Belonging Is Key to Student Success, Now and Forever
Everybody wants to have a sense of belonging—to feel like they fit in wherever they happen to be.
A sense of belonging is especially important to incoming college students who are entering new communities that they will be a part of for several months or even several years. Research shows that students who feel like they don’t fit in are significantly less likely to succeed than their classmates who do have a sense of belonging.
Helping students develop a sense of belonging has always been important, but it will become even more important as education evolves and virtual learning models become more common.
Engage Every Student
To help incoming students feel at home, many schools ask their student affairs teams to develop activities and programs designed to engage students. Examples of such efforts include residential life programs, mentoring services, and opportunities for students to take on leadership positions, do volunteer work, or participate in sports or student government.
As someone who worked in student affairs for four years, mostly overseeing new student orientation and residential life programming, I have led those types of initiatives.
I asked student leaders to map out strategic plans for engaging every single new student for the first six weeks of each semester. The goal was to create community, to provide a framework that encouraged students to form friendships and discover their true selves. We wanted to establish an environment in which all cultures would be celebrated and valued, and we wanted to offer students the tools and the foundation they needed to build social and academic lives that were full of growth, development, and epiphanies—and to never stop dreaming.
Basic Needs Come First
But feeling at home in a new place involves more than making friends or getting involved in activities. Many students first have to find ways to fulfill their basic needs, like food and shelter. If they can’t meet those needs, they won’t feel as though they have the safety net of a community, and their ability to focus on academics will decline.
Richard DeMillo, director of the Center for the 21st Century Universities at Georgia Tech
There is a danger in losing the personal contact that students have at their institutions if we try to do everything through technology.
“Human development theory holds that one’s basic needs must be met in order to pursue higher level skills,” researchers Katharine M. Broton, Kari E. Weaver, and Minhtuyen Mai wrote in a July 2018 article about hunger in higher education in the MDPI journal Social Sciences. Their argument is informed by Abraham Maslow’s theory of the hierarchy of needs, which holds that if people are unable to meet their needs for basic things like food, shelter, and safety, they will have difficulty establishing a sense of belonging, forming relationships, and focusing on learning.
This doesn’t mean that students who face homelessness, for example, can’t succeed in school. Quite the contrary. But just think of how much more successful they could be if their basic needs were met.
Broton and her colleagues report that their research showed that “efforts to bolster students’ financial and material resources may . . . promote academic success and economic stability.”
My hypothesis is that if students have their basic needs met, they will have a stronger start in their academic careers and will be more likely to feel as though they belong in their school communities. This means they’ll be more likely to stay in school and more likely to succeed academically.
21st Century Challenges
What will it mean to have a sense of belonging in the new age of education we’re entering now? That’s a question I’ve been pondering lately.
Will it still be possible for students to have a sense of belonging as the educational model evolves and the “traditional experience”—two to four years on campus earning degrees with fellow students in classes with real teachers—morphs into a lifelong learning model that features virtual classrooms, stackable credentials, and artificial intelligence?
Will colleges and universities be able to ensure that students’ basic needs are met, and that they have the social connections they need?
Educators are aware of that challenge and are researching and developing solutions.
“It’s critical we maintain personal connections,” said Richard DeMillo, director of the Center for the 21st Century Universities at Georgia Tech, in an interview with The EvoLLLution, an online higher education news site. “There is a danger in losing the personal contact that students have at their institutions if we try to do everything through technology.”
A sense of belonging, whether facilitated by a robot or a human, will always be critical to the success of our students.
Dreaming About the Future
Take a moment to dream about the future with me.
Will students who take classes online be assigned academic advisors who live in their local areas, so they can still make personal connections with people who can help them with their educational plans?
Will colleges offer students leadership opportunities via systems based on the alumni network model? Will it be possible to type a zip code into a database to find the names of accomplished students who can handle hands-on leadership assignments in particular areas?
Will athletes join local soccer or softball leagues instead of playing for school teams? Will they get the same sense of belonging they’d have if they played with a group of teammates within a college institution?
Will “rent-a-robot” coaches help students polish their presentation skills for Public Speaking 101?
There is so much we don’t know about the future of education, but there is one thing that we can all acknowledge and keep at the forefront of our minds: A sense of belonging, whether facilitated by a robot or a human, will always be critical to the success of our students.
Continue to dream with me as we create a postsecondary system that works now and in the future!