Summary: It’s easy to get student commitment in the fall, winter, and spring. But along comes summer, and the drop-off rate begins. Summer melt doesn’t have to be inevitable!
We made it to the spring of 2021, and summer is just around the corner. We’ve all been through a lot, with the COVID-19 pandemic and its accompanying recession still casting a tall shadow over our futures. Even as vaccinations are finally coming through, some challenges remain in higher education and for young adults that may impact enrollment next year. At this time of year, a top concern for most academic institutions is summer melt: a syndrome where up to one-fifth of students don’t follow through on their college plans.
On top of the many difficulties we’ve faced this year, higher ed may have the “perfect storm” for a summer melt.
Understanding Summer Melt in Higher Ed
The tendency for students to drift away from their educational track over the summer occurs for several factors, but the most important one is financial uncertainty.
It hits home when they have to file a FAFSA, which is a daunting piece of paperwork for those from lower and middle-income households, especially for first-generation college students. In addition, they may have low to zero support from family and peers when it comes to navigating the transition to college life. Sure, they graduated high school and have been approved to continue their education, but it’s been a tough time of change and uncertainty all the same.
Factor in the effects of the pandemic, which has brought student mental health to an all-time low. It’s not just the pandemic but the economic uncertainty that comes with it. Which industries will survive and which ones will fold? How can you bank your future on a career path at a time like this? All the dreads, doubts, and “what-ifs” loom greater this year than ever before in recent memory.
So our challenge is to fight against the tide of pessimism. This summer might be the time when higher education marketing has to work harder than ever before to keep students engaged and committed to enrolling or coming back for their next semester.
#1: Keep Students Engaged on Organic Social Media
Students may be out of your influence sphere when they’re not on campus, but you can bet your bottom dollar that they’re not giving up their phones. Pew Research pegs mobile phone saturation at 97% of the population. Pew’s 2021 Social Media Use in 2021 report says most 18-to-29-year-olds use Instagram or Snapchat, and about half use TikTok. If you want to stay in touch after they graduate high school, social is a prime channel to use.
Summer melt happens partly because young adults lose touch with the excitement of shaping their futures. They no longer have access to teachers and guidance counselors to keep them focused. They stop mentally identifying themselves as “students” and start looking for summer jobs. They may get distracted by other opportunities, or financial concerns can creep in. Both may steer them towards different career paths.
Social media can be the bridge for your school to reach out and keep that mental tether. As soon as students are accepted, invite them to follow your school’s social media channels. Use this environment to highlight future opportunities. Feature alumni testimonials and interviews that will help them envision a successful future at your school. Spotlight programs and activities, showing off the fun side where possible. Keep the hype going for three months.
Engaging students on social media is something we hope you’re already doing. If not, it’s essential this year.
#2: Create Social Media Ad Campaigns Targeted At New Students
This is definitely the year where you want to reach out through every channel possible. For those students who don’t follow your school’s social media channels, you can still stay present in their minds using social media and display advertising. On Facebook and Instagram, you can use student email addresses to create a custom audience. These hyper-targeted audiences allow you to tailor your ad messaging to specific barriers or pain points that might lead to attrition.
Don’t let students wrestle with difficult decisions alone; use advertising to let them know that support is available. You should meet all their doubts and concerns head-on.
- Don’t know how to fill out FAFSA and other forms? We can help.
- Are you worried about transitioning to campus life? Here are our resources for new student initiation.
- Have questions about enrollment, tuition, housing, or pandemic safety? Here’s our hotline.
- Still feeling uneasy about taking this big step? Our student ambassadors know just how you feel!
The common thread we’re going to be emphasizing this year is “support.” Student attrition happens in the first place because students are frustrated with the challenges facing them and feel like there’s nowhere to turn. Do everything you can to make committing to college feel like the path of least resistance.
#3: Partner Students With Mentors
As we mentioned above with student ambassadors, this is the year to push the hardest, keeping all hands on board. You can never have too much one-on-one support. Marshall all the forces you have from ambassadors, tutors, mentors, and counselors to evangelize your campus.
We’re not indulging in hyperbole with the word “evangelize,” either. Forbes will tell you all about “brand evangelists,” the super-fans of a brand that will market it most enthusiastically. Take a page from that article and copy it to your mentor program. Your student mentors can likewise:
- Inspire them: Be a role model and show prospective students what’s possible at your school.
- Support others with their knowledge: Teach and instruct students on how to succeed at school.
- Be genuine and personal: Use grassroots tactics to motivate students to persist in their education plans.
For example, students might express being discouraged because of all the trouble going on in the world right now. A mentor can counter that with the old saying, “Tough times don’t last, but tough people do.” The events of a pandemic, a flailing economy, and various other natural disasters point to the greater need for graduated professionals. Inspire them to be the change the world needs.
In a difficult situation, the most significant difference between somebody who pushes through and somebody who gives up is confidence. Many students quit over the summer because of their fear of failure. Have your mentors switch those students into the mindset of “with this wind at my back, I can’t fail!”
#4: Address Common Barriers to Continuing Education
Your content marketing, meanwhile, should also focus on overcoming resistance to continuing education. You have to consider elements such as the fact that first-generation college students may not have the support at home to launch their educational careers. Let’s be frank; some kids have less of a home than others. They may need help navigating the transition to college life, applying for FAFSA, or finding housing.
Reach out with an empathetic message to underprivileged students. Create content that alleviates their concerns. Via university blogs, YouTube channels, and other media, you can create a workshop environment where students can find support to walk them through the steps of negotiating college sign-up and orientation.
#5: Use SMS and Chatbots – They Work!
It’s hard for adults past a certain age to appreciate how well students respond to automated prompting. We older folk might consider text messages and scripted chatbots to be trivial, something we dismiss.
For the younger generation, even automated messages serve as motivating prompts. They have already gotten used to relying on Google to find information for them, Wikipedia for deep learning of topics, and peers on social media for mutual support. Reminders to complete a goal becomes just one more convenient service to them. Research has shown that 86% of today’s students report that text messages prompted them to tackle a task.
A similar effect can be found in the concept of “gamification,” which is the application of video game concepts to a non-game context. It may sound silly, but applying a score and achievements to mundane tasks helps students finish the tasks. Logically, we know that we don’t get three points per folded shirt when putting away the laundry. But psychologically, the human brain is hardwired to respond to any validation, even the artificial kind.
So… Our SMS and chatroom robots can be the motivating avatar in a student’s life:
- Send reminders about approaching deadlines
- Augment email communication with short prompts
- Use chatbots for 2-way communication, allowing them to respond to queries
- Provide phone numbers and links where students can reach out for more assistance
Remember not to use SMS and chatbots for trivial messages or irrelevant content. Focus on helping them navigate the most significant hurdles and give them just enough nudges to stay on the right path.
#6: Reach Out With Other Automated Marketing
Email marketing is another crucial channel you can use to anchor students to the back-to-school mindset. This is a separate channel from SMS; text messaging is for brief prompts and essential reminders. Reserve email for more engaged communication.
Modern email marketing automation software can be scripted in advance, personalizing the emails to address students by name and track their individual progress on their commitment. We’ve all gotten these from various services we’re signed up for, be it online shopping or whichever service we use to file taxes.
Use the script to keep students informed of their next steps in the process. It can also be a marketing channel of an introductory nature.
- have a “meet the professors” email with thumbnail bios
- offer a student orientation package
- share testimonials from alumni
- send program information and schedules
- share links to tutorials for submitting financial aid forms
- Preview new campus features and attractions
Whenever a student does complete a milestone in the enrollment process, follow up with that congratulatory email and offer to show them the next step. Keep that momentum going.
#7: Build An Enrollment App
Everybody and everything these days has an app. Building a custom app is a considerable undertaking, but picture the benefits. An app is an ultimate anchor in the student’s life. They install the app on their phone. You can ignore a text message, but you have to uninstall an app.
Your app can have:
- a checklist and schedule for completing enrollment steps
- prompts for admissions deadlines and financial aid submissions
- student housing information and points of contact
- menus for class and course selection
- invitations to student orientation events
- support chats with an enrollment counselor
You can draw inspiration from “Mission: Admission,” a digital college enrollment simulator developed by USC Pullias Center for Higher Education’s Digital Equity in Education team in partnership with USC’s Game Innovation Lab. Once again, it’s a way to psychologically appeal to students native to the video game mentality. Higher education is foreign turf to a young student, but couching it in terms of digital breakpoints and achievements brings it into a familiar headspace for them.
Hopefully, this gives you a few ideas on how to keep students engaged this summer. Looking back over the above plan, the one important factor we want to come back to is “support.” Make everything as easy as possible for the student. Be ready with an answer to every “what if” concern. Offer the students your dear sweet time through every resource you have. We’ll see if that summer melt doesn’t turn into a freeze!