By: 
Marcia Layton Turner
Honoree: 
University of Massachusetts Lowell

“When you first come from high school to a large university, it’s overwhelming. You can feel disconnected,” says John Ting, vice provost for enrollment at UMass Lowell.

That disconnected feeling seemed to partially explain the university’s discovery in 2007 that its retention and graduation rates for first-year undergraduate students were below national averages.

With the desire of university officials to reposition the school as a national research institution, leaders developed a 10-year strategic plan—UMass Lowell 2020—that included plans to dramatically improve student success.

To better connect first-year students to the university and to each other, UMass Lowell created learning communities composed of students with common academic interests. Groups of fewer than 20 first-year students were scheduled together in all their core courses.

Inside the Program

  • UMass Lowell 2020 encompasses more than living and learning communities. In addition to providing supplemental instruction and advising, there was a concerted effort to reduce class size.
  • Now half of all classes have fewer than 20 students and only 5 percent have more than 50.

In the following year, 2009, the university began creating living and learning communities comprising students with common interests and affiliations. Some living and learning communities were academic-focused (e.g., honors students) while others were grouped by college or by discipline.

“It was a way to overcome the initial shock and feel connected,” says Ting.

It worked. Looking solely at retention rates, the impact was almost instantaneous. The first-year retention rate had been 74 percent, but 84 percent of students in the living/learning communities returned for a second year.

Graduation rates are now up 11 percent, thanks to improved retention.

Although the living and learning communities were established primarily for freshman, Ting says some upperclassmen continue to live together. —M.L.T.