Image: Collin Hamman, Ryan O'Sullivan
L.G. Patterson  /  AP
Collin Hamman, right, and Ryan O'Sullivan study outside their dorm on the University of Missouri campus in Columbia, Mo. The two are participating in Freshmen Interest Groups, where they share dorm space and classrooms with like-minded peers.
updated 10/3/2009 4:03:05 PM ET 2009-10-03T20:03:05

The freshman experience at large state universities can still resemble a failed social experiment more than the start of a four-year journey to enlightenment.

Overwhelmed freshmen in many places still sit anonymously in large lecture halls, surrounded by hundreds of peers whose names the professor couldn't possibly remember. Dorm life isn't much better, with total-stranger roommates sharing little other than a desire to survive those first rocky semesters.

But such cattle-call approaches to higher education are increasingly out of fashion. At the University of Missouri and many other schools, from large public universities to selective liberal arts colleges, first-year students increasingly live and learn in small groups with those who share similar interests — everything from environmental activism to budding cyber entrepreneurs. At Missouri, there's even a group for aspiring storm chasers.

Merrill Arens, 17, graduated from a small-town Missouri high school with just 300 students — about 1 percent the size of Missouri's student body. Joining a freshmen interest group for film and theater buffs allows her to feel like more than just a name and number at the state's flagship university, she said.

"It was definitely overwhelming being in a school so big," said the Montgomery City native, who said the group has allowed her to make connections she otherwise wouldn't have sought. "It's really nice to see people from class back in the dorm."

'Psychologically smaller'
Nearly one-third of Missouri's 5,620 first-year students participate in freshmen interest groups, or FIGs. They share rooms with each other, or entire sections of residential housing. They take four courses together, making the oversized auditoriums "psychologically smaller," as one university official says.

And they meet in small groups with a peer adviser who helps them navigate the school bureaucracy while offering tips on time management, and how to speak with professors.

"It's an immediate connection," said Matt Hibbard, a junior peer adviser and former interest group participant. "You build really strong relationships right off the bat."

These so-called living/learning communities, as well as first-year seminars that don't include a residential component, are not new. But as enrollment at many schools continues to increase, so does the popularity of such programs.

The first-year residential program at Missouri has grown from 21 interest groups in 1995 to 110 in the current school year, with nearly 1,900 participants. FIG participants have higher grade-point averages and graduation rates, school statistics show.

South Carolina gets credit for launching the idea, creating its University 101 course for new students 36 years ago.

At the University of Michigan, first-year students are paired with faculty researchers and participate in weekly forums as part of the Michigan Research Community.

Diversifying residency
At Illinois, the Weston Exploration program allows students to tap the expertise of academic advisers, career counselors and other resources on the 41,918-student campus.

"Residence halls are not just places for students to eat, flop and make love," said John Gardner, executive director of the Policy Center on the First Year of College and one of the creators of the landmark South Carolina program. "These are places where students can learn. You want to take control of that environment."

Students who participate in such programs are less likely to drop out and more likely to graduate, Gardner said.

A 2007 survey of more than 22,000 students at 52 colleges found similar results. The National Study of Living Learning Programs found that students built stronger relationships with faculty, were more likely to seek internships and study abroad and less likely to abuse alcohol.

Ryan O'Sullivan, a psychology major from Chicago, said the one-credit FIG seminar on college survival skills taught him that sitting in the back rows of a large lecture hall isn't an effective learning strategy.

"In high school, we never had a class of 300 people," he said. "Here, if you sit in the back of a room with 300 kids, you just sit there with your Mac book and check out Facebook."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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