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With higher education dropout rates at alarming levels, colleges and universities are pressed to improve student retention. Research suggests that students who report a higher sense of belonging at the end of the first year persist more in their second and third years and report lower levels of mental health issues. So, how do colleges and universities foster a greater sense of belonging?
What does it mean for a student to feel belonging?
For students to experience a sense of belonging, it means they feel valued, respected, and connected to the broader campus community. This feeling of connection plays a significant role in motivating students and boosting their confidence, ultimately driving them to achieve more academically and personally.
According to an article published in the College Student Affairs Journal, belonging is particularly critical for first-year college students, as it sets the foundation for their success and persistence throughout their academic journey. Establishing a sense of belonging early helps first-year students navigate the challenges associated with transitioning to college life and increases their likelihood of thriving in their new environment.
As outlined in the scholarly journal mentioned above, the concept of belonging encompasses four domains:
1. Social domain
The social domain revolves around interpersonal relationships, social connections, and a sense of acceptance among peers and within the campus community. Students who feel a sense of belonging in this domain experience a supportive network of friends and acquaintances and feel accepted for who they are within their social circles.
2. Academic domain
The academic domain relates to the student’s connection to the university as a whole and the classroom environment. In this domain, students who feel a sense of belonging perceive themselves as active participants in their education. They establish positive interactions with faculty and staff, have a sense of support and encouragement, and believe in their ability to succeed academically, all of which promote student success.
3. Personal space domain
The personal space domain encompasses satisfaction and personal interests. It focuses on students finding fulfillment and satisfaction in activities that align with their passions, hobbies, and personal identity. Engaging in these activities helps students develop a sense of purpose and authenticity, contributing to their overall feeling of belonging.
4. Surroundings domain
The fourth and final domain is the surroundings domain, which pertains to the physical environment. It includes factors such as accommodation quality and campus location. Students who feel a sense of belonging in this domain find themselves comfortable and at ease with their physical surroundings. Feeling safe, supported, and at home in the campus environment contributes to their overall sense of belonging.
Help students find a sense of belonging
A strong sense of belonging benefits students across the four domains outlined above. Socially, it fosters meaningful relationships and emotional well-being. Academically, it boosts engagement and confidence. Personally, it promotes fulfillment and self-expression. In surroundings, it creates a supportive and comfortable environment. By fostering belonging in these four domains, colleges and universities cultivate an environment where students can thrive, paving the way for their success, resilience, and long-term satisfaction. And, with increased success, resilience, and satisfaction, comes the potential for increased retention rates.
Challenges to cultivating belonging
Multiple academic studies highlight the challenges faced in building a sense of belonging among college students. Three key challenges identified include:
- Identity factors: Students from underrepresented racial and ethnic minority backgrounds (e.g., Latinx, Black/African American, etc.), as well as first-generation college students and low-income students, often report a lower sense of belonging compared to their counterparts. These students may already carry doubts about their place in higher education due to historical exclusion or negative stereotypes. Addressing these identity-related challenges is crucial to fostering belonging.
- Interpretation of challenges: Students with limited knowledge of how college works or those who have experienced discrimination may interpret the difficulties they encounter as evidence that they do not belong. They may associate challenges with their social group and perceive them as confirmation that they are out of place. Helping students reframe their interpretations and providing appropriate support is essential to maintaining a sense of belonging.
- Practical constraints: Certain students face practical constraints that make it more challenging to cultivate a sense of belonging through traditional means. For instance, students who commute long distances, work while attending school, or have caregiving responsibilities may find engagement in campus activities more difficult. Identifying alternative ways to connect and fostering inclusivity in diverse student circumstances is important.
By acknowledging and addressing these challenges, colleges, and universities can work toward creating an environment in which all students feel a sense of belonging and can thrive academically and personally.
Impact of belonging on students
Belonging plays a significant role in shaping the college experience, both positively and negatively. Here are some of the effects of belonging on college students:
Impact of lack of belonging:
- Lack of belonging is most acute for underrepresented students. Students from marginalized groups may already arrive on campus questioning if they belong there, leading to feelings of alienation and a decline in academic performance.
- Students who don’t feel a sense of belonging are more likely to drop out, as they may struggle with feelings of isolation and disengagement.
- The absence of belonging can have adverse effects on mental health, particularly with increasing rates of depression and anxiety. Students who feel disconnected from the campus community may experience heightened stress and emotional distress.
The positive effects of belonging:
- College students who feel a strong sense of belonging experience higher rates of personal and academic success. They tend to have better grades, higher persistence rates, and greater engagement in their academic pursuits.
- Belonging positively influences mental health outcomes. Students who feel connected and supported by their college community often experience improved well-being and a greater sense of purpose.
- Educational research indicates that belonging is particularly important for underrepresented racial and ethnic minority students, as well as first-generation/low-income students. Cultivating college students’ sense of belonging through connections with an affinity group, such as those based on race, religion, academic interests, or athletics, can provide a vital support system and contribute to their overall college experience.
How higher education can foster a sense of belonging for students
Colleges and universities can foster a sense of belonging among students through various strategies. The following approaches, based on recommendations from The Advocate, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and Third Way, can contribute to creating a supportive and inclusive environment.
Creating a positive and supportive school environment
Institutions should prioritize inclusivity and create an environment that welcomes and supports students from diverse backgrounds. This includes considering factors such as race, ethnicity, religion, and socioeconomic background to ensure all students feel valued and included.
Encouraging social interactions
Regular activities such as games, team-building activities, mentoring, or social impact projects can facilitate social interactions among students. These activities provide opportunities for students to connect with one another, develop friendships, and foster a sense of belonging within their peer groups.
Recognizing and embracing diversity within the student body can create inclusive learning opportunities. It is essential to train teachers and staff to identify and address language, socio-economic, and cultural barriers that may affect students’ sense of belonging.
Promoting teacher-support rapport
Faculty members and staff play a crucial role in supporting student mental health and fostering a sense of belonging. Creating a safe and respectful learning environment where students feel comfortable seeking support and guidance is important.
Setting clear expectations and guidelines
Establishing clear policies on bullying, harassment, and discrimination promotes safe and supportive environments. These policies should promote kindness, respect, and inclusiveness among students.
Introducing a director of inclusion and belonging
Some institutions are hiring professionals dedicated to fostering belonging, such as a Director of Inclusion and Belonging, who can lead initiatives and create a culture of inclusivity on campus.
Ensuring active inclusion
Institutions should take steps to actively include all students. This includes pronouncing student names correctly, respecting chosen names for transgender or nonbinary students, meeting basic needs, accommodating students with disabilities, and engaging in dialogue with students to understand their experiences, particularly within specific social identity groups.
Incorporating engagement activities
Organizing activities and programs that are associated with a high sense of belonging can further enhance the student experience. These initiatives can include workshops, seminars, and events focused on fostering a sense of belonging.
Investing in a culture of belonging
Institutions should invest in creating a culture of belonging, as it has been shown to contribute to improved grades, persistence, and completion rates, especially among racial-ethnic minority students, first-generation students, transfer students, and those with high financial needs.
By implementing these strategies and developing evidence-based approaches to enhance student completion, higher education institutions can create an environment where all students feel a strong sense of belonging, leading to improved academic success and overall well-being, and ultimately increased retention rates.
How can TimelyCare help colleges and universities cultivate belonging?
TimelyCare offers colleges and universities valuable support in cultivating a sense of belonging on their campuses. By leveraging TimelyCare services, institutions can enhance the overall student experience and promote a culture of inclusivity and support.
One way TimelyCare supports colleges and universities is by providing convenient access to telehealth services. Through virtual platforms, students can easily connect with healthcare professionals, including mental health counselors and medical practitioners. This accessibility breaks down barriers to care, ensuring that students can receive prompt and comprehensive support for their healthcare needs. By offering convenient and flexible options, TimelyCare helps students feel valued and supported by their institution.
TimelyCare’s services go beyond mental health support, encompassing medical consultations and general counseling. This comprehensive approach recognizes that students’ well-being extends beyond mental health, addressing their holistic needs. By offering a range of services, TimelyCare demonstrates a commitment to supporting students’ overall health and shows students that their institution cares about their well-being.
TimelyCare also takes a collaborative approach, working closely with colleges and universities to effectively integrate our services into the campus community . By customizing our offerings to align with the institution’s goals and values, we become an integral part of the student support system. This collaborative effort fosters a sense of belonging by showcasing the institution’s dedication to student well-being and providing tailored support that meets the specific needs of the campus community.
By incorporating TimelyCare into their resources, colleges and universities reinforce the message that students’ health and well-being are top priorities. This integration of telehealth services contributes to a supportive environment in which students feel cared for and connected. Knowing that comprehensive support, including accessible telehealth options, is readily available, students develop a sense of belonging knowing that their institution is committed to their success not just academically, but emotionally and socially as well.
TimelyCare plays a vital role in helping colleges and universities cultivate a sense of belonging among their students, increasing the possibility for improved retention and positive student outcomes. By offering accessible telehealth services, comprehensive support, and fostering collaboration, we can help you create a campus environment where students feel valued, supported, and connected.