La Sierra selected for national higher ed retention study

July 22, 2011
By Darla Martin Tucker

RIVERSIDE, Calif. – ( Sophomore slump, a college phenomenon that frequently results in student discouragement and sometimes withdrawal from school is getting a kick this fall at La Sierra University.

Using a $50,000 grant administered by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, La Sierra began laying the groundwork last month to launch a student mentor-based program in the upcoming school year. Called the Sophomore Mentoring Program, the project aims to help sophomores maintain their academic focus, set goals, graduate and launch careers. The program gets underway with the start of classes on Sept. 26.

La Sierra’s funding derives from a three-year, $1.5 million grant awarded by the Lumina Foundation for Education, USA Funds and The Kresge Foundation to education professors Marybeth Gasman and Clifton Conrad at the universities of Pennsylvania and Wisconsin-Madison, respectively. The multi-agency grant is underwriting individual grants of $50,000 each to nine minority-serving universities and colleges around the United States for participation in a study called “Models of Success.” Gasman and Conrad, who will serve as co-investigators of the study, selected institutional participants through a competitive grant application process. The project aims to determine best practices in higher education for student retention and degree attainment at schools that serve minorities. La Sierra received notice of its grant award in May.

The grant project is effective through October 2013 and will involve site visits by Gasman and Conrad. The schools selected for the study include three historically black colleges and universities, three institutions with a high percentage of Hispanic students and three tribal colleges and universities that serve Native American students. Grant recipients in addition to La Sierra are: Norfolk State University, Morehouse College, Paul Quinn College, El Paso Community College, San Diego City College, Salish Kootenai College, Chief Dull Knife College, and College of Menominee Nation.

La Sierra’s Sophomore Mentoring Program will be administered through the university’s Center for Student Academic Success, or C-SAS, and will involve upper level students hired as mentors to help coach and guide sophomores. The program aims to increase student engagement, contact with faculty and student integration within their major departments. The overriding goal is to mitigate the so-called sophomore slump, a period of time in which the first-year excitement has worn off, the student is daunted by the years of study that lie ahead and is often unfocused.

“Sophomores tend to be invisible. Plus graduation seems so far away,” said Jill Rasmussen, C-SAS founder and grant project coordinator.

During 2010, La Sierra’s undergraduate enrollment of 1,755 students was 32% percent Hispanic, a qualifying factor in the grant award, along with the success of its First-Year Experience, a mandatory program for freshmen through C-SAS. Additionally, for the past seven years, La Sierra has been named the most diverse master’s level university in the western United States by U.S. News and World Report’s Best Colleges guide.

La Sierra’s sophomore program builds upon C-SAS’s solid record of helping freshmen along their academic path, intervening in academic difficulties when necessary.

The C-SAS Freshman-Year Experience involves weekly academic coaching with full-time, college-educated coaches, seminars, writing and math assistance, student and parent orientations, and workshops in time management, test-taking strategies and external scholarship acquisition. According to university data the effort paid off with a 22 percent increase in the retention rate of first-year students between 2006-07 and 2009-10.  Retention of Hispanic first-year students jumped from 65 percent in 2007-08 to 71 percent in 2009-10.

Melanie Jobe, current C-SAS director, will serve as principal investigator for the sophomore mentoring project and will forward data to researchers. In June, Rasmussen and Jobe began working with four departments and the university’s School of Business in hiring junior and senior students to work as mentors for sophomore students. Grant funds cover office expenses and will pay wages for student mentors, for a part-time coordinator and for a statistician.

In addition to the business school, C-SAS will work with departments of English and Communications, Health and Exercise Science, Psychology, and History, Politics and Society in carrying out the Sophomore Mentoring Program. Mentoring will be available to 12 students in each of the identified departments and the School of Business, providing these students with the opportunity to actively interact with upper-division students and faculty within their major.
The initial concept for the Sophomore Mentoring Program is for mentors and mentees to meet four times a quarter, including one departmental event for networking with faculty. “There will be a lot of advice giving, like how to handle all the reading,” Rasmussen said. Also, if sophomores have discovered they no longer wish to pursue their academic major, “somebody will be there to help, guide and support them,” she said. “It’s so they can see themselves graduating,” said Jobe. The program will be particularly helpful to commuter students, she said. “It will give them a reason to be here.” The program may entail job shadowing with La Sierra alums and other professionals.

Said Rasmussen, “We’re trying to get them on fire for their major.”


PR Contact: Larry Becker
Executive Director of University Relations
La Sierra University
Riverside, California
951.785.2460 (voice)

  • Last update on  July 22, 2011