The move from high school to college can be difficult for any student. College freshmen may struggle academically; they may have difficulty choosing a major and identifying a potential field of interest, or have a hard time making friends.
These normal challenges can leave students from groups often excluded from higher education, such as people of color and first-generation college students, questioning whether they are cut out for higher education. These students are likely to interpret the common challenges of adjusting to college as signs they don’t fit in on campus.
Left unaddressed, these feelings of not belonging can undermine their academic achievement. And that could lead them to question their lives and be less successful at work.
Schools where students from these groups felt they should be on campus saw completion rates increase.
The brief online intervention presented students with the idea that it is normal to worry at first about fitting in, and that those fears will diminish with time, Gregory Walton, corresponding author of the study, explained. “Students can think about this idea and use it to increase their sense of belonging at school.”
Schools where study participants were helped to feel they belonged on campus had school completion rates that were two percent higher than schools lacking such support.
The intervention worked like this: Students were divided into what were called local-identity groups made up of students of a particular race or ethnicity or with first-generation status at a particular college. The method made it possible to compare participants’ responses and showed the effect different college settings had on their feelings of belonging. “Any given group has different vulnerabilities and different opportunities in different settings,” Walton, a professor of psychology at Stanford, explained.
Students in the program were shown survey results from older students that explained worries about belonging were common and lessened over time. Then they read personal stories from minority and first-generation students about their concerns when they started college and what helped them fit in on campus.
Participants were asked to think about the older students’ stories and write an essay to future incoming students explaining that concerns about fitting in on campus are common and will lessen over time.
Finally, participants were asked to think about the older students’ stories and write an essay to future incoming students explaining that concerns about fitting in on campus are common and will lessen over time and likely work themselves out.
“Past research has focused on individual groups, such as Black students or first-generation college students,” said Walton. That focus assumes Black students, for example, have the same experience at every college or university.
Four-year colleges and universities in the U.S. welcome over one million new students to campus each fall. The researchers estimate that if every college and university offered the intervention to incoming freshmen, an additional 12,000 students would finish their first year of full-time higher education.
The Social-Belonging for College Students module is available free-of-charge to colleges and universities in the U.S. and Canada.