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Inside Iowa State, a newspaper for faculty and staff, is published by the Office of University Relations.

Feb. 1, 2008

Data shows learning communities help retention, graduation rates

by Anne Krapfl

Thirteen years in, learning communities are a notable factor in students' academic success and in keeping students at Iowa State.

One-year retention and four- and six-year graduation rates for learning community students outpace those of their first-year peers who don't join a learning community - in some cases by double digits.

In 1995, 407 students joined 12 learning communities. This fall, 3,123 students joined 67 learning communities. Fall 2005 marked a milestone: the first time more than half (51 percent) of the entering freshmen opted to be part of a learning community.

Quality first

The goal is not to enlist 100 percent of first-time students to Iowa State, according to Doug Gruenewald, who with Corly Brooke co-directs the learning communities program.

"We want the focus to be on quality, and we want participation to be voluntary," he said. "We expect we'd meet some resistance if we made it mandatory, so that's not what we're after."

He said they do target areas for growth where they see a need, for example, in some departments in Human Sciences and Liberal Arts and Sciences. He anticipates about a half-dozen new learning communities will be launched next fall.

No cookie cutter

Gruenewald said there are no absolutes for what a learning community should look like. Following an initial three years of parallel pilot efforts, learning communities from all colleges came under one umbrella in 1998 when former president Martin Jischke pledged a half million dollars a year to a central program. That amount has grown to about $700,000 annually.

All learning communities offer some combination of academic and social programming for students. They rely on more than 200 peer mentors to lead the student teams. And typically the student members enroll in the same sections of one to three classes each semester. But each learning community also is as unique as the faculty and staff leading it.

  • Most last for one year. Students typically have made connections to the university by year's end (in some, participation starts to drop off during spring semester, an indication students are feeling more confident), Gruenewald said.
  • Many, but not all, focus on a specific academic discipline. Exceptions include the multicultural and entrepreneurship learning communities, which are open to students of any major.
  • About 20 of this year's 67 learning communities include a residence component (members live on the same residence floor).
  • Some (about a dozen this year, for example), involve collaboration between English composition and an academic discipline, say, agronomy.

It's about success

At a university as large as Iowa State, Gruenewald said learning communities are "on the cutting edge of common sense."

"Our student body is large, but members of a learning community have academic goals in common. Structuring things a little to help them succeed is what this is all about," he said.

Steady growth: ISU Learning Communities

Total # of LCs 363847464748577467
Total # LC students 1,7801,8382,1032,1392,2752,1962,4742,8513,123
1st-yr LC students1,6031,4911,6851,6501,7711,7091,9022,2522,383
% LC freshmen403537404647515755
Freshmen 1-year retention*
   --in an LC9090889088908788---
   --not in an LC8281818182828081---
4-year graduation*
   --in an LC 3838383738------------
   --not in an LC 2728283233------------
6-year graduation*
   --in an LC767573------------------
   --not in an LC636162------------------
*Listed as a percentage