Everyone living near University of Iowa freshman Jen Colburn in Burge Hall this year cared about being healthy — eating well, exercising and staying mentally fit.
And that wasn’t just a happy coincidence.
When Colburn signed up for on-campus housing before the year began, she ranked her preferences based on the UI’s 32 living-learning communities. The communities house students in groups based on common interest, identity or major.
Students in each group also interact together with faculty and staff outside the classroom and participate in planned events and activities. The UI has been offering living-learning communities — or LLCs — in its residence halls for more than 30 years, and this year the program expanded.
For the first time, every student living in a UI residential hall belonged to an LLC. When signing up for housing before the school year began, all incoming students planning to live on campus were asked to rank their top five living-learning communities — instead of their top residence halls or other preferences.
The UI is the first school in the Big 10 — and perhaps the first of its kind in the nation — to require every residence hall student to sign up for an LLC, said Brook Bernard, assistant director of resident education for UI Housing and Dining.
The UI made a commitment a few years ago to go from serving 20 percent of resident students through LLCs to 100 percent based on local and national success rates.
“There is a lot of national data that shows GPAs (grade-point averages) go up, overall satisfaction goes up, and (students) develop a sense of belonging within the institution,” Bernard said.
Schools nationally and in the Big 10 are watching Iowa’s shift to 100 percent community-based housing because they, too, have seen benefit in terms of student retention, persistence and quality of education, Bernard said.
“A lot of universities are contemplating going to this model,” she said. “Other universities are reaching out to ask us how we set it up and what kind of research was involved.”
As the UI rolled out its new housing methods this year, staff polled students repeatedly about what they liked and didn’t like, and Bernard said her team has found that data invaluable in making tweaks and improvements going forward.
‘They chose for the LLC’
This year’s living-learning communities were broken down by interest, identity or major. Examples include BizHawks, for business majors, Shutter Bugs, for students interested in photography, or New in Town, for students from other states or countries.
Students identified their top five communities and then got a list of housing options associated with each community. That way, according to Bernard, students who weren’t interested in the community aspect of their housing still could choose based on residence hall, location or roommate.
“They get to negotiate for themselves,” she said. “They get to think about what is meaningful for them.”
Based on this first year’s feedback, according to Brooke, a majority of incoming students did pick their room based on the community.
“The concern was, would students make this transition from being invested in what residence hall they live in to what LLC they live in?” Bernard said. “But the data is clear. (They chose) for the LLC.”
Students who seemed to have the hardest time choosing housing under the new system were those trying to coordinate and compromise with a potential roommate of choice.
“They can’t just go on what they want, but they have to work with a roommate to decide what they both want,” Bernard said. “If you go in by yourself, you get to think about what you really want.”
Many of the living-learning communities are connected with courses in which students are pre-enrolled, and each community offers at least three programs a semester.
Those programs can be hosted by campus or community partners — a local photographer, for example, might host the photography community in his or her store.
Resident assistants also host programs and coordinate events to help gel students into their communities, according to housing and dining officials. Some communities might have more programming than others, Bernard said.
“Some are very active and might have five or six a month,” she said. “It depends on the community.”
Each community is supported by a resident education coordinator, a full-time staff member who oversees the group. There also are assistant residence education coordinators and resident assistants, who now are assigned to living quarters based on their interests and passions.
The living-learning communities cost $750 each, plus an extra $12 per student, according to housing and dining staff. They receive financial support from the UI’s resident education and the provost’s office.
Resident assistants also can make additional funding requests for “unique programming opportunities.”
As the first full year under the housing system comes to a close, housing and dining staff are poring over questionnaire and online survey results in hopes of continuing to improve the system, Bernard said. The UI also convened a focus group to discuss pros and cons of the communities.
“Next year we will be doing the focus groups both semesters because the information we got was so good,” Bernard said.
Of the nearly 5,000 students who responded to survey questions in the first 12 weeks of the year, 78 percent said they planned to be active in their LLC and 88 percent said they hoped it would improve their UI experience.
Students also were asked what they liked most and least about the communities, and many students said they liked having people around them with common interests and goals while others reported dissatisfaction with some of the mandatory aspects.
UI freshman Colburn, of Chicago, said being in the Well Beings community gave her a group of friends with which to work out, eat and play. And even though she plans on living in her sorority house next year, she has formed tight bonds with her living-learning community.
“We all are planning on coming back together and getting a house our junior year,” she said.
UI student Savannah Carlstrom no longer lives in the residence halls, but when she did — as a freshman and sophomore — she chose to be housed with the honors LLC. The experience was invaluable and gave her a solid foundation for her UI education, Carlstrom said.
“I connected with people and we have stayed friends,” she said. “They are my most solid friend group here.”
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