How Colleges Can Combat the Sophomore Slump

Students with TeacherIn the first year of college, everything is exciting and new. A new campus, new friends, new classes. Students may be living on their own for the first time, but they have plenty of support. There’s freshman orientation to make sure they get off on the right foot, and faculty advisors and upper-classmen to help freshmen get acclimated to their new academic and social environments.Then comes sophomore year. Feelings of boredom and apathy are so common for second-year college students that the phenomenon has a name: “sophomore slump.” Not only is nothing new anymore, but sophomores feel the pressure to pick a major and start charting the course for their careers and their lives after college. Many students wonder, “Why am I in school?” “How do I choose a major?” “What do I want to do with my life?”

Meeting the needs of second-year students

Student walking aloneThough most dropouts occur freshman year, a growing number of students are quitting college during their second year, according to a recent study by higher ed experts Noel-Levitz. That’s why it’s so important to keep a close watch on students for the first two years.

So what can colleges do to engage sophomores — and keep more of them on campus? Ohio State University has spearheaded a program to increase sophomore-faculty interaction. Faculty mentors are assigned to visit sophomore dorms regularly to help students set goals and plan educational experiences like studying abroad or interning. Even if study-abroad programs aren’t an option until junior year, planning a semester in a different place and having that to look forward to can energize sophomores and provide incentive to keep up with their studies.

Having discovered that sophomores struggle with academic engagement, Purdue University has implemented sophomore-only “learning communities.” Groups of 20 second-year students interested in subjects including statistics, leadership, and science and technology live together, take classes together, and work on a full-year research project, earning a stipend in the process.

Colgate University has one of the longest-standing programs aimed at engaging and retaining second-year students. The college’s Sophomore Residential Seminars group together selected students residentially and academically, and immerse them further into their coursework through academic travel with faculty members. A seminar called “Coffee and Cigarettes” examined the history of these everyday goods, ranging from 16th-century Turkish coffeehouses to 21st-century Starbucks, and culminated in a weeklong trip to Costa Rica during the coffee harvest.

Helping sophomores choose a major

Part of what causes the “slump” is the pressure on sophomores to choose a major, which by definition means letting go of some dreams and committing to one path, says Molly A. Schaller, a University of Dayton professor who studies second-year students, in a New York Times article.

Sometimes, having trouble pinning down a major or lacking interest in certain classes can mean students don’t really know what they are interested in. In these cases, an assessment that helps them discover their personal strengths, weaknesses, and interests can help. If weak skills are the problem, tutoring might be the answer.

When asked to give advice to students struggling with the sophomore slump, MIT alumni urged them to follow their passion, find what interests them rather than their peers or parents, and not be afraid to switch their majors later if they change their minds.

Don’t forget about fun

Diverse group of friendsOf course, you shouldn’t overlook the fact that college is about social engagement and having fun, not just academics. Colleges that foster a strong sense of community know that’s one of the keys to student retention. If their friends are sticking around for four years and graduating, chances are other students will, too.

Advisors can encourage struggling second-year students to join a club — a social or academic one. If they’re feeling burned out with required courses, suggest they take one class purely for the fun of it. Volunteering is another great way to help students feel connected to the community and remember how fortunate they are to be getting a college education.

Why retention of sophomores is important

Studies show that college graduates find jobs more easily and earn more money. That’s why statistics showing that nearly half of all college students in the U.S. drop out before earning a degree are alarming. Jeffrey Selingo, author of College (Un)Bound, and editor at large of The Chronicle of Higher Education , explains it this way: “So many students end up poorly matching their campus. That’s why … many, unfortunately, simply drop out.”

Helping students understand themselves and their goals better is one key to retaining them. And finding ways that colleges can keep students on campus, especially during that critical sophomore year, is essential to helping them graduate and access the world of opportunities that a college degree provides.

Dan Sines is Co-Founder and CEO of Woofound, Inc., a developer of personalization software and applications for a mobile generation. Dan’s keen understanding of the user experience, combined with a creative media production background has enabled Woofound to lead organizations and consumers into the future of personalization.

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