Thursday, October 14, 2010

What’s a Sophomore?

Last week I had a nice discussion with some people who work at nearby four-year schools. We were discussing the various points at which students seem to get sidetracked. Everyone agreed that the first semester is key, but the discussion became a bit more challenging after that.

My counterparts moved to a discussion of the second year of college. They mentioned that the sophomore year is when students need to declare a major, and that students who can’t commit to anything at that point are at much higher risk of walking away.

It sounded right to me, until I realized that they had used “second year” and “sophomore” interchangeably. To be fair, in their specific contexts, that was probably perfectly valid. But it doesn’t describe the community college world well at all.

The traditional sequence for students has students starting as freshmen, then becoming sophomores, and eventually juniors and seniors. Community colleges do the first half of the sequence, with our students graduating at the end of their sophomore years.

Except that the ‘freshman’ and ‘sophomore’ designations don’t work terribly well here. And that has implications for the kinds of interventions that can help at-risk students.

The IPEDS data we report is designed on the traditional model, which means that the success of many of our interventions are measured by the impact they have on the first-time, full-time, degree-seeking cohort (usually abbreviated FTFTDS). That describes the overwhelming majority of entering students at Dartmouth, but a minority here.

Most of the students who start here start with developmental and/or ESL classes, often for more than one semester. They move from full-time to part-time and back again, as economic and family needs dictate. By the time they get to the traditional first-year classes -- Composition 1, College Algebra, etc. -- they may have already been here for two or three semesters.

Since this is a commuter campus, we can’t rely on dorms to clearly mark the first-year cohort. And since students come in with wildly varying levels of academic preparation, we can’t clearly find the first-year cohort in any given class. (Sadly, even the first-level developmental classes aren’t always clean indicators of first-year status.) There’s no clean mechanism to catch them outside of class, and no class we can rely on to catch them. They’re everywhere and nowhere.

To make things more complex, we don’t have the isolated clean start of September (or the slightly less clean starts of September and January) that the more exclusive places have. Students here start and finish at all different points of the year. September is the most popular time, but we get new enrollments in the Spring, Summer, and Fall. We even get them for the January intersession. Cohorts blow apart quickly, especially in the early stages.

Is a second-year student taking 100-level classes a sophomore? I’d say ‘no,’ since I’d define ‘sophomore’ according to progress towards graduation. But that means making a distinction between second-year students and sophomores.

Here, students declare a major upon initial enrollment. I’m told that it’s a financial aid requirement, though I’ll admit not knowing why four-year colleges don’t seem to have that same requirement. Among students who reach my version of ‘sophomore’ status, the subsequent attrition rates are remarkably low; in essence, if they make it to thirty credits, they make it to sixty. The trick is in getting them to thirty, even if it takes more than a year to do it. We just don’t have a word for a second-year freshman.