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[Reflection] Unlocking Enrollment Success: Strategies to Mitigate Summer Melt in Higher Ed

With more options available, institutions face the risk of losing students—especially to summer melt. Retainment through targeted and frequent communication will be critical.

As student enrollment becomes increasingly competitive, it’s critical for institutions to focus on summer melt and yield. It’s the make or break for student enrollment, especially for traditional-aged learners. In this interview, Jamie Hansard discusses the importance of summer melt, the common challenges that come with increasing yield and how to implement some best practices to help drive enrollment and retention.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why is summer melt and yield more broadly a major priority for modern higher ed institutions?

Jamie Hansard (JH): Students have more higher education options than ever. That’s become really evident as we’ve moved to test optional admissions. It expanded opportunities for students. The days where we could assume admitted students would enroll are long gone, and institutions must focus on yield to enroll their class. Reducing melt requires institutions to devote resources to the yield process. 

At Texas Tech, we start recruiting our freshman class as early as their sophomore year in high school. For many students, we’ve been communicating with them for two or three years. We have devoted many institutional resources to recruit students, so when students do not enroll, it is disappointing and a loss of resources.  

We need to think about communication beyond orientation and stop assuming students will enroll. The reality is more students are attending more orientation sessions and making decisions about where they want to enroll based on their experience during that orientation. Creating meaningful experiences during orientation allows students and families to create connections and feel a sense of belonging, which is critical in yielding students.

Evo: What are some common challenges institutions face when it comes to trying to maximize that yield?

JH: One of the most common challenges is affordability. As students attend orientation, register for classes and receive their bill, the reality of the cost of college begins to set in for many families. Many students and families experience sticker shock and begin to question their decision. Students may pursue a more affordable option such as staying at home and attending a local community college or university, deferring admissions to another semester or simply deciding college is not for them.

Another challenge is demonstrating the value of higher education to both students and families throughout the entire recruitment process. This is especially important for first-generation students. Communication should not just focus on affordability but also the value of higher education and why college is important. When unemployment rates are low, students question why they should go to college and not straight into the workforce. We need to communicate to students what their return on investment will be by attending college and their expected lifetime earning potential.

A third challenge is separating ourselves in the competitive higher education landscape especially during the yield process. Competition is fierce, so how, when and what we communicate is important as well as remembering what students want, expect and need. Prospective students and families have access to more information than ever before, so as institutions we must find a way to cut through the noise to make a meaningful impact throughout the entire enrollment process, especially after students are admitted. Conveying to students why their institution is the right choice is critical to yield.

Evo: How can institutions leverage more cross-departmental collaboration to address some of the challenges you mentioned?

JH: Cross-campus collaboration is essential to recruiting students, especially with yield. Many institutions recruit their freshman class for two or three years. So, by the time a student is admitted, they want to meet the rest of the campus community.  Students want to know what it’s like to be a student on your campus, so it is critical to involve other offices in the recruitment process. Think about who are the offices and people that students will engage with throughout their college career and beyond. 

Students and families want to meet other students, academic advisors and faculty they will work with, and they want to know what their experience will be outside the classroom. Therefore, it is critical to connect prospective students with these areas. Afterall, they will be working with these offices and people throughout their college career and beyond.  

Engagement should be authentic and help students understand what it will be like to be a student at your institution. Students and their families want and need to feel supported.

Evo: How can strategic communications be leveraged to build strong relationships with students before term begins?

JH: There’s a variety of ways to communicate with students, and it is important to continue communicating with students after they are admitted and throughout the summer. At Texas Tech, we continue to communicate and engage with students throughout the yield process and into the student’s first week of classes. Our communication consists of print and digital as well as texting and calling students. 

In addition, we have student success specialists who work in tandem with our academic advisors to reach out to students before and after they attend orientation. Most of our communication throughout the recruitment cycle is transactional, but as we focus on yield our communication becomes much more relational. 

We provide communication over the summer that is more “Know Before You Go.”  We provide information about the student experience, so students know what to expect, what they can look forward to, how to find their community once they arrive on campus and all the great things they will experience during their first semester. Our goal is to ensure students know what to expect before they arrive and begin to feel that sense of belonging to our institution. 

Continued communication with families is another important yield strategy. The more families know the better equipped they are to guide their student through the transition. Most students turn to their family first when they have questions or need assistance. Ramping up family communication throughout the summer can help reduce melt.   

Going to college is an exciting time for students and families, and we want our communication to be fun, interesting and informational.

Evo: What impact does increasing yield have on student retention and success?

JH: Ultimately, what happens during the recruitment process and especially during orientation impacts enrollment. Students who feel connected to a university are far more likely to reach out with questions or ask for help before they decide to leave the university. We’ve found that relationship building is key. We involve our campus community during the recruiting process, so students and families begin to form relationships with the people they will interact with while they are enrolled. 

Orientation is central to relationship building because it is a prospective student’s final recruitment/yield event and the transition to being a college student. Establishing these meaningful relationships early is important, so when issues arise, students know who to contact and where to go. 

Texas Tech recently implemented a student success platform that connects university resources to each student. During orientation, students are introduced to the success platform where they have access to a student success team, allowing them to easily interact with university faculty and staff throughout their college journey. 

All these efforts have resulted in increased retention rates leading to an increased graduation rates for Texas Tech University. Institutions are dependent on enrollment, and as we face a demographic cliff, we need to pivot from growing enrollment to focus on student success.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.