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Here’s why a sense of belonging in college matters more than you think

sense of belonging
A better sense of belonging among students at four-year institutions leads to higher rates of personal and academic successes later in their college experiences. Source: Shutterstock

For college and university-going students, a sense of belonging is known to impact academic success and emotional well-being.

Past studies suggest that students who feel they belong tend to seek out and use campus resources to a greater extent, which furthers their success. A sense of belonging also buffers students from stress and thus improves their mental health.

However, a study published on December 24 shows that minority and first-generation college students have a higher sense of belonging at two-year colleges than their counterparts at four-year institutions.

Conversely, minorities and first-generation students at four-year institutions are less likely to feel a sense of belonging. 

Its authors – Maithreyi Gopalan, assistant professor of education, Pennsylvania State University; and Shannon Brady, assistant professor of psychology, Wake Forest University – said these surprising findings warrant attention.

Should colleges step up efforts to make students feel more connected?

Here’s why a sense of belonging in college matters more than you think

Minority and first-generation college students are less likely to feel a sense of belonging at four-year institutions. Source: Shutterstock

Speaking to Inside Higher Ed, the researchers said a better sense of belonging among students at four-year institutions leads to higher rates of personal and academic successes later in their college experiences. 

Students who report a higher sense of belonging at the end of the first year seem to do better than their counterparts, they said. Those students seemed to persist more in their second and third years and reported lower levels of mental health issues.

“We find experimentally trying to help people foster a sense of belonging can improve a number of positive outcomes. We have found benefits on academic outcomes, benefits on health outcomes, benefits on engagement types of outcomes,” Brady was quoted saying. 

“And what we know is that those are the kinds of outcomes that individuals care about, and also that colleges care about. We hope that this research really helps colleges think critically about how they’re going about their efforts to foster students’ sense of belonging on campus.”

Failing to feel a strong sense of belonging on campus can impact how underrepresented student populations integrate, perform and persist, said Gopalan.

Across all institution types, students at two-year institutions report a lower sense of belonging overall, but underrepresented minority and first-generation students are the exceptions. 

Although a greater proportion of two-year (versus four-year) students are minorities or first-generation college students, this does not appear to explain the findings, said authors.

Researchers also found that students at four-year institutions who felt a higher sense of belonging were more likely to utilise campus services such as student advising and financial aid services than those at two-year colleges. 

Gopalan believes students who use these services are more likely to persist through their second and third years of college.

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