How Georgia State Prevents Summer Melt

Text messages, some automated but some with real human interaction, reach students who might never otherwise have showed up.

October 9, 2017
 
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Georgia State University has become well-known in recent years for its use of predictive analytics to improve retention rates, in particular among those who might be considered at high risk of not graduating.

Now the university is talking about another tech-based innovation -- this time one that may result in more students enrolling. The approach is the use of text messages, combined with human interaction on key academic advising and financial aid questions. So far, Georgia State is making good progress on minimizing summer melt, in which students accepted for admission and who have said that they will enroll never show up.

Summer melt gets lots of discussion in admissions circles, much of it about students of means who (much to the annoyance of admissions officers) make more than one deposit and wait until the last minute to decide where to enroll. But Georgia State is dealing with another kind of summer melt: disadvantaged students who are accepted, plan to enroll but somehow fail to make it to campus in the fall. Unlike the summer melt that afflicts institutions with wealthier students, in which those melting end up at college, the kind experienced at Georgia State results in students failing to enroll anywhere.

In the fall of 2015, 18 percent of those who had said they would enroll as first-year students never did so. Georgia State found that most of them didn't enroll at any college and that they met multiple definitions of being at risk. Of these students, 78 percent were from minority groups and 71 percent were from low-income families.

Like most colleges, Georgia State sends lots of email messages to incoming students, with information about signing up for courses, deadlines for paying tuition, information on housing options and much more. Most of those emails provide links to relevant websites at the university, all full of information.

Timothy M. Renick, vice provost and chief enrollment officer, said in an interview that officials began to fear loss of students because they were receiving too much information and were finding it difficult to prioritize. New students receive about 300 emails from 80 offices, he said. "In the mass of emails, there was nothing to say the message from financial aid is much more important than the one about getting a locker in the recreation center." Most of these email messages weren't ever opened.

So Georgia State started using text messages during the summer before students start. With more than 25,000 undergraduates, that's a lot of texts.

The first texts students received were general, asking if they had any questions or concerns about getting ready to enroll. As students started to respond, it became clear that many had similar questions -- about when financial aid becomes available, registering for classes, demonstrating that they had the required immunizations. These texts -- about 90 percent of them -- received automated responses.

But other text responses revealed a specific problem, and so a triage team reviewed incoming texts and assigned those needing someone to actually dig into a student's particular problem. In one case, Renick described a student from a very poor family who needed every penny possible to pay tuition. The grant that the student thought would be credited to his account wasn't showing up. The student said he wouldn't be able to afford Georgia State without the grant.

One member of Renick's team looked over all the materials from the student and found that his Social Security number had two numbers transposed in one place. Once the numbers were put in their proper place, the grant materialized -- and so did the student that fall. It was a simple problem, but one that needed someone to go over every part of a financial aid record to find.

The result of this approach in its first year: a drop of 22 percent in the typical number of admitted students lost to summer melt. That translates into 324 first-year students who might not have otherwise enrolled.

Bill Gates on a visit to the Georgia State campus.Bill Gates recently visited the campus (right) and was briefed by students on how the text message system worked and made it possible for them to enroll. (And he's blogging his praise for the idea.)

Renick said the system shows the benefits of tech solutions, but also the importance of a human role. He said he suspected it was in the 10 percent of the text responses that required human interaction that the university was making the difference between students enrolling or not.

The program is not without costs. The university is spending some real money (Renick said it was under $100,000) to work with the company AdmitHub on the texting software, and staffers are being given additional work to communicate with the incoming students. But Renick said the time and money are well spent.

"What we were doing before was completely inadequate," he said.

From a financial perspective, the additional students enrolling represent about $3 million in tuition revenue. "I'm pretty sure about a positive ROI," Renick said.

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