Dump the Slump

With its new convocation for second-year students, Duke is among a growing number of universities fighting a sophomore-year letdown.
September 29, 2011

The president of Duke University’s sophomore class doesn’t totally buy into the idea of the “sophomore slump” – the second-year experience of aimlessness or isolation that seems to deflate the ambitions of many college students.

True, he says, the sudden stress of choosing a major and laying a path for the future can be overbearing. And as the newness of college wears off, it may not be as exciting. At Duke in particular, where freshmen all live together in isolation on East Campus, the second-year move to West Campus breaks a lot of social connections.

“The sophomore slump and all that – whether that’s a reality or not, just the idea of it and the perception of it can make people start feeling as though they don’t matter to the university anymore, or they’re no longer in the spotlight. The clubs and organizations are no longer looking for them; they’re looking for the new freshmen,” Andrew Hanna said. “But I do think sophomore year can be even more amazing and cool than freshman year was.”

That’s why he was excited to launch Duke’s first-ever sophomore convocation, where he and university deans aimed to inspire and reassure these students that they’re not only valued at the institution – they’re essential. Like other major events at the university, convocation took place in the iconic Duke Chapel, and featured a processional and performance by the student a cappella group, along with various administrator and student speakers (including Hanna) who conveyed different messages about student success.

Photo: Sophia Palenberg, The Duke Chronicle

Students gather in Duke Chapel for the university's first sophomore convocation.

“The sophomore year is a time of transition, where students sometimes do feel like they’re in a slump. They’re not yet necessarily deeply on their track toward whatever their path is, but they’re no longer in that special moment of being the first-year class whom everybody dotes on,” said Stephen Nowicki, dean and vice provost for undergraduate education at Duke. Nowicki spoke at the convocation, encouraging students to explore their options both inside and outside the classroom. “The message they got is, ‘You’re the emerging leaders.’ ”

While retention isn’t a huge problem at Duke – about 3 percent of freshmen drop out after the first year, and another 2 percent of the same cohort leave before senior year’s end – the sophomore slump is blamed for raising attrition rates at many institutions. Nearly 66 percent of colleges that start sophomore convocations or other programs with similar aims say their reason for doing so is to improve retention, according to the University of South Carolina Research Center’s 2008 National Survey of Sophomore-Year Initiatives.

About 20 to 25 percent of second-year students experience the slump, according to research conducted by Laurie Schreiner, a professor and chair of doctoral programs in higher education at Azusa Pacific University. Her annual spring surveys of sophomores at nearly 100 colleges that seek her help have repeatedly found that the students who report dissatisfaction or disillusionment, often prompted by the shock of losing the intense institutional attention and support they received as freshmen, are the same ones who don’t move on to junior year. (About 2/3 of those colleges are traditional residential ones; the rest are commuter campuses.)

“Slumping’s a motivational, emotional experience,” Schreiner said. “They’re not feeling that connection in their second year that they felt in the first year…. I think that has dramatic implications for us as we think about wanting our students to really thrive in college -- not just to graduate but to get the most out of their experience.”

When they begin college, students are bombarded from all sides with invitations to join clubs and teams, get academic advising, talk to faculty members and participate in residence hall events. They’re free to explore – academically and socially – and following freshman orientation, everything they need is essentially at their fingertips.

So oftentimes, when these students return to campus the following fall, they feel “abandoned,” Schreiner said. And with juniors and seniors (mostly) on track in their studies and more established in the campus community, sophomores can experience Jan Brady syndrome -- seeing themselves as something of a “middle child."

Administrators at Pace University began extensive efforts to improve sophomore retention rates after they managed to stabilize freshman retention at 77 percent, but then realized that only 65 percent of those who had made it to sophomore year continued on as juniors.

Administrators such as Barbara Pennipede, assistant vice president of planning, assessment and institutional research, conducted a survey based on results from the National Survey of Student Engagement to figure out why it was happening, and then took a number of measures to rectify it. Because students reported poor or undeveloped peer-to-peer relationships as one of the biggest reasons for withdrawing, Pace created more common spaces and areas for students to interact, and began offering more “learning communities” – two or more classes that are tied together and taken by the same group of students.

Pace also has its own “sophomore kick-off day,” where representatives from student clubs and support services interact with prospective participants. “It’s just trying to keep sophomores very much in the forefront of the college experience, and reinforcing their confidence in why they’re there and the things they can become involved with if they’re not already involved,” Pennipede said. And to ease some of the pressure of solidifying a career track when students might not be ready, Pace nixed the label “undecided” and replaced it with “exploring majors.”

“They felt that the term 'undecided' was a negative term, and wanted to make it more positive for the students,” Pennipede said. “To let them know there’s nothing wrong with you if you’re not sure at 18 years old what you would like to do, and we’re here to help you explore.”

But – of course – there’s one major factor that makes addressing the sophomore slump complicated for colleges.

“The continuum fills out, and there’s tremendous diversity in the student experience,” said Molly Schaller, chair and associate professor of the University of Dayton’s department of counselor education and human services. So while some students do indeed fall into the sophomore slump, others experience the “sophomore surge.”

“I think that’s what makes the sophomore year so difficult for colleges to figure out what to do with,” Schaller said.

Schaller, who has studied and written about the sophomore experience, said the best programs help students forge connections on all fronts – in academics, with friends and in their careers. “Figuring out what you’re doing here and where you’re heading seems to be what’s most important for students,” Schaller said. “Specifically in the sophomore year, students need to have a connection to that outside reality.”

Opportunities such as learning communities, internship and study abroad programs, and events that bring alumni to campus to reflect on their career paths can all be hugely beneficial to sophomores, Schaller said. In fact, the best programs start during the summer.

“That summer is a time of reflection for lots of students…. They’re evaluating the efficacy of their college experience,” she said. “Having students come back with some kind of unifying experience…. Those kinds of programs are certainly picking up steam.”

Enter sophomore convocation. While nobody keeps track of how many or which institutions offer this specific type of event, they seem to be growing more common. Some researchers estimate that as many as 25 percent of sophomore success programs involve a welcome-back event.

Stanford University’s annual Sophomore Celebration, now in its 12th year, is similar in theory to Duke’s convocation. It’s an opportunity for campus leaders – students, administrators and faculty alike – to reconnect sophomores, prepare them, notify them of the available resources, and “remind them that they really are the agents of their education, and the path that they’re taking is theirs to shape,” said Koren L. Bakkegard, associate dean of undergraduate advising and research at Stanford. About half the class attends. (Duke’s first convocation drew about one in three sophomores.)

“We see so much value in bringing the sophomores together,” Bakkegard said. “It seems to be filling at least some need for some students, at the moment.”

But, as Schreiner said, a welcome back alone won’t be enough – and Duke, Stanford and others know that. Which is why they continue with such events throughout the year.

“What Duke’s convocation did was kind of lay out that road map,” Schreiner said. “When students feel that this is the right place for them to be, and they know what they’re doing with their lives and they have that sense of direction and purpose, they tend to stay. So I think that’s where we ultimately see that payoff in graduation.”


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