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Reimagining College’s Third Year

Junior year, often overlooked, is debatably college’s most important year.

December 5, 2019
 
 

When asked which is college’s most important year, few would say the junior year. But the third year is crucial, and doesn’t get the respect it deserves.

Colleges have instituted first-year experiences, sophomore experiences and senior-year capstone experiences -- but the junior year remains largely ignored. Yet choices made as a college junior carry long-term consequences.

It’s during the third year that most transfer students arrive, and many experience transfer shock -- that difficult period of adjustment that leads many to enroll in fewer and fewer credit hours.

It’s also the year when most students, transfer or otherwise, enter, shift or find themselves closed out of majors -- especially the most popular majors, such as nursing, engineering, computer science and business.

It is during college’s third year that students should -- but generally don’t -- begin to prepare for a career, by taking an internship, developing a portfolio of projects or taking skills workshops. At many residential colleges, junior year is considered the ideal time to study abroad. But relatively few students do.

What, then, can we do to make the third year more successful?

For transfer students, the answers are straightforward: take steps to promote transfer student success.

  1. Recognize the importance of transfer students and commit your institution to transfer student success.
    At many urban public institutions, transfer students make up half or more of the student body. Since many measures of retention and completion focus solely on first-year, full-time students, it’s easy to downplay the significance of the transfer population. That’s a big mistake.
  2. Recognize the diversity of transfer students.
    Transfer students do not fit a single profile. We are most familiar with vertical transfer, from a community college to a four-year institution, but lateral transfers -- between four-year institutions -- are also common. There are swirlers, who move back and forth between two- and four-year institutions, as well as double dippers, who pursue a second degree, and comebackers, who return to college after a significant break. Each of these groups has its own special challenges and needs.
  3. Dispel stereotypes and rebut the stigma surrounding transfer students.
    We’re all familiar with the negative perceptions: that transfer students are less well-prepared academically or that the education that they received at a community college was not rigorous. In fact, most community college transfer students do well academically -- and when they don’t, it’s generally not the result of unpreparedness let alone a lack of talent, but, rather, misaligned curricula, barriers to credit transfer, unavailability of essential classes and discouragement and isolation -- all issues that four-year institutions need to address.
  4. Address the challenges transfer students face.
    Many transfer students find it difficult to integrate into their new campus environment. A new set of academic expectations can contribute to feeling overwhelmed. Many students with disabilities discover that their new campus does not provide the same support services that they previously had. Transfer students’ demographic profile tends to differ from that of first-time college students. On average, they’re older, more likely to work full-time, more likely to be from underrepresented groups, to be undocumented and to come from lower-SES background. All these factors pose potentially challenges. These need to be addressed head-on.
  5. Make onboarding of transfer students a priority.
    Organize special onboarding events for transfer students. Introduce transfer students to campus resources. Make sure every transfer student sees an adviser and has a two-year degree plan.
  6. Provide transfer students with many of the same resources and services we provide to first-time-in-college students.
    Create a dedicated hub for transfer students to obtain information and referrals. Expand access to peer-to-peer mentoring, summer bridge programs and student success skills workshops.
  7. Consider offering special transfer sections of high-demand courses.
    Also, provide opportunities for transfer students to enter honors programs, scholarship programs and opportunity programs.

Many of the challenges faced by transfers are shared by their first-time-in-college counterparts. Their academic momentum tends to fade, as they spend more time on paid work. They, too, frequently shift majors. And few take steps to prepare themselves for the postgraduation job market.

What, then, should colleges do?

  1. Identify students who are off-track -- and intervene proactively.
    Follow-up on the warning signs: a change in major or a reduction the number of credits enrolled. Make sure these students see an adviser who can help them devise a two-year completion plan.
  2. Encourage timely completion.
    A surprising number of students decide to pursue two or even three majors and two minors. Breadth is valuable and desirable, but it can be overdone and certainly comes at a cost, as financial aid runs out.
  3. Embed career preparation in the third year.
    Offer a “success bundle” -- workshops that provide essential skills: public speaking and presentation skills, résumé writing, mock job interviews, and facility with Excel and databases. Increase opportunities for students to build up their résumé, for example, by offering certificate programs (for example, in data science, design, research methods or sustainability) in areas of high demand.
  4. Expand access to high-impact practices.
    If paid internships are difficult to obtain, try other approaches, like microinternships, where teams of students tackle a challenge posed by a nonprofit. If a traditional semester abroad program is unaffordable, consider alternatives: exchange programs or a more compact alternative, a week or two weeks long. Incorporate research opportunities into junior-level classes. These need not necessarily involve laboratory research. Give students the chance to work in an archive or to conduct quantitative research or to develop a project under faculty supervision.
  5. Make life easier for students who commute, work or give care.
    A 15-credit load is tough to maintain, especially for those who must balance their studies with other responsibilities. We can help. Expand the number of online courses, whether synchronous or asynchronous. Offer practicums and field-based experiences that allow students to build their résumés while earning academic credit. Blur the line between the curriculum and co-curriculum by incorporating enrichment opportunities -- such as attending a performance or visiting a museum -- within courses.

Student success experts quite rightly emphasize the importance of academic momentum. But for too many students, the junior year is the loss of momentum year. We need to recognize this fact and take aggressive steps to ensure that this doesn’t remain the case.

Steven Mintz is special adviser to the president of Hunter College for student success and strategic initiatives.

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