Higher Education Sophomore Retention Focus

Feb 3, 2022 by

Sophomore undergraduate students are often lost in the shuffle as counselors focus on the transitions impacting first-year students (adjusting to college) and seniors (trying to start a career). These second-year students, frequently referred to as the “middle-children” of higher education, are equally facing uncertainty and working to adapt and find their way through the college experience (Olcott & Kotovich, Jr., 2007). Others have referred to the phenomenon as the “sophomore slump” and argue that universities institute a combination of academic and social programs directed solely toward sophomores (Grassgreen, 2011).

Before the global pandemic, numerous schools began looking to boost their sophomore retention rates. So much so the U.S. Department of Education created a list of schools with links to their plans and strategies for tackling postsecondary student success and retention in specific areas of higher education, including helping sophomores. Schaller (2022) evaluates how the structure of the college experience uniquely affects sophomores compared to their peers.

According to a National Student Clearinghouse Research Center report, of the 2.6 million students who entered college as first-time freshmen in fall 2019, only 74% returned to college for their second year. The study also differentiates between persistence rates and retention rates, explaining that “persistence is the percentage of students who return to college at any institution for their second year, while retention represents the percentage of students who return to the same institution.” Community colleges showed the steepest decline in both metrics, and racial and ethnic minorities were the groups that had the lowest rates. Laurie Schreiner, a professor and chair of doctoral programs in higher education at Azusa Pacific University, publishes an annual Sophomore Experiences Survey using a measurement she developed called the Thriving Quotient™(TQ). The TQ measures the “academic, social, and psychological aspects of a student’s college experience that are most predictive of academic success, institutional fit, satisfaction with college, and ultimately graduation.”

Academic coordinators indicate that interventions should focus on environmental considerations, transitional challenges, and implications for academic advising. Schreiner (2018) also details pathways to help second-year students thrive, such as major certainty, campus involvement, student-faculty interaction, spirituality, institutional integrity, and a sense of community on campus.

Hanover Research (2014) cites one reason for the sophomore slump: few institutions have a full‐time coordinator for retention programs, which are often carried out in disparate departments across the institution. Hunter et al. (2009) explore both the need and ways universities can assist sophomore students facing critical choices about their major, profession, and purpose in life. Ennis-McMillan et al. (2011) also recommend initiatives and provide data for a few piloted programs. St. Lawrence University received a four-year grant totaling $800,000 from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to support their Sophomore Journeys program that focuses on fostering integrated and varied learning opportunities for sophomore students.

Comments: Do you believe higher education neglects its sophomore students? How can universities work toward improving sophomore student retention rates?

Keywords: Sophomore, higher education, retention, persistence, diversity, equity, resilience, inclusion, first generation students, low income students


Ennis-McMillan, M.C., Ammirati, T., Rossi-Reder, A., Tetley, J., and Thacker, R. (2011). Engaging sophomore students with liberal learning: Focused exploration through academic advising. [White paper]. Teagle Foundation Initiative. Retrieved from https://www.teaglefoundation.org/Teagle/media/GlobalMediaLibrary/documents/resources/Engaging_Sophomore_Students_Liberal_Learning.pdf?ext=.pdf

Grassgreen, A. (2011, September 29). Dump the slump. Inside Higher Education. Retrieved from https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2011/09/29/dump-slump

Hanover Research. (2014, September). Strategies for improving student retention. Retrieved from https://www.hanoverresearch.com/media/Strategies-for-Improving-Student-Retention.pdf

Hunter, M.S., Tobolowsky, B.F., Gardner, J.N., Evenbeck, S.E., Pattengale, J.A., Schaller, M., Schreiner, L.A. (2009). Helping sophomores succeed: Understanding and improving the second year experience. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. ISBN: 978-0-470-19275-7

Olcott, S. and Kotovich, Jr., R. (2007). Sophomore retention plan – Final report. Winona State University. Retrieved from https://www.winona.edu/asf/media/sophomore_retention_plan-olcott-kotovich.pdf

Schaller, M. (2022). Understanding the impact of the second year of college. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/265205176_UNDERSTANDING_THE_IMPACT_OF_THE_SECOND_YEAR_OF_COLLEGE

Schreiner, L. A. (2018). Thriving in the second year of college: Pathways to success. New Directions for Higher Education, (183), 9. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1002/he.20289

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