Putting the Freeze on Summer Melt

OCTOBER 2019: Administrators at Cincinnati Public Schools and the University of Cincinnati have known for some time that far too many CPS graduates who enroll at UC do not complete their degrees. But they did not know until this past spring that many students who set out on the journey from high school to college never even get started. 

The revelation came from a new commitment by the school district and the university to collect and share more detailed data to support CPS students who enroll at UC’s Clifton and Blue Ash campuses. The first data report in June showed that many students who enrolled for fall 2018 never showed up for the first day of classes. At Blue Ash, one in four students never made it to campus.

Officials immediately responded to the phenomenon – known in higher education circles as “summer melt” – by providing hands-on student assistance to new enrollees during the months between high school graduation in May and the first day of fall classes in August.

They were able to cut the percentage who didn’t show up at Blue Ash in half.

“We at CPS had focused so much on acceptance and we celebrate acceptance,” said Kayla Ritter Rickels, the district’s College Manager. “But when we focused on the admissions pipeline data, we came to understand that completion is much more important. And students can’t graduate from college if they never show up on day one.” 

Last fall, CPS Superintendent Laura Mitchell initiated partnership agreements with 10 regional colleges and universities to define their mutual commitment to the district’s goal that every student graduate on time and has the opportunity to pursue postsecondary education and their chosen career path. Central to the agreements was the willingness to exchange a more extensive set of student data that allows for greater shared accountability of student success both during high school and after they enroll in college. 

StrivePartnership was asked to facilitate the data-sharing process by engaging a working group of institutional research staff from the universities and CPS. This past spring, the group landed on a set of shared measures that all institutions agreed to collect. StrivePartnership manages the data collection and houses it in our data warehouse, allowing us to create dashboards that help inform the work of the larger partnership. UC and Cincinnati State College have built data dashboards for CPS students within their institutions. 

The summer melt initiative shows how the effort already is paying dividends for students. It is not unusual for students and families that have never had to navigate the intricate tasks required to enroll in college to miss required deadlines and assignments. These can be everything from confirming that final high school transcripts are received by the university and verifying financial aid forms to showing up at orientation sessions and making sure that all medical immunizations are completed. Many families become so overwhelmed or confused by the time classes start that they never finish the process. 

“Until we looked at the data, I don’t think we fully understood the hoops we ask students to jump through,” Ritter-Rickels said.

In response, CPS hired high school guidance counselors to work through the summer, and UC dedicated admissions specialists, financial aid advisors and even a student “navigator” to help students stay on track. Carpools were arranged to mandatory orientation sessions and attendance was closely monitored. 

At UC’s main campus in Clifton, results from the effort indicate that CPS students were more likely to show up than the rest of the first-year student body. Ninety percent of recipients of Cincinnati Pride Grants, which are set aside for CPS students, attended orientation. Cincinnati State provided assistance as well. 

The entire program cost less than $10,000. The goal is to establish it as a permanent summer strategy. Meanwhile, officials are eager to discover new insights from the data that will inform other interventions to ensure CPS students are successful in their transition from high school to college.

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