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Reaching out to new students slows 'melt'

A famous comedian once said that 80% of success is just showing up. But too many college-bound students apparently didn’t get that advice. They collect their high school diplomas, get accepted to one or more colleges — and then they disappear.

For one reason or another — or a combination of them — a certain percentage of students who accept admission offers from colleges don’t show up. That makes them less likely to start later or to complete a degree, and it leaves the affected colleges without the tuition and fee revenue that comes with each newly enrolled student.

Colleges call this phenomenon “summer melt,” and addressing it is a major focus on campuses across the country.

The reasons vary, but financial concerns are often paramount. That’s especially true for students who are the first in their families to attend college. Parents who didn’t attend college themselves may be intimidated by the paperwork and the financial commitment. Students may not realize that when they accept a college’s offer of admission, that sets off a confusing series of deadlines and paperwork that must be completed over the summer.

Southern Oregon University has been successful in its efforts to reduce summer melt by reaching out to newly accepted students and their families. SOU’s melt rate fell from 13% last fall to 9% this fall, as detailed in a story in Sunday’s paper. Classes started Monday.

Much of that success comes from a personal approach by SOU financial aid staff, who help students file the required Free Application for Federal Student Aid, and reach out to parents early in the process.

A new wrinkle will be added next year: an artificially intelligent “chatbot” that students can connect with 24 hours a day for answers to questions. The chatbot is designed to learn as it goes, and can answer many student questions on its own, or connect the student with human staffers when necessary. Georgia State University pioneered the concept with “Pounce,” a chatbot named for the school’s mascot, which text-messaged students who hadn’t yet submitted something — such as a copy of their high school transcript — and offered them assistance if they needed it.

A Brookings Institution study indicated that students who received these texts were more likely to start their fall semester at that school.

Ideally, students would rise to the challenge without help, and navigate the college entrance process on their own. Most do. But helping those who need a hand benefits students who otherwise might miss out on college because they never start, and helps colleges make ends meet by boosting enrollment numbers.