- Students who feel like they belong in college are more resilient to academic difficulties.
- A 30-minute intervention designed to increase college students' sense of belonging was tested on over 25,000 students from 22 schools.
- The intervention was most effective when the school promoted belonging as well and the students were from at-risk groups.
The transition to college is a tough one. No matter how well a student did in high school, they are likely to meet other students who are more academically inclined, and more accomplished in their area of expertise. Even students at the top of their class in high school will probably find classes in which they struggle in college.
Success in college is driven crucially by how students fare on those days in which they struggle. Resilient students find ways to overcome bad grades, hard assignments, and comparisons of their own performance to others who are doing better. They take motivation in poor performance, learn from their mistakes, and adopt an attitude that they are capable of learning difficult topics. Students who struggle (and may ultimately drop out of school) are ones who may take their setbacks as a sign that they do not belong in college. As a result, their difficulties are taken as demotivating and demoralizing.
Because a sense of belonging can influence the likelihood that a student will succeed in college, institutions of higher education have been interested in finding ways to help students feel like they belong. One program that has been developed is the focus of a research project by a long list of researchers headed by Gregory Walton—including my UT Austin colleague David Yeager—that was published in a 2023 issue of the journal Science.
This program is a 30-minute intervention given to students early in their college career. It gives individuals the results of a survey showing that is normal for students to worry about belonging, has students read stories by more advanced students who talk about how they felt a greater sense of belonging over time, and asked all students to write their own story about their worries and how their situation is likely to improve in order to normalize that experience for future students and to chart a path for their own improvement. The aim of this intervention is to reinforce the two core ideas that many people transitioning into college struggle with a sense of belonging, and that it gets better over time.
To test whether this intervention has a meaningful impact on students, it was tested at 22 colleges and universities chosen to represent a diverse range of different kinds of schools with over 25,000 students participating. Participants in the treatment group did the 30-minute intervention described. Those in the control condition did not. The key outcome measured was whether the students completed their first year of college. Students also completed other measures like their feeling of belonging in their spring semester.
The primary aim of this study was to determine whether there are characteristics of individuals and characteristics of schools that make this intervention particularly helpful. One factor of interest is whether a group to which the student belongs has historically struggled in college. For this purpose, white and Asian students who were not in the first generation in their family to go to college were classified as from a group that historically has had high college achievement. All other groups were classified as being part of groups with lower historical achievement.
A second factor of interest is whether the school promotes belonging among students. To measure this outcome, the researchers used the judgments of belonging among students in their second semester at each college or university that were in the control condition. To the extent that a particular school promotes belonging, students who did not receive an intervention should still feel a sense of belonging after two semesters in school.
So, what happened?
The intervention was most effective for students who come from groups that have historically struggled in college. Indeed, for students who come from groups that historically have high achievement, the manipulation had little impact on the likelihood these students would complete their first year.
For those students who come from groups that have struggled historically, the intervention was effective primarily when the school also does things to promote belonging. That is, this brief intervention increases the effectiveness of the things that schools do to make students feel like they belong.
The effect of the manipulation was not huge. It increased created only a 1% to 2% increase in success rate for the groups for which it worked. However, over 1 million students enter college each year, and so even this success rate for the belonging intervention can help over 10,000 students per year stay in school.
This study is fascinating because it suggests that giving students a clear message that their anxiety that they do not belong in college is normal and is not actually an indication that they do not belong can have a powerful impact on students who are at risk for not completing their college career. This intervention cannot be done in isolation, though. The school itself must also promote a sense that all students regardless of their background belong at the institution.
The power of this manipulation comes through affecting the way students interpret their difficulties in school. When students believe that they belong in college, then the difficulties they experience are interpreted as a natural part of the process of studying complex topics. When students are concerned that they do not belong, then those same difficulties reinforce the idea that they should not be there in the first place, which saps motivation to work hard and makes it more likely that students will drop out.
Gregory M. Walton et al., Where and with whom does a brief social-belonging intervention promote progress in college?.Science380,499-505(2023).DOI:10.1126/science.ade4420