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One key to success in college? A sense of belonging, according to new research.

  • Innovation and Research
  • Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
  • Learning Research and Development Center (LRDC)

Getting to college is one thing. But staying there is another altogether — especially for students from historically marginalized and excluded populations.

A new study published in Science has found incoming students who participate in an online belonging exercise complete their first year as full-time college students at a higher rate than their peers.

“The core idea behind the belonging interventions is that the transition to college is filled with numerous challenges, setbacks and struggles,” said Omid Fotuhi, a research associate in Pitt’s Learning Research and Development Center (LRDC) and a study co-author. “If a student attributes these challenges to internal and unchangeable factors, they will conclude that, maybe, they don’t belong in college.”

College, after all, can be stressful, lonely and confusing, even if it’s also one of the most exciting times of a student’s life. Although the stress of attending college is felt by most, it is not felt equally by all. Students from historically marginalized and excluded populations tend to experience higher-than-average stress and uncertainty, which can undermine academic performance, achievement and persistence.  

Administered online in fall 2015 and 2016, the intervention began with 27,000 students from 22 colleges reading how older students responded on a survey about worry related to belonging. Then they read first-person narratives from a diverse group of students about their worries about belonging and what helped them. Finally, students were asked to reflect on these stories and write an essay for future students about belonging concerns — how they are normal and how they improve over time.

“If [students] recognize that their experiences of uncertainty and challenges are temporary and a normal part of any transition, then they are less likely to question their belonging and more likely to stay engaged with the resources and supports that will fuel their success,” said Fotuhi.

At institutions with a supportive environment, researchers saw a 2 percentage point increase in first-year, full-time completion after the intervention among students in groups that had historically been less likely to complete their first year. The researchers calculated that their results could be generalized to more than 1 million students annually in the U.S.

Impacts were much greater when the institutions had strategies and resources in place to help students feel like they belong. These resources could show up in classroom practices, institutional messaging or campus culture. Other supports included the opportunity for high-quality interactions between groups in residence halls, classrooms and community spaces on campus as well as the availability of mentors who could help guide students’ academic paths.

Rather than compare students by single, broad categories — such as African American or first-generation — researchers categorized students by “local-identity groups”: students of a given race and ethnicity, with a given first-generation status, at a given college and in a given year. This unique approach allowed the researchers to study the nuances of identity and belonging in different college settings.

The research effort was the country’s largest multisite randomized controlled trial of the belonging intervention and included researchers from more than a dozen institutions. They developed intervention materials through a rigorous design process rooted in a student-centered investigation about their experiences, through their eyes, which helped guide and inform the content. This allowed them to craft materials that could respond to the core underlying psychological vulnerability for each target group.

The findings have policy implications for academic institutions seeking to support and retain a diverse population of students. Addressing and alleviating students’ uncertainty about whether they belong during the transition to college can set all students up for long-term success, particularly those from historically marginalized and excluded populations — but it does so best when institutions have strong strategies and resources in place to support students’ belonging.


— Elizabeth Rangel, with materials adapted from Stanford University and Indiana University