Consider the Big Ten Experience

If you think smaller is better, you may want another look.

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At first glance, everything about the Big Ten seems huge: campuses that rival mid-size cities in area and population, academic offerings that might include 150 or 175 undergraduate majors, and, of course, inter­collegiate athletics—the genesis of the conference in the 1890s—with teams that pack stadiums and arenas bigger than many in the professional leagues. The Big Ten is so big that, with the addition this year of the University of Nebraska, it actually comprises 12 institutions of higher learning.

This bigness is what so attracts many students. They can choose from a wealth of course offerings unavailable at small four-year schools, plus hundreds of student organizations covering every imaginable interest. Drawing heavily from in-state populations, the Big Ten schools also inspire an extraordinary sense of pride and place, notably during major sporting events. Yet for some first year students, adapting can be a major challenge. Massive dormitories, large and impersonal lecture classes, and lack of close contact with faculty all can leave freshmen at risk of getting lost in the crowd.

[See U.S. News's rankings of top national universities.]

But the Big Ten schools, like many of the country's other large institutions, are finding ways to create small universes within the vast university. Administrators, faculty, and students are drawing on experience and research indicating that small-scale programs—especially those encouraging active student engagement—boost undergraduate satisfaction, retention, and academic performance.

The process often starts before classes begin. At the University of Iowa, where the freshman retention rate (recently averaging 84 percent) is at the low end of the Big Ten's range, "we've made a sea change" in how students are welcomed, says Sarah Hansen, director of assessment and strategic initiatives in the Division of Student Life.

[See a list of freshman retention rates at national universities.]

A new program this year called On Iowa! goes well beyond the traditional day-and-a-half orientation sessions earlier in the summer, when incoming freshmen meet an academic adviser and register for classes. During On Iowa!, about 200 specially trained students help the freshmen move in, then lead small groups of about two dozen through a three-day weekend jampacked with activities aimed at familiarizing them with the campus and its resources and making them feel part of the Hawkeye culture.

Ohio State, with an undergraduate enrollment at its main campus last fall of more than 42,000, is the biggest of the Big Ten and one of the nation's largest universities. Among other superlatives, it boasts what may be the world's biggest (225-member) brass and percussion band, famous for its football pregame "script Ohio" formation. While freshman retention a decade ago hovered around 80 percent, it has ticked up steadily to a four-year average of 93 percent—a result of more selective admissions and aggressive attention to what officials call "barriers" to student success.

All facets of the student experience at OSU are fair game; the school has been beefing up everything from tutoring and services for students with disabilities to financial counseling and career-planning assistance. "We talk about the curricular and the cocurricular," says Javaune Adams-Gaston, vice president for student life. On the academic side, residential learning communities are one means of engaging students with shared interests in intellectual exchange and creating bonds among them.

[See which schools offer learning communities.]

Among Michigan State's learning communities for first year students is the invitation-only Broad Freshman Program, in which high-achieving business students share a residence hall adjacent to the business college, get reserved sections of certain classes and special seminars, and participate in social events like meals with faculty and alumni.

At Northwestern, the only private institution in the Big Ten and the smallest by far in terms of undergrad enrollment (about 8,400), administrators are taking professorial involvement a step further. New last fall was an all-freshman residential community featuring live-in faculty and staff members, expanded seminar and lounge spaces for the 350 students, and offices for "hoteling" by various university programs; the Study Abroad Office, for instance, plans to set up shop temporarily this fall to get the word out to newcomers. The goal is to establish eight or 10 residential communities within a decade.