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.

In athletics they have a term for a second-year freshman, Red Shirt Freshman. Maybe the use of that would be appropriate in this case too?
The student population I work with falls outside of the traditionally examined and measured student population as well. I work at a satellite campus of my university, and 99% of my students, both undergraduate and graduate, fit the "non-traditional" categorization. Most are working professionals (some having worked for just a few years and others for 15-20), have attended one or more previous colleges, their enrollment status fluctuates throughout the year (from part-time to full-time), they don't always attend every semester, and many make use of some online coursework to combat conflicts with work and personal schedules.

While I love working with such a diverse student population, it certainly makes it difficult to classify many of them, and standard FTFTDS measures rarely fit them well.
I work at a four-year commuter school that's part of a larger university system. Actually, in the ways you've described, your student body is very similar to ours. And we have the same problem making those distinctions. To a large degree, the guidelines and policies are dictated by financial aid rules.

Here, class designations are designated by the number of credits attained. It's called "progress toward graduation," but there's actually very little correlation between the number of credits and progress toward graduation. That's because many of our students are transfers, and a significant number take long enough to accumulate credits that they actually lose some of them. If they don't take classes for two semesters, their projected graduation year (a.k.a. "Class of" designation") is pushed back by one year. And sometimes, particularly in the technological and professional programs, the requirements for the major change from one year to the next.

You can imagine what a headache that is for advisors! I know, because I was one for a year.
My school has the opposite problem: Utah has a "concurrent enrollment" program that lets them earn college credits while still in high school. This means that many first-year college students begin with enough credits to make them technically sophomores. The problem is that concurrent enrollment rarely prepares them to actually do upper-division college-level coursework...
This is all very depressing to read. I started out as a traditional student and now am a non-trad student. I have more in common with your class of students than I do with the students I am grouped with. Things are changing fast.
You know, they really are Red-Shirt Freshmen.

A more significant issue is that IPEDS data don't track many of your students, so most measures of the success of the college are wildly skewed. We don't get any credit at all for taking that 1st year dropout who boomerangs home to the CC through to an AA and graduation from a 4-year school.

to Utah:
We have a "concurrent enrollment" program, and find that students who take actual college courses while in high school are better prepared than those who took AP classes. There is a big difference between learning one semester of calculus in one semester rather than in one full school year.

The main problem for HS/CC students is if they just get a generic AA degree but want to do something technical like science or math or engineering. They come in as a junior but have not taken classes that most majors take as freshmen or sophomores. This is, however, an advising problem rather than a structural problem.
It sounds to me like the solution is in your final paragraph. Categorize students by hours completed, using either existing or new terms. You remain a "freshman" (or whatever) until you have passed the number of credit hours that a traditional freshman completes in a year, then you move on to be a "sophomore." Probably better though to develop new terms---esp since that "man" in "freshman" annoys some young women.
Some adult men, too.

"First year student," and "Second year student" are fine.
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