Applying new solutions to old problems in college success

Summer melt is a well-known concept among those who work with students in college success.  Harvard University defines it like this: “Across the country, 10–40 percent of seemingly college-intending students, particularly those from low-income backgrounds, fail to enroll in college the fall after graduation.” Every year, our team at the Dell Scholars Program works to prevent summer melt in each new class of students.

Yet, we know that the verification process – the final step in the financial aid process – can be a big contributing factor to summer melt.  Some students don’t know how to complete the process, while others aren’t clear that they were in fact selected for verification. Students struggle with understanding which documents are acceptable, are unaware they need to frequently check communications and don’t know who to turn to if they have questions.

Our scholars were completing the FAFSA on time, but many of them were not receiving their funds right away because they were getting pulled for verification. Last year, one student waited seven months to receive her financial aid – an issue that raised concern about whether she would have the money she needed to pay for her first semester of college. Our team worked with her to quickly revise her financial aid paperwork so she would get the financial aid she needed on time.

A new process

With nearly one in three low-income students who complete the FAFSA selected for verification, we recognized it was incumbent upon us to better support our students to understand the process, help them receive their funds sooner and ensure they enroll in college in the fall with their financial aid in place.

To this end, when the changes to the 2017 – 2018 FAFSA application process were announced allowing students to submit the FAFSA earlier, the Dell Scholars team saw an opportunity to shift our support processes to help students get their financial aid earlier.  We moved new Dell Scholar onboarding from May to April, and began tracking students who were selected for verification so we could identify challenges earlier that might put them at risk for “melting away” during the summer.

As a result, 98 percent of our new class of Dell Scholars received their college financial aid before they graduated from high school, up from 90 percent in 2016.

Our new process helps us stay on top of student issues in a timely manner, and that in turn helps students focus on other important aspects of getting ready to attend college.

A new result

With this new approach, we have been able to assist our Dell Scholars to help them complete the financial aid process sooner.  As a result:

  • We have already completed 85 percent of our one-on-one advising meetings with our new class to help them understand their financial aid award letters and identify any gaps are in their financial aid.
  • We are better able to focus on the two percent of our students who still need to receive their financial aid packages – a much more manageable number than in the past.
  • We are one month ahead of schedule which allows us to use the summer months to help students with any other issues they might have before they start school.

Our new process helps us stay on top of student issues in a timely manner, and that in turn helps students focus on other important aspects of getting ready to attend college.  The change also increases the bandwidth of our staff to support students in the fall as they experience new challenges.

One of the hallmarks of the Dell Scholars Program is that we never stop iterating and changing course, when necessary.  And this is just one example of how a small shift can make a huge difference.  It wasn’t hard to do, it just required a flexible mindset to change the way were doing something.  My advice to you?  Stay flexible in your approach and make the changes your challenge deserves.  The results might astound you.