Three focus areas for colleges working to increase student belonging

Colleges’ efforts to support students’ belonging and connectedness on campus can take many forms, leaving some institutions unsure where to focus. Noting that many student affairs leaders have sought advice, education firm EAB recently highlighted three key drivers of student belonging.

Wanting to improve but wondering what works

Recent research has made clear the benefits when students feel that they belong on campus. Students who have a strong sense of connection are more likely to complete their degrees, access financial and advising resources, succeed academically, have greater self-worth, and report mental wellbeing.

As institutions take steps to support belonging, some have noted the challenge of addressing a concept so broad and difficult to measure. “There is a lot of room for creativity… but it also makes it hard to identify what can actually transform a student’s experience,” one state flagship university’s vice president for student affairs told EAB.

Related: 5 opportunities to build first-gen students’ sense of belonging at Georgetown >

Research points to three especially high-impact drivers of student belonging and connectedness, EAB says: mentorship relationships with faculty, engaged and active learning, and cocurricular and extracurricular participation.

Offering proactive mentorship

Evidence shows that college students are more likely to feel a sense of belonging when they have established close, supportive relationships with faculty. However, in one recent survey, 44 percent of college students said they did not have a mentor on campus; more than half of those students said they didn’t know how to find one.

“Proactive student support and mentorship culture is undervalued in academia,” says Becca Spindel Bassett, a Harvard University Ph.D. candidate who studies inequity in higher education. In addition to providing essential resources such as recommendation letters, feedback, and professional introductions, faculty mentors provide “important intangible resources in the form of encouragement, advice, and advocacy,” Spindel Bassett writes in Inside Higher Ed.

Related: New book explores who’s responsible for students’ sense of belonging >

Noting that low-income students and students from other historically marginalized groups are especially prone to miss out on faculty mentorship, Spindel Basset urges colleges to proactively provide structured mentorship programs—and to reward mentors “symbolically and materially” for their efforts. EAB says that faculty diversity is another crucial consideration, given that students are more likely to have a sense of belonging when they can interact with faculty of similar backgrounds.

Prioritizing engaged learning, participation in activities

In addition to mentorship, campuses can foster connectedness and belonging in their classrooms by prioritizing engaged and active learning. The pedagogical approach relies less on offering lecture-style instruction and more heavily on welcoming student questions and creating opportunities for interaction, often through group activities and collaborative projects.

Related: Prioritize inclusive teaching to enhance learning, professors say >

Participation beyond the classroom is similarly important, and EAB encourages institutions to focus on the cocurricular and extracurricular dimensions of belonging. When students participate in activities, athletics, and other programming, they not only feel connected but also develop crucial support networks.

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