A jump start for first-year students

The sterling charm around her neck -- the state of Texas with a heart trimmed out of its center -- tips you off to Katie Berlund. The Iowa State freshman left her home in College Station to study meteorology in one of the best undergraduate programs in the country. A self-professed "weather nerd" and an ISU Honors Program student who loaded up her high school years with AP courses, Berlund arrived in Ames ready for a challenge.
"I knew I could cut it," she said, "but I wondered if it would take a few weeks or a whole semester to figure things out."

Thanks in part to her learning community, it was closer to the former. Freshmen pursuing a meteorology major were enrolled in the same chemistry and calculus sections, as well as a weekly session in which they covered topics as varied as time management, supplemental instruction available, riding CyRide to the mall, tracks within the meteorology major, and making a four-year class plan to avoid chaos during the senior year. They met for study sessions and to geocache on central campus. Her learning community's sophomore peer mentors invited her to join the student chapter of the American Meteorological Society.

"The best thing was getting to meet or at least see all the meteorology majors on Day One," Berlund said. "We're not a large group, but without the learning community, that would take a couple semesters."

They work

Students such as Berlund don't pay any extra fees to belong to one, but history shows a learning community goes a long way in their academic success at Iowa State. In a recent 15-year recap, Iowa State freshmen in learning communities returned for their sophomore year at a rate eight percentage points higher (89 percent vs. 81 percent) than for those not in a learning community. Their average six-year graduation rate is 12 percentage points higher (74 percent vs. 62 percent).

That kind of news is spreading. For the last two years, nearly three out of every four freshmen (71 percent) participated in one of Iowa State's 80-plus learning communities. Record enrollment in fall 2011 produced learning community records, too: the most students (4,747) and the most freshmen (3,572) ever in learning communities. Iowa State also welcomes transfer students into learning communities; about a half dozen were created just for them.

Most students come to college with two big questions: Can I handle the academics? Will I make friends? Fourteen-year co-director of ISU learning communities Doug Gruenewald said, "Learning communities create this intentional environment for students to be successful at both of those."