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Factor Focus: Sense of Belonging

The "Factor Focus" series is designed to review various noncognitive factors and their relevance to student success.

I thoroughly enjoy asking people what they think makes a student successful in college. For most people - namely those who work outside of education - the answer typically involves something in the motivational realm. "Hard work," or "commitment," or "interest in their major." Something along those lines. Occasionally, someone will try to be sly and refer to the socioeconomic relationship to education, providing guesses such as, "family income," or "school quality," or "parental involvement."


However, people who work within higher education are more likely to refer to the social aspects of student success. As I've talked with more and more people about their responses, I've learned that this often arises from their own experience. They had someone in their own life who contributed to their success. What's more, that person is a key driver for their own career pursuits: they hoped to be that same supportive role model for future students.


This parallel between layperson and practitioner interestingly mirrors the zeitgeist around what makes a successful college student. Almost all of our systems - from state or national accountability metrics to the tests we use to admit students to college and/or deem them college-ready - are based on individual learning, cognitive skills, and academic achievement. Yet college is as much a social endeavor as it is an academic one. (


No, I'm not just talking about the parties, romances, and other relationships from your college experience that might be coming to mind right now. I'm talking about the entrance into a new society. A college experience is rife with social engagements. Interacting with peers, meeting faculty expectations, negotiating the administration - these are all complex social phenomena. In fact, some would argue that it's the ability to navigate these waters that is one of the most valuable signals a college degree can provide.


But articulating the role that social interaction plays in student success is an incredibly complex exercise. In my career, I've worked to encapsulate some key social factors with a particular focus on early assessment and intervention. Admittedly, this is not a complete mapping of the social experience and growth that a student undertakes throughout their career, but I've encountered a few key distinctions that I've found to be enlightening.


What is Sense of Belonging?

If there is a founder of the modern student success era, most people would agree that it's Vincent Tinto. He really changed the way people thought about student attrition, and his foundational works (1979; 1987) listed below have been cited tens of thousands of times (seriously - check Google Scholar). Ultimately, you can't really write a dissertation about student success without citing him.


Perhaps most notable about Tinto’s work is the concept that attrition is as much a social as it is academic. His work - and a great deal more based upon it - supported the theory that students who do not feel integrated into an institution's social environment are less likely to feel commitment to that institution and their studies.


Several later studies have provided greater depth in understanding the process of social integration. Moreover, from a psychological perspective, I appreciate theories like the ones below because they give me a greater understanding of the process that leads to a characteristic like social integration, rather than merely an observation that its presence is correlated with success.


Again, keep in mind that social integration is incredibly complex. Moreover, it's likely to vary from student to student, and perhaps more importantly, function differently for students from traditionally underserved populations (more on that later). All that said, here are a few studies that shed light on understanding students social progression in college:

  • Bollen and Hoyle (1990) proposed the concept of “perceived cohesion” to explain an individual's attachment to a group. Their model included two factors: “feelings of morale,” which referred to a positive or negative attitude about the group as a whole, and “sense of belonging,” which referred to an individual's perceived relationships with members of the group.

  • Elliot, Kao, and Grant (2004) proposed the construct of “mattering” to explain an individual’s relationship to a group. In their model, mattering consisted of three components: awareness (“I am the object of others’ attention”), importance (“I am the object of others’ concern”), and reliance (“Others look to me”).

  • France, Finney, and Swerdzewski (2009) integrated these and other theories with a specific focus on the adjustment of college students. In defining “university attachment,” the authors referred to “group attachment” (affiliation with the college/university itself) and “member attachment” (affiliation with the people within the college/university).


So what do we learn from all this? I think there are a few key take-aways. As always, it's important to parse out the terminology. While you will find a lot of variance in the way terms are used, it's good to have some framework and understanding of the underlying similarities and differences of various phenomena.


For example, when I think of "social integration" (to use Tinto's term), it's really a broad process that includes attitudinal, behavioral, and emotional components. Certainly, it helps guide our thinking, but from an assessment perspective, it's a little too complex to examine in a single metric.


To me, "social engagement" refers to the behavioral aspect of social integration. When students interact with each other, participate in clubs and organizations, or even wear apparel from the institution, they are demonstrating social engagement. If we were building a survey tool, this might be the easiest to examine, but it probably comes last in the sequence of development. Yet it's likely a lagging indicator when it comes to retention. Sure, students who are socially engaged are likely to be socially integrated and thus more likely to persist, but by the time we observe a lack of social engagement, it might just be too late.


"Institutional commitment" (IC) is another common term used in this space. In my experience, IC is well-framed by the studies mentioned above. Certainly, students' feelings about the institution as a whole can impact their likelihood to persist, but this is quite different from thinking about a social process. After all, "social" refers to people, and separating the way a student feels about an institution versus the people within that institution helps specify the interpersonal element.


So this really brings us to the central question of, "what is sense of belonging?" In my work, I've focused on "sense of belonging" as the feeling of relation to other people within the institution. It includes feelings of similarity or being welcomed on the positive side, and feelings of exclusion or alienation on the negative side.


As an example, I was once working with a school on sense of belonging, and one of the scales we were using contained the item, "I am like the typical student at [insert institution]," with which students would agree or disagree, with positive responses indicating greater sense of belonging. During the item review phase, a senior administrator asked me, "But what IS our typical student?" I replied that whatever the "typical" student looked like was unimportant - it was the respondent's perception of their similarity or difference to whatever they thought most other students to be.


As I write this, I'm considering that we might need a more nuanced understanding of sense of belonging to consider whether those social connections are established with students, faculty, and/or staff (which I'd wager has been explored in some aspect of research, though nothing of which I'm aware). I would hypothesize that these varying social connections could have differential impacts on student success (there's a dissertation idea for whomever needs it!).


As you may have guessed, this has particular relevance to students from traditionally underserved populations. In fact, I'm currently reading Becoming by Michelle Obama (again - I'm always a few years behind the times), who articulated the differences she felt to a predominantly white student body when she began her undergraduate studies at Princeton. In her case, a major connection came from a staff member who worked at a student center on campus.


To be sure, any student can lack a sense of belonging if they aren't making friends, aren't keeping up academically, or otherwise just aren't adjusting to college as well as other students. But students from traditionally underserved backgrounds can feel this sense of difference much sooner, stronger, and in more impactful ways. I would highly recommend Terrell Strayhorn's (2018) book on Sense of Belonging, which contains several case studies about the topic among many different student subpopulations. Additionally, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria by Beverly Daniel Tatum gives perspective on how students of color adapt in academic settings. (For me, as a white male of relative privilege, reading some of Tatum's work was particularly powerful in gaining perspective.)


Empirical Relationship to Success

Several large-scale studies have examined constructs similar to Sense of Belonging in relation to student success outcomes. A meta-analysis by Robbins et al. (2004) found that both perceived social support and social involvement were significant predictors of both first-year GPA and retention. However, Markle et al. (2013) and Richardson, Abraham, and Bond (2012) found little connection between measures similar to Sense of Belonging and student outcomes.

One hypothesis for these variance in findings is that sense of belonging has differential effects on certain student subpopulations (e.g., Johnson et al., 2007; Maestas, Vaquera, & Zehr, 2007; Mark, 2007). For example, one could easily imagine that students from traditionally underserved populations could either feel different levels of belonging, or experience belonging differently as a part of their success. Feeling disconnected may be more of a hurdle to a student of color form a low-income family than a white student from an affluent background. In this case, observing an effect of sense of belonging across a large student sample may be difficult.

Practical Relationship to Success

For those who work in higher education, it can be difficult to understand how college might seem like a foreign culture to many students. The typical faculty member, for example, was likely successful in their undergraduate studies, graduate studies (perhaps across multiple institutions), and as an employee of that same system. If there ever was a time when college didn’t make sense, it might be hard to recall.


Yet this is the experience for so many college students, particularly those from traditionally underserved populations. Not only might they feel unable to navigate that system, but they are likely to miss the connections to other students around them, let alone understand that many of their peers are experiencing the same challenges.


This is perhaps the greatest contribution of research by Vincent Tinto and others. It helped faculty, staff, and administrators understand that student success was not merely a process of learning and success in the classroom, but a social endeavor. Once Tinto proposed a concept such as institutional commitment, other concepts such as student involvement (Astin, 1985) and engagement (Kuh & Vesper, 1997) followed.


Sense of belonging plays a critical role in student success because it is the underlying perception that drives this social component of higher education. Students who feel like they don’t belong are less likely to engage, either academically or socially, they’re less likely to reach out for help when they have a problem, and ultimately, it is this culmination of factors that leads to attrition in many cases.


Ultimately, I'm reminded of a quote from Becoming that could help frame the way many (particularly faculty) view success: "Failure is a feeling long before it becomes an actual result." I've often spoken with faculty about why students aren't successful in their classes, and by far the #1 answer is, "because they don't show up." Certainly, students could be better about showing up to class, but we could also be more conscious of the long and winding road that leads to absence.


It often begins with students' early experiences in college, they way the look at the society into which they're entering, and how the make the evaluation of whether or not they can succeed. For this reason, "sense of belonging" is such a beautiful and yet tragic title for this phenomenon, because far too many students leave higher education simply because they just felt like they didn't belong there.


References

  • Astin, A. (1985). Achieving educational excellence: A critical assessment of priorities and practices in higher education. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. Bollen, K.A. & Hoyle, R.H. (1990). Perceived cohesion: A conceptual and empirical examination. Social Forces, 69(2), 479-504.

  • Cabrera, A. F., Nora, A., & Castaneda, M. B. (1993). College persistence: Structural equations modeling test of an integrated model of student retention. The journal of higher education, 64(2), 123-139.

  • Elliott, G. C., Kao, S., & Grant, A. (2004). Mattering: Empirical validation of a social–psychological concept. Self and Identity, 3, 339–354.

  • France, M.K., Finney, S.J., and Swerdzewski, P. (2009). Students’ group and member attachment to their university: A construct validity study of the University Attachment Scale. Educational and Psychological Measurement, 1-19.

  • Johnson, D. R., Soldner, M., Leonard, J. B., Alvarez, P., Inkelas, K. K., Rowan-Kenyon, H. T., & Longerbeam, S. D. (2007). Examining sense of belonging among first-year undergraduates from different racial/ethnic groups. Journal of College Student Development, 48(5), 525-542.

  • Kuh, G. D., & Vesper, N. (1997). A comparison of student experiences with good practices in undergraduate education between 1990 and 1994. The Review of Higher Education, 21(1), 43-61.

  • Maestas, R., Vaquera, G. S., & Zehr, L. M. (2007). Factors impacting sense of belonging at a Hispanic-serving institution. Journal of Hispanic Higher Education, 6(3), 237-256.

  • Markle, R., Olivera-Aguilar, M., Jackson, T., Noeth, R., & Robbins, S. (2013). Examining evidence of reliability, validity, and fairness for the SuccessNavigator assessment. ETS Research Report (No. RR-13-12). Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service.

  • Richardson, M., Abraham, C., & Bond, R. (2012). Psychological correlates of university students’ academic performance: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 138(2), 353-387.

  • Robbins, S. B., Lauver, K., Le, H., Davis, D., Langley, R., & Carlstrom, A. (2004). Do psychosocial and study skill factors predict college outcomes? A meta-analysis. Psychological bulletin, 130(2), 261.

  • Rubin, M. (2012). Social class differences in social integration among students in higher education: A meta-analysis and recommendations for future research. Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, 5(1), 22–38.

  • Strayhorn, T. L. (2018). College students' sense of belonging: A key to educational success for all students. Routledge.

  • Tinto, V. (1975). Dropout from higher education: A theoretical synthesis of recent research. Review of educational research, 45(1), 89-125.

  • Tinto, V. (1987). Leaving college: Rethinking the causes and cures of student attrition. University of Chicago Press, 5801 S. Ellis Avenue, Chicago, IL 60637.

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