Targeting 'The Lost Year'

January 31, 2008

In material sent to prospective freshmen, Miami University tells students to prepare for two years of living in the dorms. That hasn't always been the case at the Ohio public institution. Typically, more than 30 percent of students choose to live off campus after their first year.

On the whole, students in that category perform worse in the classroom and are less involved in co-curricular activities than their on-campus sophomore counterparts are, according to Susan Mosley-Howard, associate vice president for student affairs and dean of students.

Miami's soon-to-be-implemented two-year residential policy is part of an initiative to keep students engaged in ways that administrators hope first-year students are, through orientation, meetings and residence hall programming.

"In higher education we put lots of emphasis on the first-year programs, but all of the sudden the second year comes and it's easy for students to get lost in the mix," Mosley-Howard said. "We're going to be much more intentional about what we want students to learn over their first two years."

Colleges across the country are looking at what's often called "the lost year" and developing programs intended to help with academic and social transitions. Roughly a third of institutions that responded to a survey from the University of South Carolina's National Resource Center for the First-Year Experience and Students In Transition indicated having initiatives specifically designed for sophomores. (A list compiled by the center is available here.) Thirty-seven percent of respondents said their colleges were in the midst of planning a program. Not surprisingly, smaller private institutions were more likely to plan a sophomore class event than were large public colleges.

Survey results revealed that academic advising (most often help with selecting a major) and career guidance were two of the most common facets of these programs. Barbara F. Tobolowsky, associate director of the South Carolina center, said many colleges had the services available to students before starting these second-year initiatives, but wanted a better way to package the offerings to sophomores. College officials say it's also a way to help with retention efforts.

It's unclear how fast the programs are spreading, given that the center hadn't surveyed colleges about their second-year initiatives until fall 2005. Tobolowsky said she wants to gather new data this fall, in part because the sample size for the first report was only 382 colleges (out of 1,139 targeted).

Julie Stockenberg, director of first-year and sophomore studies and academic advising at Colorado College, said that while the second-year programs started mainly at liberal arts colleges, public universities and community colleges have taken notice. Those types of institutions were well represented, Stockenberg said, in a conference call she led this week for colleges that are mostly in the early stages of developing such programs.

Initiatives that early on were largely based on residence hall seminars and co-curricular activities are also beginning to include academic components, she said. Sophomores at Colorado College can take a second-year-only elective course that covers multiculturalism and democracy. The 15 or so students in the yearlong course live together in a dorm hallway.

Colorado College's Sophomore Jump program also includes once-a-month dinners with faculty members and events such as an international opportunities week that previously existed for the entire campus and that now have sessions tailored to second-year students -- in this case conversations about studying abroad junior year.

Stockenberg's position, created five years ago, includes work as a supplementary adviser. She meets with well over 100 sophomores per year (on top of their assigned faculty adviser), and also develops first-year programming.

"We're looking at it like other colleges are -- as a first- and second-year initiative," she said. "Sometimes we have a tendency to put too much in the first year, when the information may not be developmentally appropriate. Instead, we're thinking about it as a two-year span."

At Miami, students get an introduction to campus life during a program during their first year. The university is considering adding new seminars for returning students that focus on the responsibilities of living off campus, including knowledge of city ordinances and landlord-tenant contracts.

"They're hearing about living with people in the first year, but they haven't yet had any experiences and learned to co-exist," she said. "Now they get to say, 'I've seen a lot, where do I stand on the issues?' "

Miami's second-year dorm rule is a return to a past university policy -- one that has not always been popular with students. Judith A. Sessions, dean and university librarian, who spoke about the initiative at the Association of American Colleges and Universities' annual meeting this month, said the second year on campus gives students "more time to reflect on what it means to be a member of an academic community and have social obligations."

Second-year students will be asked to develop a code of conduct for their residence halls and create, if decided on by dorm residents, a governance structure. Unless the rules run afoul of university policies, the students will have final say over the guidelines, Mosley-Howard said.

"It fits into the notion of entrusting students with responsibilities and learning what it's like to be a citizen," she added.

Students will also be asked to write reflections about their experiences with the program in an online journal.

Molly Schaller, an associate professor in the department of counselor education and human services at the University of Dayton, who has written extensively on second-year students, said she's noticed plenty of campuses requiring a second year of campus residency, but most do so for financial reasons -- unlike Miami.

Linking Academics and Careers

At Dayton, academic departments and programs have attempted to keep sophomores engaged through their own programming. The criminal justice program, for instance, provides seminars and luncheons for students who have declared the major but who are still not taking many classes in the field.

The strongest second-year transition programs make a clear link between academic and career advising, Schaller said. It's often a matter of taking what's already offered on campus and either re-packaging it for students or tailoring it to the second-year transition.

"We're getting to the point where institutions are articulating to students and faculty that it's not just another year -- there are special programs for them," Schaller said.

At Colgate University, the Sophomore Class Council partners with a dean to organize parts of the "Sophomore-Year Experience," which includes alumni networking, community service events and study abroad seminars.

Raj Bellani, Colgate's associate dean of academic programs, who helps oversee the initiative along with the dean of the sophomore experience, said the phrase "lost year" is a misnomer and should really be called "a year in transition."

Colgate's program includes an option for students to shadow alumni at their jobs and attend networking meals with faculty members. The university also offers sophomore-only residence halls. Bellani pointed out that nearly all of Colgate's students live on campus as sophomores, which "builds class community."

The idea of the second-year initiative isn't new. One of the earliest such programs started at Beloit College in the early 1990s -- at the same time the institution shaped its first-year programming. The second-year program includes a major declaration fair, in which students can declare a major or minor and speak with professors about their choice, and a sophomore class retreat attended by roughly half the class. That retreat is planned for November, when students begin to hit the sophomore slump, said Joy de Leon, co-director of the program and assistant dean for academic advising at Beloit.

"Students are feeling the pressure," she said. "Work piles on, and it's a different kind of work."

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