For many at-risk or first-generation college students, college acceptance is a monumental achievement. As a college counselor, acceptance is also an achievement! The student you have worked with for almost nine months has achieved his or her goal.  For many counselors, this point signifies the completion of work with a student. However, for an increasing number of students, this is not their happy ending. According to Harvard researcher Lindsay Page, nearly 20% of students fall victim to summer melt. This phenomenon occurs when a student is accepted to college in the spring but fails to attend in the Fall.

A 20% melt rate is substantial enough. But that number climbs to 40% when we look at students in lower socioeconomic backgrounds, according to Page.

Why Do Students “Melt”?

The melt phenomenon has puzzled colleges, universities, and researchers for years. Why go through the trouble of taking rigorous courses, sitting for the SAT, and filling out college applications only to quit when you’ve met your goal? The truth is that many students lose their support system once they leave high school. Not only do they lose their counselor, some students may lose their access to a computer or the internet. Without someone to guide them through the final steps of enrollment, some students struggle to complete this step.

Understanding Summer Melt Step-By-Step

The college application and matriculation is a long process that starts well before students even begin high school:

  • Beginning in middle school, students must take courses that prepare them for college prep high school courses.
  • In high school, students must choose and succeed in series of courses deemed appropriate for college preparation.
  • They must take appropriate state exams to graduate.
  • They must take exams like the SAT and ACT for college admissions.
  • The college application process is next.
  • Then, the financial aid process.
  • Finally, the registration process.

Without knowing all of the steps, it is easy for students to fall through the cracks. Some students, especially first-generation students, won’t even know that they should know these steps. This sets them up as prime candidates for summer melt.

Misinformation Abounds

In a 2004 study, researchers Avery and Kane found that many potential first-generation college students and their families are misinformed about college. Many students assume that not only is college out of reach for them but even if they could get into college, they would be unable to afford it. After receiving their acceptance letter, they suffer from sticker shock. Some students start to panic about tuition. Without easy access to a counselor or teachers, they have no one to assure them that they will be able to afford college. Along with this, many students do not realize how much financial aid is available to students every year.

When it comes to financial aid, Avery and Kane also found that students are often overwhelmed by the financial aid process. Most students find it too involved and complex to complete on their own and may have parents who cannot help for various reasons. Additionally, navigating the scholarship application process can be daunting. Many students do not know how many scholarships are available or how to find them.

Other students may believe that they are simply not qualified to attend college. They may not understand the requirements or believe that it is so far out of reach that they do not try. Even those who say their goal is to attend college tend to suffer from the melt phenomenon in their senior year. This happens because they get lost wading through the requirements of the application process.

Choosing to Melt

Finally, there is the theory that some students actually choose to avoid college. While our society inundates young people with the idea that the key to success is college, there are some students who simply don’t see this as a reality. Not only do some first-generation students lack the example of someone who attended college, they also don’t see the need for college. According to Bozick and DeLuca (2010), if both parents and adults around them work in jobs that don’t require a college education, students may see this as a potential outcome.

The summer months heighten the issue of lack of example or role model. Once removed from the academic environment where teachers, counselors, and peers are encouraging college attendance, many students go back to relying on their parents and other community members as examples. Without a clear message that college is necessary, some students begin to see a successful life in following the paths of their parents. This is especially true if they work during the summer after completing high school (Bozick and DeLuca, 2010).

To learn how LifePlan Labs can help you ward off summer melt, Schedule a demo today.

Avery, Christopher, and Thomas J. Kane. “Student Perceptions of College Opportunities.”College Choices, pp. 355–391., doi:10.7208/chicago/9780226355375.003.0009.
Bozick, Robert, and Stefanie Deluca. “Not Making the Transition to College: School, Work, and Opportunities in the Lives of Contemporary American Youth.” SSRN Electronic Journal, 2010, doi:10.2139/ssrn.1625528.
Castleman, Benjamin, Page, Lindsay, and Snowden, Ashley. “SDP Summer Melt Handbook: A Guide to Investigating and Responding to Summer Melt.” Center for Education Policy Research: Harvard University. 2013.
Cohen, Rhaina, et al. “Why Aren’t Students Showing Up For College?” NPR, NPR, 18 July 2017,