automatically billed for private student health insurance, even if they have a comparable source of insurance. However, the waiver process is often administered by an external vendor, and the waiver may not be due until after the student has paid his or her college bill. Students who have a comparable source of health insurance may not understand that they are being double-billed and can waive the school’s insurance. As a result, we found some students were not going to college because they couldn’t pay their college bill with the $2,500 additional cost of student health insurance, and they didn’t realize that they could waive this cost.

In addition, uAspire had the opportunity to contribute to the book Summer Melt: Supporting Low-Income Students through the Transition to College by Drs. Ben Castleman and Lindsay Page, and to the Harvard Strategic Data Project’s Summer Melt Handbook.

IHEP: Can you give an example of what you have seen colleges do with this information?

One of the higher education institutions we partner with used our summer melt one-pagers to distill into an easy format all the pre-enrollment tasks that incoming students need to complete. Although many colleges do have checklists by office or department online, not all colleges have centralized, hardcopy communication about core pre-enrollment tasks in one simple document. Further, financial tasks may be left off of centralized communications because they vary across students. This partner recognized the benefit of our centralized one-pager and used it to create a one-pager to give out to all freshmen.

We had them do activities where they mapped out the summer timeline in terms of tasks, deadlines, and departments that are overseeing these tasks at their particular institutions. We put everything on a big whiteboard, and the misalignment from a student perspective was eye-opening to them.

Looking Forward

IHEP: Would you like to offer any last words of wisdom to communities on reducing summer melt and improving the transition to college?

We want practitioners to fully challenge their own beliefs about college-accepted students not needing support over the summer, and to try to have at least one point of contact with them during the summer to assess their situations. Practitioners can also benefit students by having a general understanding of the colleges that their students intend to attend and the specific tasks that are required at those institutions. We’ve heard from practitioners who worry that they aren’t experts in financial aid or that they don’t know enough about the practices and protocols of all of the different colleges their students attend. However, it’s often much more about helping students navigate bureaucracies, systems, and online portals than it is about being an expert in any one specific content area. Imagine the student who is expected to navigate these complex systems on his or her own. A practitioner can help the student identify and complete these tasks; the student and practitioner can call the financial aid office together, for instance. Such individualized support provided over the summer not only may help students overcome critical barriers to information but also may make the difference in whether students ultimately enroll in college.

We want practitioners to fully challenge their own beliefs about college-accepted students not needing support over the summer, and to try to have at least one point of contact with them during the summer to assess their situations.

Chapter 7 Download


uAspire Summer Task List

This tool provides a checklist of summer tasks for students planning to attend Bunker Hill Community College.

Page length: 2

Transition Course Syllabus

This is a sample syllabus by Austin Community College from an Advanced Intensive Adult Based Education Writing & Study Skills course. The class is designed for those who want to continue on career and/or postsecondary paths after taking the GED.

Page length: 3

Prior Learning Credit Predictor

This online tool was created by Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) to help adults create a personalized action plan based on the estimated amount of college credits they have already earned.

Page length: varies

Additional Resources

Getting Ready for College: An Implementation and Early Impacts Study of Eight Texas Developmental Summer Bridge Programs (2011: National Center for Postsecondary Research at Teachers College, Columbia University)

This report evaluates eight summer bridge programs in Texas that were designed to provide intensive remedial instruction in math, reading, writing, and college preparation content for students entering college with low basic skills. Student participants were more likely to pass college-level courses in math and writing in the fall semester following the summer programs. The brief outlines key program outcomes and descriptive details that will enable practitioners to develop their own summer bridge programs devoted to increasing the math, reading, and writing proficiencies of students.

State Policy Approaches to Support Prior Learning Assessment (2012: The Council for Adult & Experimental Learning & HCM Strategists)

This report provides guidance to state policymakers on promoting the use of prior learning assessment (PLA) by institutions of higher education. The guide provides specific guidance on assessing current institution-level and state- level policies that govern the provision of PLA services, and developing new policies by either implementing higher education regulatory language or passing state legislation. The resource includes examples of promising state approaches to building support for PLA programs, case studies, sample state policy language, and links to other resources.

Strategic Data Project–Summer Melt Handbook: A Guide to Investigating and Responding to Summer Melt (2013: Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard University)

This handbook explains how school administrators, high school counselors, and community-based organizations can reduce summer melt.” It offers strategies for helping districts collect data on summer melt among their students and provides various examples of how a district can decrease its rate of summer melt, depending on its resources, information, and connections with local colleges or college access organizations. The handbook includes five case studies of initiatives from community organizations and schools to implement summer melt interventions, detailing costs, timelines, and results.

Summer Melt Supporting Low-Income Students through the Transition to College (2014: Benjamin L. Castleman & Lindsay C. Page)

Summer Melt analyzes the primary factors that influence student postsecondary matriculation following high school graduation. The book provides guidance to schools and districts on implementing effective, low-cost interventions, including peer mentoring, counselor outreach, and the use of social media to ensure that students successfully transition from high school to college.

Adult College Completion in the 21st Century: What We Know and What We Don’t (2015: Higher Ed Insight)

Suitable for practitioners, policymakers, and academics alike, this report synthesizes what has been learned about the needs of adult college students, particularly those returning to college after stopping out. In 2010, the Lumina Foundation funded 10 large-scale projects aimed at serving adult students who have completed some college course work but not a degree. The report draws from the considerable body of recent research on adult learners and also looks at data gathered during Higher Ed Insight’s recent evaluation of Lumina’s grantees and its other adult college completion efforts. The report aims to identify areas where further inquiry is needed to demonstrate effective ways to support degree completion for adults.