John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

Students in Transition: What’s New? What’s Old?

October 24, 2012John N. GardnerInsights0

John N. Gardner

Recently I attended the University of South Carolina’s annual conference on Students in Transition. This meeting focuses on the critical transitions of the first year, sophomore year, transfer, and senior year experiences. It was started in 1995 by me and my USC colleague, Stuart Hunter.  She and her team and still going strong organizing and hosting this meeting. 

The original meeting was an outgrowth of four conferences we had organized in 1990, 91, 93, and 94 on The Senior Year Experience.  We very much wanted to continue this series given the importance we attached to calling more attention to the needs of seniors as they leave our institutions. But the conference numbers were making the viability of the conference series questionable. So we decided to continue to focus on seniors by rolling it into a new meeting concept, one looking at multiple student transitions during the undergraduate years, but assuming that the much greater interest in the first year would pay for the meeting. That’s exactly what happened. We called this new focus and concept “Students in Transition.”The first year still trumps in terms of numbers of sessions, presenters and attendees. I wish I could tell you that there is relatively more interest in the senior year now that that work has matured. I cannot. It is still a very hard sell. Unfortunately, higher education institutions are increasingly managed by the same philosophy that runs most American for-profit companies: short run gains—and not to worry about long haul views of ROI. The USC National Resource Center will soon be releasing a new book on the senior year, updating my 1998 Jossey-Bass book, The Senior Year Experience, high time! Maybe this will rejuvenate interest. I certainly hope so. While many circumstances faced by seniors have changed, the basic approaches to them have not.

But there certainly is more attention being paid to sophomores: second year seminars, more intentional attention to advisement and career planning, and the continuation of many first-year type programs which previously had been prematurely withdrawn from many students whose success was still very tentative. The focus on the sophomore year has been accelerated recently by the imprimatur from the 2009 Jossey-Bass book, Helping Sophomores Achieve, by my USC colleagues Stuart Hunter and Barbara Tobolowsky (now of the University of Texas at Arlington) and yours truly.

The “SIT” conference is not a big affair. This year it drew a hardy band of just under 350. I know from my own experience of managing a thriving conference series all about the economics of conference organization. My successors at USC certainly aren’t doing this for surplus revenue generation. I admire them for staying the course and continuing to call attention to the importance of these other student transitions. Thanks to them, the concept of “transition” programs is now deeply institutionalized and enshrined in American higher education. I find this most gratifying

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