by Gina Stafford
WWhen the incoming class of freshmen arrive at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga for fall semester 2021, they will find a campus environment unlike any freshman class has found before.
This fall’s freshmen will make up the inaugural class of “Cohort 2025,” a sweeping new approach to building community through cohort groups of incoming students around their main interests, whether:
The Cohort 2025 project is so named to signify that the incoming freshman class will be the first to complete all four undergraduate years—by 2025—fully as members of cohort groups. “Living-learning communities” are one of Cohort 2025’s multiple elements, all of which fall into one of three broad areas: residential learning communities, learning communities (to include commuter students) and “connections” communities built around shared interests in recreational, extracurricular or service activities.
DEFINING THE UTC EXPERIENCE
While the initiative is intended to increase student retention and graduation, Chancellor Steve Angle says he also wants it to become part of what “defines a UTC experience.”
“In terms of a high-impact practice that works, there’s a lot of data, nationally, to show that retention and graduation rates are higher for students who get more connected with the institution and other students,” Angle says. “It is something that I’ve been focused on for a while.”
He announced the initiative during his September 2020 State of the University address: “Building on the model of our Honors College, we will expand programs that bring together groups of incoming students in cohort experiences. We have set an aggressive goal to offer every incoming student such an experience beginning fall 2021.”
“Every year, we’re adding something new, giving students more and more avenues and opportunities to engage.”Valara Sample
Enrollment Management and Student Affairs Vice Chancellor Yancy Freeman is leading the project. “For me, it covers the full spectrum of student success. It’s about how we provide the type of support resources for our students and get them connected so that they find their niche, their community and they thrive in that community,” Freeman says. “It’s about those students feeling more connected to campus and developing life-long relationships with other students. It’s about taking skills for career success and, hopefully, some affinity to the University so if there is time or resources to share later on in life, they will want to give back to campus in some way.”
Freeman says the approach has been in place “in pockets for a while,” originating with students in the Honors College in 2013, followed by the College of Business and the College of Engineering and Computer Science. The College of Health, Education and Professional Studies joins the approach this fall, and the College of Arts and Sciences will participate starting in fall 2022.
IT STARTED WITH Honors
When Linda Frost joined UTC in 2013 as founding dean of the Honors College, students in the Brock Scholars program “organically” found each other as a result of being enrolled in the same curriculum and living in the same residence hall. As Frost worked to build out and increase membership in the Honors College—which includes the Brock Scholars Program—she began by organizing a freshman living-learning community, “High-Achieving Mocs” or HAM. Frost says students in the program lovingly referred to themselves as “HAMmers” or “HAMsters.”
“When I was at Eastern Kentucky University (before coming to UTC), we had a really robust Living-Learning Community (LLC) program. Every freshman was in an LLC. They all lived in the same residence hall. They had coordinated coursework, and there were theme-based LLCs as well,” Frost says. From both her work there and research for her book, Housing Honors, Frost became a big believer in the power of LLCs to benefit students in multiple ways. “The Living-Learning Community model is central to honors education and always has been,” Frost says. “The honors program when I came here was fabulous—truly fabulous; but while Brock Scholars has always been a preeminent program, the piece they didn’t have was a true living-learning community.”
By fall of 2017, Stagmeier Hall was home to both the High Achieving Mocs and all Brock Scholars freshmen. “What happened at Stagmaier is exactly what should happen in an LLC,” Frost says. “Doors were open all the time, people were running back and forth into each other’s rooms. They were in the hallway up late at night, talking about their humanities class, the six-hour intensive reading writing course that they all take.
“You don’t throw programs at a Living Learning Community. What you do is set up all of these integrated pieces, very intentionally, and then sit back and watch it organically take off.”
The Honors College is inherently interdisciplinary—students can pursue any major at the University—and it will be a “residential college” in fall, when all honors students, freshmen through seniors, will be housed in the same residence hall. “If you take the things that honors has figured out that are really good for students and you build them out across campus, you will have a powerful model for student happiness,” Frost says. “Financial concerns are probably the biggest reason students leave a campus, but many also leave because they just haven’t connected to anybody.” LLCs and residential colleges encourage that connection to happen.
Rollins Scholars LLC
Eight years ago, the Gary W. Rollins College of Business introduced its LLC for business majors of all concentrations. In 2018, the Rollins name came with an historic, $40-million gift that resulted—among many new programs—in that inaugural LLC becoming today’s Rollins Scholars LLC. The initial LLC cohort had 24 students, and its Rollins Scholars successor cohort today has 38 students, toward an eventual capacity of 80. “If you go back eight years, there were a lot of conversations around outcome-based funding and all those things—how do you increase retention rates within the College and provide greater opportunities for students that engage them with the college and the business community, that was what drove it,” says Dean Robert Dooley. “Also, how do you create the next generation of leaders in the College?
“If you connect with these students early, as freshmen, they ultimately become the ones leading the clubs. They’re involved in the College’s Student Advisory Council. They’re the students participating in student government. We’re kind of creating a pipeline of leadership, and that was another reason for doing it.”
This fall, Business launches its own residential college, and Jaclyn York, program director for Rollins Scholars and the College’s career services office, anticipates an eventual LLC for each major. “I envision at some point additional living, learning communities like ‘Idea Central,’ which is the entrepreneurship one, attached to every major that wants to have one,” she says. “I can see a living-learning community around the SMILE (Student Managed Investment Learning Experience) Fund for those students who are like-minded in terms of portfolio management and investments. You see what works and you see what doesn’t, and you have to shift and change and adapt.”
York also teaches a first-year experience course for all freshmen that covers the range of majors and opportunities within the College, along with introducing them to business career culture and tools for success. “Currently as they come in, they take my class as freshmen and it’s very much professional development,” York says. “The first semester they learn how to interview through community members coming in and doing mock interviews and resume reviews with them. We’ve done a mentoring program this semester, and we usually do on-site tours of local companies the second semester, but COVID forced us to change that.
“It’s so much fun to see the students really connect, and I think that’s only going to be stronger as we go forward and they all have an opportunity to be a part of groups of students who are like-minded and take their course work seriously and living together on the same dorm hallway.”
Five years since the College of Engineering and Computer Science introduced an LLC, the College will offer 12 cohort groups this fall. One cohort is the residential community, six cohorts will be built around the College’s engineering-specific first-year experience course, and the remaining five will be based on students taking the same three courses together as freshmen. Early success is the reason for expanding, says Dean Daniel Pack.
“Retention has improved in students going from freshman to sophomore year, as well as their GPAs,” Pack says. “I know we’re working with a small group, so I don’t know if it’s statistically solid, but whether it is or not, we have seen that the ones who have gone through the program are doing better in retention and in their coursework. That’s why we’re expanding it, and that’s why we’re putting value into this experience for our freshmen. The plan for this fall is that all our freshmen students will be coming into some sort of cohort experience, whether it’s residential or first-year experience course, or just taking three courses together.”
Pack says he hopes “there is a strength in numbers” in the cohorts, that they can knit together a community of student support for classmates who may struggle with challenging courses such as calculus, physics, inorganic chemistry. “Seeing that they aren’t the only ones having difficulty and that they can help each other or get help as a group from teachers or administrators,” Pack says, “that’s a powerful resource and a network this cohort system provides.”
While LLCs aren’t rare—600 such programs are found at the more than 3,000 four-year colleges and universities in the U.S., according to the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators—Provost Jerry Hale says the extent to which UTC plans to implement cohort experiences is exceptional.
“There are lots of ways it can be done and have been done at some of the places I’ve worked, but I don’t recall any of those places thinking about it in as comprehensive a way as we are hoping to implement it for our campus,” Hale says. “The heavy lifting is going to be done through enrollment management and student affairs—Vice Chancellor Freeman and his group—having to figure out cohort scheduling, what the classes are to be involved, how to navigate students into them, how students connect to the campus and to one another.
“Also—and I’ll use some technical language now—I think it’s going to be really cool.”
residential learning communities
Abeer Mustafa, associate vice chancellor for enrollment management and student affairs, and Valara Sample, executive director for residential education and campus life, have been focused on the “heavy lifting” necessary in campus housing for months.
They explain that “residential learning community is the umbrella term” for three types of campus-dwelling cohort groups—LLCs, or living-learning communities; themed learning communities, or TLCs; and residential colleges. Themes in TLCs can cover the gamut: music, a foreign language, E-sports and gaming, performing arts—any of a range of interest areas that can bring students together. “There are so many layers that students receive—it’s not just a heads-in-beds approach,” Mustafa says. “Our resident advisors and resident directors are trained in residential curriculum and there are expectations for what they deliver to help guide and coach students through their first-year living experience. There are a lot of high touches and support to help students succeed.”
“There are so many layers that students receive—it’s not just a heads-in-beds approach,” Mustafa says.
Sample says “a lot of intentional programming” is the greatest difference from residence halls that serve only as a roof overhead. “We’ve gotten away from pizza parties to RAs doing smaller programs, one-on-one type programs where they get to know students better. ‘Fly-bys’ where they check on students just to put names with faces. In COVID, the fly-by has really paid off because it was already part of our curriculum.”
That curriculum has “a connection component, a diversity component and an academic component,” Sample says. In fall 2020, a record-high 54% of residential students made the Dean’s List, up from the usual 35%; and 38% of those on the housing Dean’s List were freshmen, “We like to think our residential curriculum had something to do with that.”
Gearing up for the Cohort 2025 launch has meant gearing up all over: renovating apartments for faculty-in-residence to live on-site, hiring an assistant director for academic initiatives, adding programming, creating a “maker space” to host brainstorms in a soon-to-be named residence hall.
“Next year, we’ll have another new element in faculty fellows—that’s faculty members who have an engaged relationship with student residents, though not necessarily living in campus housing themselves,” Sample says. “Every year, we’re adding something new, giving students more and more avenues and opportunities to engage.”
IN STEPS CHEPS
College of Health, Education and Professional Studies (CHEPS) Dean Valerie Rutledge has lots of ideas as she prepares for students, faculty and courses in her college to get on board Cohort 2025 this fall, but she says one element is key for now. “Things like this succeed when there is some contagious enthusiasm around them, and that’s what we’re working to build—to get the faculty in place who are really excited about this, who have ideas about what they want to do,” Rutledge says. “Maybe some who lived in a setting like or similar to this when they were in college, so they can take those ideas but also use feedback from students.”
Rutledge looks forward to a post-COVID life on campus with the possibility of hosting a parents’ weekend focused on parents of students in the CHEPS residential college, “Because lots of times, if the parents say, ‘This is a great thing for you, I’m so glad you’re a part of this,’ they’re as good a salesman as anybody we could ask for.”
COMMUNITIES OF SUCCESS
College of Arts and Sciences Dean Pamela Riggs-Gelasco came to UTC in summer 2020 from the College of Charleston, beginning her new position in the midst of the pandemic. She has yet to mark her first anniversary in Chattanooga but is already looking toward Arts and Sciences fully entering Cohort 2025 with the start of the 2022-23 academic year. “Right now, we’re in the planning stages of determining what kind of experiences we want to feature,” Riggs-Gelasco says. “We’re looking at one in music that will hopefully help people coming in doing marching band or choruses. There’ll be a place where they can gather or play piano—or maybe both—in a common space. We want to do a ‘language house’ where we perhaps put in some travel experiences associated with that.
“There’s talk about bringing help resources into the dorm space so students are more likely to seek it out—in math, writing—when they need it, having a physical space in the dorm for that. The hope is to get students into a good pattern by making help more convenient so that they can readily access it.”
If anybody is going to make sure that residential students have what they need on-site for their academic success, it’s Joshua McPhatter, UTC assistant director of Residence Life for academic initiatives. “I always explain in our training about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs which says humans have to have basic physical needs of food, shelter and safety met before we can work on higher-level, ‘self-actualization’ needs,” McPhatter says, “and I explain that for Residence Life, it’s similar. At the foundation level of our pyramid is connection. It’s community engagement, knowing residents by name, knowing them by story. Then our hope is to progress to conversations about academic success, about diversity and inclusion, about personal growth and wellness—but it all starts with that fundamental connection to who they are, where they’re from and why they’re here.”
To hear him talk, you’d think McPhatter was born for the launch of Cohort 2025 this fall. “If I were to sum it up, I’d say it’s making a big campus small,” he says. “It’s taking a campus made up of Chattanooga, UTC, thousands of students and countless resources—small and manageable. It’s about taking this large institution and circling it around an academic interest, an academic major or personal interest area so that you can connect better, one-to-one. And the next thing you know, a few really good one-to-one connections become really strong communities.”