Learning community growth keeps pace

Despite a 13 percent leap in the size of the freshman class this fall, Iowa State learning communities are serving the same ratio -- 69 percent -- as they did a year ago. According to data shared last week by the registrar's office, 4,208 freshmen are participating in a learning community this fall, 515 more than a year ago. Total learning community participation, including transfer students and sophomores, is at a record 5,434 students.

Learning communities co-director Doug Gruenewald said he's pleased with the program's growth. Much of it, he said, can be attributed to the larger student body. Some of it is due to growing interest in specific academic programs -- and the learning communities that support them -- such as global resource systems and kinesiology.

"Our learning community coordinators do an incredible job of recruiting students, even though the record enrollment makes their jobs more challenging. Their commitment to our students is amazing," Gruenewald said.

The university is supporting 80 learning communities this fall, including eight offered for the first time. Most are related to an academic discipline, with about 10 percent targeting a multidisciplinary group, for example, first-year Honors program students, Hixson Opportunity Award recipients or international students (also a first-time learning community).

Five years of learning community growth


Freshman class

Freshmen in a LC

All students
in a LC*



2,953 (65%)





2,936 (67%)





3,225 (71%)





3,572 (71%)





3,693 (69%)





4,208 (69%)



*Includes transfer students, sophomores who return to their LC

Managing the growth

"Learning communities are about taking a large campus community and making it small," Gruenewald said. "As our numbers go up, we need to rethink how we do that to make sure it still works."

He said that many learning community coordinators – faculty and professional staff who add this duty to their workday – are supervising more peer mentors, typically sophomore students who "graduated" from the learning community they're assisting. The program employs 497 peer mentors this fall, up nearly 30 percent from just two years ago.

In turn, many peer mentors are leading larger numbers of learning community members, as high as 25-30. Twelve or 15 students per peer mentor is ideal, Gruenewald said.

"We need to continue to provide more peer mentors. That student-to-student contact is a major part of our success," he said. "We're also looking at how we can help our coordinators, who have to manage more peer mentors."

Howard Tyler, who co-coordinates the animal science learning community, takes that message to heart. Last winter, he requested additional learning community funding to hire 38 peer mentors to work with 350-plus freshmen and transfer students this year. A year ago, about 300 students were in the learning community. In spite of the growth, animal science has succeeded at cutting the peer mentor-student ratio in half from five years ago.

"We rely heavily on enrollment projection numbers from our college, so we anticipated this growth," he said. His department provided graduate student time to help with the logistics of coordinating a large group -- for example, finding meeting spaces for 38 groups to meet at 2 p.m. on Tuesdays.

The investment is worth it, he said. A dozen years ago, the one-year student retention rate in his department was under 70 percent; now it hovers around 90 percent. The learning community is a key factor in that growth, he said.

Carol Cordell, academic adviser and co-coordinator of the 249-strong kinesiology freshman learning community, said the group has experienced 25-35 percent growth the last two years as interest in the major escalates. The department hired a fourth academic adviser to serve the additional students, and that adviser also helps with the learning community. Cordell said the team's 12 peer mentors often offer a workshop or activity twice in order to keep group sizes more manageable. The intent is to seek funding for additional peer mentors for next fall, she said.

In spite of the high numbers, Cordell's team tries to schedule one or two activities each week in addition to the one-hour orientation class all kinesiology learning community freshmen take. With the array of career possibilities for kinesiology students, Cordell said career exposure and exploration is a major focus of the learning community, because that, in turn, drives students' course selections.

"As academic advisers, we love the learning community," she said. "We've seen tremendous growth in student numbers and we couldn't do all this ourselves. The university support makes this work so much better."