A shift in higher ed? Colleges step up efforts to foster student belonging

Writing that, “it’s everywhere,” The Chronicle of Higher Education recently explored colleges’ growing focus on fostering a sense of student belonging, concluding that the resulting dialogue “represents an important shift” in higher education. Specifically, the attention to students’ sense of belonging could signal a change in mindset—from one that attributes retention gaps to student deficits to a curiosity about the structural, environmental, and social factors inhibiting student success.

Declining college enrollment and student engagement since the COVID-19 pandemic have intensified efforts at U.S. higher education institutions to create conditions that foster a sense of belonging. Research suggests that college students, particularly those from structurally disadvantaged communities, who feel a sense of belonging at their institution are more likely to thrive personally and academically.

While students from all backgrounds feel a need to belong, some institutions say they are pinpointing specific improvement opportunities based on themes that appear repeatedly in conversations with students, faculty, and staff. Those include the importance of meeting students’ basic needs, creating inclusive social events and classroom activities, accommodating students with disabilities, and strengthening discrimination and harassment policies.

“Oftentimes when we recruit diverse employees or diverse students, we rely on the richness of their diverse perspectives to educate us,” says Mary Grace Almandrez, vice president for diversity and inclusion at Syracuse University. “But we, as an institution, have to also transform and change and think about our structures and our policies and procedures.”

Related: 3 strategies for increasing college students’ sense of belonging >

As part of that, some colleges and universities are creating classes geared toward students from underrepresented communities. Some of these courses discuss the hidden curriculum, or higher education’s unwritten academic, social, and cultural expectations. Others strive to create a sense of belonging for students from historically disadvantaged backgrounds from the very beginning of their college experience.

Undocumented and Unafraid, a seminar for first-year students led by Joanna Perez, an associate professor of sociology at California State University-Dominguez Hills, provides a community of support for undocumented students or students who have undocumented family members.

Southern Illinois University Edwardsville expanded its first-year African American literature course, The Black Scholar Experience, after research showed that about 42% of Black students who took the course later graduated, compared with about 29% of Black students who didn’t take the class. The course not only covers Black literature and culture but also discusses obstacles to Black student college completion, stress and time management, and barriers faced by Black women at the university.

Experts say institutions also need to create opportunities for students to interact with one another as peers across cultures. “There’s a greater sense of well-being that can be created as a result of those students’ understanding those differences, engaging across differences,” says Paulette Granberry Russell, President of the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education.

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