Accelerating Student Success Through Summer Enrollment

Student studying in a park, surrounded by books and mobile devices

Community colleges graduation rates remain low. Some studies have shown that students who enroll in summer courses are more likely to stay on track and graduate, yet despite these benefits most college students do not attend during the summer.

So why don’t students attend, and how can colleges encourage more of them to enroll in the summer? To answer these questions MDRC launched the Encouraging Additional Summer Enrollment — or EASE — project in partnership with the Ohio Association of Community Colleges and 10 community colleges in Ohio. MDRC designed, implemented, and tested two interventions to encourage summer enrollment, using insights from behavioral science, a study of how people make decisions. Both interventions worked to increase enrollment, and both could be operated at a relatively low cost.

Join Leigh Parise as she talks about the EASE study with Caitlin Anzelone, deputy director of MDRC’s Center for Applied Behavioral Science.

Leigh: Policymakers talk about solutions, but which ones really work? Welcome to Evidence First, a podcast from MDRC that explores the best evidence available on how to improve the lives of low-income people. I am your host, Leigh Parise.

Leigh: Community colleges across the country continue to look for ways to support students as graduation rates remain low. Some studies have shown that students who enroll in summer courses are more likely to stay on track and graduate. Summer courses allow students to earn credits and make progress toward a degree while bridging the gap between the fall and spring semesters, a time when it’s common for students to drop out. Despite these benefits most college students do not attend during the summer. So what are some of the barriers, and how can colleges encourage more students to enroll in the summer?

Leigh: To answer these questions MDRC launched the Encouraging Additional Summer Enrollment — or EASE — project in partnership with the Ohio Association of Community Colleges and 10 community colleges in Ohio. MDRC designed, implemented, and tested two interventions to encourage summer enrollment, using insights from behavioral science, a study of how people make decisions. To learn more about the interventions and the encouraging results of evaluation, I spoke with Caitlin Anzelone, deputy director of MDRC’s Center for Applied Behavioral Science.

Leigh: Hi Caitlin, welcome. Thank you for joining me today. I’m excited to talk with you about the Encouraging Additional Summer Enrollment — or EASE — project. Traditionally, students take classes during fall and spring semesters, but can you talk about the benefits of enrolling students during the summer, especially those who may be struggling to graduate on time?

Caitlin: Sure, and thanks for having me today. I’m excited to talk about this project. We know that nationally only about 24 percent of community college students are actually earning their degree within a time frame of three years. We really thought that summer was a missed opportunity for many of these students who could continue to take courses that could earn credits that would help them graduate.

Leigh: Right. I heard you use the language, missed opportunity, which I think is really interesting. Why aren’t more students enrolling in the summer?

Caitlin: One of the main things that we heard were that students did not have the financial resources to enroll in summer courses, but that could mean a lot of different things. That could mean the actual costs of enrolling in classes, not having the resources to pay what is owed. But it could also mean a lot of external factors, not just cost directly related to enrolling in the class, but also things like having to work during the summer and having that be a period where students would take off and save money to be able to go back in the fall.

Caitlin: But there are also other barriers, things like child care. For a lot of working parents who are nontraditional students, they didn’t have child care during the summer and so they weren’t exactly sure how they could manage going to school and taking care of their children. And there’s also a misperception about summer. Coming from traditional high school, where summer was a period for more remediation for students who were behind, and kind of shifting that mindset and saying, “Now, in college, this is a time where you could actually accelerate your time to degree and a period where, actually, higher-performing students are more likely to take courses.”

Leigh: Thank you for that background. All right, let’s get down to it. What is the EASE Project, and what kind of interventions are you testing?

Caitlin: We basically have two interventions that we are testing as part of this project. The main intervention is what we’re calling an informational campaign. This is an informational campaign that’s based on research from behavioral science. What we wanted to do was basically communicate information that might change students’ minds about their willingness to enroll in summer. Students in this group received up to seven emails and up to four hard mailings about summer. These emails and mailings used a lot of different strategies to try to get students to enroll in summer. One main component was actually providing new information about the cost of enrollment. When we looked at the students who were in our sample, we realized that the majority of them actually had money remaining from their Pell Grants to actually pay for summer courses. What we were able to do, working really closely with the colleges in our study, is to provide personalized estimates to these students about their money remaining and how they could use that in summer. Students would receive something like a really specific email saying something like, “Hi Caitlin, based on your fall and spring enrollment, you have $300 remaining from your Pell Grant that you could use in summer.” We thought providing them with this really tangible dollar amount might increase enrollment. That was one main component of this info campaign.

There were also messages specifically targeted at social belonging and social influence. As part of the campaign we interviewed other students at the colleges. What we did is we put those perspectives into postcards and letters that would actually describe why those students were able to enroll in summer. Going back to some of those challenges that working students face around summer, we would have testimonials from students saying things like, “I was able to take classes at night when I had support for my child,” or “I was able to enroll in this online course.” Having that student perspective directly shared with other students in different mediums both in emails and in postcards.

Leigh: Can you talk a little bit about how this is different from what students would typically experience?

Caitlin: Sure. We worked with 10 colleges in this study and they all did slightly different things when it came to summer, but many of them weren’t doing any proactive outreach to students about the summer term. So this would feel really different from what students were typically experiencing and students have to proactively seek out that information. A student would have to say, “I am going to go to the financial aid office and determine how much Pell I have remaining, if any.” They’d actually even have to come up with knowing that that would be a question they would have to ask. Then they would have to make their way to the financial aid office, or send an email, and work with that person one-on-one. We were really trying to remove a lot of the barriers and steps to give them the information to help them make an informed decision about whether summer would be a period that they could really benefit from.

That was all part of that first intervention, the informational campaign. We also had a whole other treatment arm, which was what we are calling the info campaign plus a Summer Scholar grant. Students in this condition not only received all of those messages, but they actually had a grant that would cover any gap that they had between their remaining Pell Grant and their need.

Leigh: You talked about the MDRC team using behavioral science. Can you say a little bit more about your approach?

Caitlin: Sure. This project was a collaboration between MDRC’s Center for Applied Behavioral Science and our Postsecondary Education policy area. The Center for Applied Behavioral Science, or CABS, as we call it, is really dedicated to infusing these types of insights into projects at MDRC. We use a specific approach to really make sure that we are diagnosing barriers that students are facing, and then designing interventions that are really responsive to those barriers that we have found. In this project that’s exactly what we did. We knew that we wanted to do some kind of outreach campaign to students, and we knew that we would be able to provide some students with a grant to help offset the cost, but the specific content of those messages was informed by the student experience, really going to each college, talking to the students about what their experience was, talking to advisers and financial aid staff, and then also looking at data available at the colleges to really pinpoint what the problems were and how we could address them. Going back to that example I was mentioning about the cost — I think this is a really concrete example — we heard a lot from advisers and students that they didn’t have the money to go to school in summer. But what MDRC ended up doing is actually analyzing data from the colleges and doing a simulation that basically would show their money remaining from their Pell Grant and then how much money they would have available. And what we found is that actually the large majority of students did have money available. Merging what we’re hearing from students and faculty and advisers with quantitative data to design a really thoughtful and informed intervention that we think would have the biggest chance of having an impact.

Leigh: You talked about testing two different approaches here. What are the results of the randomized controlled trial — or the RCT — that you did? Were you successful at increasing summer enrollment?

Caitlin: Yes, we were successful. Our study involved about 10,000 students overall. What we saw was that the control group was enrolling at about a rate of 26 percent in summer courses. That’s the group that was not experiencing any intervention and just receiving those business-as-usual services around summer. The info campaign alone increased that by 5 percent, so about 31 percent of students in the info campaign group were enrolling in summer. The info campaign plus the Summer Scholar grant increased that enrollment level even more. Those students were enrolling at a rate of about 38 percent, which is 12 percent higher than the control group. We also saw an impact on credits earned for both groups. Now, we didn’t see an impact on fall enrollment. We’re exploring what that might mean.

Leigh: Great. That’s really exciting that you saw differences in both summer enrollment and in the credits earned. I have a question about the Summer Scholar grant. I think that this is something that could be really interesting to colleges. It seems like a way that they could be able to increase summer enrollment, which would be beneficial to the college and to the students. But the Summer Scholar grant, that sounds expensive. What did that entail and how much did it cost?

Caitlin: It might at first glance not be surprising at all that the Summer Scholar grant is having a larger impact than an info campaign alone. But going back to something we touched on earlier, the majority of students in our sample actually didn’t need a grant. They weren’t actually tapping into those resources. The cost will be coming out as part of our final report, but in summary, this was not a very expensive grant for colleges to implement. When we’ve been talking to colleges about the cost, they’ve been pleasantly surprised with how they might be able to sustain this grant without any additional funding or resources.

Leigh: I think one of the things that’s so interesting about the findings from this study is that, whether you did just the informational campaign, which didn’t cost the colleges anything, or you were able to provide the Summer Scholar grant, which ended up being a really small cost per student, is that there were still impacts on student enrollment and on credits attained. Right?

Caitlin: Right.

Leigh: One of the things that we’re always thinking about at MDRC in our work is, how what we’re finding and the work that we’re doing can be informative for policy makers and practitioners alike. Can you say a little bit about kind of why you think our findings matter from a policy standpoint?

Caitlin: I think we got lucky, in a sense, as researchers, that when we implemented this study a policy shift actually happened and we were able to do the study in both contexts. When we started, year-round Pell was not currently enacted. What year-round Pell does is provide students with an additional Pell Grant that they can use in the summer term, or in intercession terms, increasing their total award amount for the year. And I’ll just say that a Pell Grant is a grant that low-income students are eligible for provided by the federal government, that can offset the cost of college. In our first summer students did not have access to that grant but in the second summer they did have access to that grant. We were really interested in seeing how our info campaign might be received in both of those contexts. What we found is that in both the absence of year-round Pell and with year-round Pell, that the info campaign was effective at increasing enrollment, and that the Summer Scholar grant was effective at increasing enrollment. So no discernible differences between those two conditions. This is really policy-relevant for a few reasons. One, is that we are leveraging existing resources that the student has. All we’re doing in that info campaign group is simplifying that information for the student. In terms of having a low-cost, sustainable intervention that doesn’t require a lot of resources, I think it’s a really clear example of how to do that. Also I think there’s a huge finding in the Summer Scholar grant, in that you could think about actually different ways to message the Pell Grant program that might actually be more effective. Just telling students that it is a scholarship and that they’re fully covered and thinking about different ways to provide them that information might actually be beneficial. When we’re talking about policy relevance, a lot of it is about how that policy is actually translated to the student who’s experiencing that policy. And there’s a lot of different things that can happen in that realm, and I think that’s where behavioral science research can also really contribute.

Leigh: Right, thank you. That translation piece feels really critical. So, Caitlin, can you tell us what’s next for the EASE Project?

Caitlin: We have a lot of exciting work still ahead of us. One of the main documents we’re working on right now is what we’re calling our Practitioner Guide that could share lessons about how we implemented this campaign and could be used at other colleges across the country if they would want to use similar messages to increase summer enrollment. We’re also digging into some additional analysis that would explore how this campaign and Scholar grant worked for different groups. That will be forthcoming in our final report. And then we’re also hoping to test these interventions in different states. We worked in Ohio for this project. We think that taking these lessons to new states would be really exciting and a great opportunity.

Leigh: Great. We really look forward to getting to read the report and to the how-to guide that’s coming out. It’s exciting that colleges across the country will be able to pick that up and implement similar interventions to really make a difference for their students. Thanks to Caitlin for joining me. To learn more about the MDRC’s Center for Applied Behavioral Science visit Did you enjoy this episode? Please subscribe to the Evidence First podcast for more.

About Evidence First

Policymakers talk about solutions, but which ones really work? MDRC’s Evidence First podcast features experts—program administrators, policymakers, and researchers—talking about the best evidence available on education and social programs that serve people with low incomes.

About Leigh Parise

Leigh PariseEvidence First host Leigh Parise plays a lead role in MDRC’s education-focused program-development efforts and conducts mixed-methods education research. More