“The best thing [my institution] can do is realize that students are struggling right now and need all the extra support they can get. The state of the world and the anxiety I feel every day due to the pandemic is making my college experience stressful.”
Survey response item from student sentiment survey
Many variables affect student success and retention, including engagement in the classroom, meaningful involvement in co-curricular activities, and students’ clarity around their educational goals and their progress toward them. A key reason students leave college early is feeling that they are not authentically integrated into their institution’s intellectual and social life1. Institutions that focus on students’ sense of belonging and mattering will be more successful in creating experiences where students are motivated to learn and be involved, retention is high, and students are successful in meeting their educational goals. It is more important than ever to focus on understanding students’ wellbeing and sense of belonging during the pandemic. This is especially true for Black, Indigenous, people of color (BIPOC), first-generation and low socioeconomic students who are more directly negatively impacted by the pandemic and thus more at risk.
Wellbeing, Belonging and Mattering
Many factors contribute to college students’ wellbeing, which extends beyond mental health to include positive self-concept, enjoyment of campus activities, freedom from anxiety, positive impression of the institution, academic engagement, and social integration with friends, faculty and staff. Belonging is one of those key factors. Students monitor the college environment for social cues that signal their belonging status. That shapes the lens students use to make of their experiences, contributing to a sense that they belong or that they don’t fit in2. Students’ sense of belonging leads to positive outcomes, and what constitutes that sense of belonging differs by social identities such as race, gender, socioeconomic class, nationality and others3. One signal to students that they belong is feeling that they matter – to their peers, the faculty, the institution. According to Schlossberg’s (1989) Theory of Marginality and Mattering, mattering is affected by:
- Attention – being noticed and not being invisible
- Importance – knowing that someone is concerned and cares
- Ego Extension – feeling that someone shares in your pride of accomplishment and sympathizes with your failures
- Dependence – the sense of being needed
- Appreciation – feeling that your efforts are appreciated
Conversely, marginality is a sense of not belonging, not mattering and a feeling of being disconnected from the institution. Experiences of alienation or social isolation can raise doubts for a student about their capacities and negatively impact their academic performance and erode confidence. Marginality can also lead to adverse outcomes such as depression and be a key factor in why students leave college early. This sense of marginality is experienced differently by historically marginalized students and has a greater impact on BIPOC students who often experience racism and microaggressions.
Having social support is especially important during times of transition, such as when students first enter the institution or when they are changing relationships, routines, or priorities. The mere presence of friendly staff, supportive faculty or friends does little to build belonging or foster success. What’s most important is to create the social support that helps individuals feel cared about and like they belong and aren’t being left behind. There are various types of support including emotional, informational or praising a student for progress or a job well done. There are lots of sources of social support – close friends, family members, professors, classmates, staff and community members. And students feel like they matter when staff and faculty give attention, express care and concern and are responsive to their needs. It is important for institutions to keep in mind that students don’t distinguish between student services and academics when it comes to experiencing social support – they know whether they feel cared about, attended to and like they belong.
A recent survey on student sentiment during the pandemic utilized factors most highly correlated with student success related to belonging, mattering, marginality and social support. The survey asked student, among other things, to what extent student support services at colleges and universities met their needs. Twenty-five percent or more of students disagreed with statements considered imperative to a good college experience, such as feeling they get the help they need to be successful in their courses and having faculty and staff who care about them. The lowest scores were in the co-curriculum, including meaningful way to be involved on campus, feeling part of the college community, and having a circle of friends. This means that typical factors of mattering and belonging that lead to increased retention are currently low in part due to the impact of the pandemic.
What are Campuses Doing?
Especially during these challenging times where so many students are already physically distanced and disconnected from their institutions, colleges and universities can create environments that clearly indicate to all students that they belong and matter. This will encourage greater involvement, help them integrate their academic and co-curricular experiences to make meaning, and increase their overall sense of wellbeing, leading to improved retention and students who meet their individual educational goals. Many campuses intentionally target wellbeing, belonging, mattering and marginality through assessment to ensure that their efforts make a difference in student success and retention and for different populations of students.
North Carolina A&T State University’s Dr. Kelli M. Dixon, Director of Student Affairs Assessment and Staff Development, engages in intentional conversations with students one-on-one to learn more about their lived experiences. They also use the Wake Forest University Wellbeing Assessment to develop targeted, effective, and evidence-informed programming to support student wellbeing. The instrument provides data to the institution and direct feedback to students, giving them immediate tools for improving their wellbeing.
The University of Oregon adopts an equity-centered approach to assessing belonging indicators such as stereotype threat, social support, loneliness, ability uncertainty, belonging uncertainty, and place-based belonging. By disaggregating their data by social identities, Dr. Renee Delgado-Riley and her colleagues found that strategies that facilitate social network development are likely to benefit Black students, those that support self-confidence may be beneficial to Asian students, strategies that facilitate social network development and academic self-efficacy may benefit Native American and Alaskan students, strategies that support self-efficacy development may benefit international students, and strategies that facilitate social network development, or support self-care, self-compassion, and self-confidence may benefit students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. The findings from the disaggregated data allow them to target programs and services to meet specific needs through their Student Wellbeing and Success Initiative (SWaSI).
By leveraging various assessments within the Anthology Beacon platform, Iowa Wesleyan University discovered that nearly 30% of their students annually reported that they didn’t feel like they belonged at Iowa Wesleyan. First-year students reported that they didn’t feel connected to campus and lack social comfort. In addition to the surveys, informal student focus groups in the Student Success Center showed many students not feeling safe on campus and unable to be themselves. They’ve developed a multi-threaded response that includes an early alert system. Students complete the Student Strengths Inventory twice in the first semester, which allows them to identify concerns and respond accordingly. They’ve used the data to make systemic improvements, including changing the curriculum for the first-year orientation course, developing faculty and advisor training to better support students, developing peer mentorship opportunities, and streamlining multiple processes and programs with an eye toward better supporting students.
- Tinto, V. (1993). Leaving college: Rethinking the causes and cures of student attrition. University of Chicago Press.
- Strayhorn, T. (2018). Five Things to Know About Students’ Sense of Belonging.
- Strayhorn (2018). College students’ sense of belonging: A key to educational success for all students. Routledge.