Take it from a middle child: Your sophomores feel neglected.

They don't call it the 'sophomore slump' for no reason

Caroline Hopkins, staff writerCaroline Hopkins, staff writer

Being a sophomore in college is like being a middle child in a family of four. I know because I am one.

Your older siblings are naturally the center of attention—they have to land jobs so your parents can send them into the working world with confidence. And of course your younger sibling never lacks attention, either. All your parents care about is that she feels comfortable and loved.

Then there's you. Your parents love you, of course, but their priorities are elsewhere. Don't they see how hard you're working to discover yourself? Do they notice you're there? Would they notice if you left?

Such is the plight of the sophomore student.

According to EAB's senior analyst Alexa Silverman, 17.9% of attrition occurs during sophomore year. That's a lot of lost "middle child" students—which of course translates to lost tuition dollars and a ding to your graduation rate.  

To keep your sophomores happy, engaged, and enrolled, Silverman and EAB project manager Colin Koproske's research found, your efforts need to address the four main things that make being a sophomore so tough:

  • The flood of paperwork;
  • A sudden absence of mentors;
  • The lack of a sophomore identity; and
  • Confusion about choosing the right major.

Silverman and Koproske offer several ideas for tackling each issue.

1: The flood of paperwork

During freshman year, students usually receive advice from high schools and counselors regarding financial aid. But once they hit year two, paperwork maintenance falls into their own hands. It's easy to see how a person could get overwhelmed.

Silverman and Koproske found that some colleges are helping students stay on top of everything by:

  • Appointing a specific person to walk each student through the re-filing process;
  • Making phone calls to Pell Grant-eligible sophomore students to remind and assist them with FAFSA re-filing;
  • Delivering FAFSA information through contacts students are already familiar with, such as their resident assistants; or
  • Offering financial incentives like textbook stipends for students who need to complete summer courses not covered by financial aid.

2: A sudden absence of mentors

Middle children often feel a bit distant from their parents—and sophomores often feel a bit distant from faculty. "The sophomore class is the only class that does not benefit from the more interactive, supportive environment of a seminar-format classroom," Silverman and Koproske note.

But sophomores aren't too cool for school—Silverman and Koproske say that the students actually appreciate the chance to "hear personal stories about faculty's academic and career paths, examples of how they learned from hardship... and the positive aspects of conducting academic or professional work in their program of study."

To replace the cozy seminar environment, Silverman and Koproske say you can get your faculty engaged with sophomores in other ways, such as:

  • Sophomore electives, where faculty lead seminars in specialized topics;
  • Faculty panels, where sophomores can ask faculty members about career paths; and
  • Experience seminars, where sophomores take trips and work on projects with small groups.

16 ideas for sophomore initiatives from successful second-year programs

3: The lack of a sophomore identity

What's so special about year two? Many schools don't make this clear. The big milestones that affect other years—orientation, study abroad, graduation—don't apply to sophomores.

"The sophomore year lacks a specific identity that promotes on-campus engagement," say Silverman and Koproske. But students are more likely to return for junior year if they feel socially integrated or engage with co-curricular activities. The researchers identified a few ways to make sophomore year feel special, which include:

  • Sophomore orientation with welcome activities;
  • Volunteer opportunities that foster a sense of community involvement;
  • "Major maps," which match co-curricular activities to specific areas of study; and
  • Sophomore living-learning communities where students live in sophomore-only housing.

4: Confusion about choosing the right major

Choosing a major is one of the few traditional sophomore milestones. It might not be as momentous as enrolling or graduating, but it's no small deal—which is why schools should focus efforts to facilitate the right choice

"Second-year major declaration helps ensure students stay on track to graduate," the researchers note. "Ideally, students will be prepared to remain in the majors that they declare in their sophomore year."

To help students make the right choice, Silverman and Koproske share that some colleges:

  • Offer career self-exploration resources, such as a central hub with information on potential career paths for each major;
  • Create alternative pathways for limited-capacity major programs, such as pre-professional majors with transferrable credentials; and
  • Assign advisors to groups of majors with frequent transitions—like nursing, biology, and public health—so that if students switch majors, the advisors will be aware of transition steps.

Learn what Stony Brook University changed to break their record for sophomore-to-junior retention

Being a middle child, I had 20 years of coping mechanisms in place when the "sophomore slump" hit me—but my school could have been more helpful. Housing options were convoluted, and no one nudged me to consider how my major might affect my career options.

I can attest that sophomore/middle-child syndrome is real—and urge you to recognize that the struggle to transition to college life can continue into the second year.

Colleges, take note: Sophomores need your attention, too.  

Read the complete study: Four components of effective sophomore retention efforts

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