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Freezing summer melt

Incoming students and their families bustled around the dormitories this past week on Southern Oregon University’s move-in day in a blur of music and color.

For hundreds of students, the final steps to becoming a Raider looked like piling their possessions into rolling bins and greeting student move-in crews and new neighbors.

“I’m feeling good,” said Marykate Buhler, an arriving freshman from Dallas, Oregon. “I feel excited.”

Since walking the graduation stage, Buhler and other incoming students proceeded through a complex process of scholarship and loan applications, release forms and deposits.

She said the period leading up to move-in day was “smooth sailing.”

“They’re very good about reminding you, check your email every day,” Buhler said.

The invisible stories on a day like Thursday, however, are those of the students who aren’t moving onto campus this fall — but at one point, planned to be.

The term for the phenomenon is “summer melt.” It starts with students signaling to a college that they plan to enroll. That usually involves a deposit, typically a few hundred dollars.

But sometime during the summer before classes start, some of those students, for one reason or another, change their minds. Like morning frost, they disappear.

Anything from financial aid or personal relationships to the location of the school, or some combination of factors, can contribute. Often, the students change their minds about where, rather than if, they want to attend college, unless they are from lower-income households or would be the first in their family to attend college. Those students are more likely not to wind up in college at all immediately after high school.

At SOU, administrators have taken a multi-tack approach to close the gap between the number of students indicating they will attend in the fall and the number that show up for their first day of classes — called a melt rate.

Numbers show that their efforts are working — between summer 2018 and this year, the university’s melt rate fell from 13% to 9%.

Neil Woolf, vice president of enrollment management and student affairs, said he’s “pretty happy” about the decrease. It should get the school national attention, he said.

Represented in the rate is the loss of revenue brought in through tuition and fees, which impacts SOU’s budget. The university has seen falling enrollment in recent years, though officials say they expect the class of 2023 bucks that trend.

“Ultimately, there are people behind those numbers,” Woolf said. “Those are lives changed.”

When reality hits

At Raider Registration days over the summer, or at other points throughout the academic year, it’s not uncommon to see adults in white labs coats posted up outside Stevenson Union or walking around campus.

They’re not doctors. They’re staff from the financial aid office. The wellness exams they’re offering aren’t checking for a fever, but rather making sure they have a Free Application for Federal Student Aid on file at SOU.

“When you get sick ... and you want to go to the urgent care, you go in and you get it checked up real quick, and then you come back to work,” said Kristen Gast, director of financial aid and inventor of the financial wellness checks. “Well, what if we did that for FAFSA? What if we just did a five-minute FAFSA check and see if you have one on file?”

Many students aren’t fully aware of their financial aid options until it’s too late, Gast said. She understands why. When she was a student, she said, no one took the time to explain to her how Free Application for Federal Student Aid worked, for example.

Last summer, Gast and her staff began donning their white coats and approaching incoming and current students at events on campus.

“Students love it,” she said.

The checks have translated to noticeable increases in FAFSA registration.

Gast said it helps students to connect with a human being who can help them, rather than another form.

“Getting us out there and saying, ‘Hey, I’m the director of financial aid, and I care about your financial aid,’ has really helped,” she said.

Senior year of high school, for the academically engaged student, is bustling with applications, be they for universities or community colleges, trade schools and scholarships.

After students cross the graduation stage, however, the tight timelines and scrutiny that dog them throughout their final years in the K-12 system loosen. Standardized testing, personal statements and essays are all in the rearview.

But then come the bills. Jeri Childress, who runs the Tornado Future Center at North Medford High School, says that’s often a discomfiting wakeup call.

“When reality hits, they’re like, ‘Oh, my gosh,’” Childress said. For many, she said, “reality doesn’t hit ‘em until (schools) want the money.”

A full five weeks into the 2019-2020 school year, Childress said she was getting daily emails from former students and their parents. Many of them were seeking help with unforeseen fees and hiccups with their financial aid.

In addition, she said, she’s sending scholarship checks to different schools than where students indicated they’d be attending when they graduated. One student, she said, changed his college choice four times.

Trinity Stadler, a North graduate, knows how plans can change. Hers did twice over the summer.

She originally planned a dual enrollment at Linn-Benton Community College in Albany and Oregon State University. That switched to a plan to attend Rogue Community College. About a month before classes started, she switched back to Linn-Benton.

“The most stressful thing was hoping and praying and wishing that my scholarships would make it through,” she said. With Childress’ help, everything came through, she said.

Colleges, too, have tried a variety of ways to prevent aspects of financial aid from being lost in translation over the months.

The financial wellness checks are one method that SOU employs. Another approach is to eliminate the uncertainty early.

Kelly Moutsatson, SOU’s director of admissions, said that the university sends out its financial award letter to students earlier than any other university in Oregon.

“Many students commit to many schools and then wait for their financial aid to come through,” she said. “That’s our time to really kick it up a notch.”

Recruiting the parents

Childress said it’s important that parents are involved and invested in their children’s path to college. She knows the confusion that can arise when wires cross.

Earlier this summer, Childress said, she worked with a student who had enrolled in a different college from the place his mom expected him to.

When the first bill came, that mother called Childress in confusion. Once again, she was on the case.

“It’s just putting them in contact with the right person and getting them where they need to be,” she said.

Moutsatson said her office also has focused more on bringing parents into the students’ preparatory processes for college, whether that’s deciding on housing or navigating accommodations for a disability.

The admissions office added a landing page on its website specifically for parents to learn how to help their children.

As with other aspects of reducing summer melt, she has emphasized personal connections and relationships to spur parent engagement.

Parents are also involved in senior send-offs, events that offer families a chance for conversation with admissions employees in a casual setting. SOU has attended tailgates at football games and even held a barbecue at the Portland Zoo.

Heading into this summer, the admissions office created Facebook groups for students in the incoming graduating class, as well as another for their parents. The groups provide a forum for commiserating over fears and stresses, checking in on progress with scholarships. Just over 100 parents have joined the group for the Class of 2023 and in the last 30 days, it has seen 30 posts.

‘We seem scary, but we’re not’

Just down the hall from Moutsatson’s office, Kaitlin Nichols sits at the reception desk at the admissions office. Every shift, she takes calls and makes them; her voice is one piece of the effort to answer students’ questions about enrolling and admissions.

She wants students to know: “No question is a silly question.”

Students most at risk for dropping out of college before they ever begin are typically those coming from low-income homes, or who are first-generation college students.

Nichols can meet those students on an empathetic level. She will be the first one in her family to graduate from college when she wraps up her senior year at SOU with a criminology and criminal justice degree, with a minor in Spanish.

This past summer, she called what she estimates to be hundreds of incoming students, reminding them to sign up for Raider Registration during the summer.

Such peer-to-peer contacts are another way that SOU has tried to eliminate the intimidation factor of heading into a new school environment and all that goes with it.

The school also sends out letters, written by current students and accompanied by a photo, to the incoming students. Those, too, have reminders to reach out.

They also introduce the incoming students to the SOU mentoring program,

“We seem scary, but we’re not, we’re really nice,” Nichols said, smiling. “It’s just that intimidating process.”

Next year, the university will make its first run with an artificially intelligent chatbot that can answer students questions at all hours of the day or night.

A similar concept deployed at Georgia State University helped its melt rate fall by 22% in a single summer, according to the school.

Moutsatson said the chatbot won’t be a replacement for human-to-human contact, but will fit into the other methods her office is trying out to keep students who say they’re coming.

At the heart of the efforts, she said, is the desire to reflect to students who are interested in attending a four-year university that the goal is within reach.

“We’re here to help support that,” she said. “Finding every angle, every way that I can to do that, is what I do. It’s just to help students find their path, their passion, and make them realize those things are attainable.”

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Kaylee Tornay at ktornay@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4497. Follow her on Twitter @ka_tornay.

Kaitlin Nichols, a senior at Southern Oregon University, is a student ambassador helping to connect new and prospective students with the school to get and keep them enrolled. Photo by Denise Baratta
Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune Southern Oregon University students move into the dorms on Thursday.