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Three researchers theorize college students’ belonging can be measured through four factors: identification with the institution, social match, social acceptance and cultural capital in higher education.

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A student’s sense of belonging while in college can play a role in psychological well-being, academic achievement and life satisfaction. Students who feel as though they belong at their institution are also more likely to retain and persist, but understanding the elements of belonging and how to measure it is a challenge for many researchers.

The Sense of Social Fit (SSF) scale is one measure of college students’ sense of belonging. However, SSF assesses belongingness on a single factor, which University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign researchers theorized may not encompass the feelings of students who experience education inequities, including first-generation students and racial and ethnic minorities.

A November Journal of Counseling Psychology article, cowritten by U of I faculty Amir H. Maghsoodi, Nidia Ruedas-Gracia and Ge Jiang, evaluated the factor structure of measurement properties of SFF.

Their study found four factors best measured a student’s feelings of belonging: identification with the university, social match, social acceptance and cultural capital in higher education.

The background: Students from underrepresented groups sometimes find themselves in educational environments that threaten their sense of belonging, academic achievement and well-being.

SSF, established in 2007, gauges belonging through 17 questions on a seven-point scale in which students evaluate how strongly they agree or disagree with statements such as “I feel like an outsider at this school” and “I am similar to the kind of people who succeed here.”

The first study to use SSF had a sample size of 69 individuals, so researchers wanted to see if it applied to all college students with different backgrounds, particularly if there were variances between race and gender.

The study: To test their hypothesis, researchers conducted a two-part study.

The first segment was an exploratory factor analysis, or gauging which factors may contribute to students’ feelings of belonging. To do so, researchers pulled data from the 2017 College Experience Study, evaluating 243 students at a predominantly white college. While SSF evaluates on one factor, the first study showed a four-factor solution would be a better fit.

Measuring Cultural Capital

Researchers assigned different questions to each of the four factors to understand what contributes to a student’s feeling of belonging. To gauge cultural capital, students responded to the following five questions:

  1. Other people understand more than I do about what is going on at [school].
  2. It is a mystery to me how [school] works.
  3. I know how to do well at [school].
  4. I do not know what I would need to do to make a [school] professor like me.
  5. If I wanted to, I could potentially do very well at [school].

To test their theory, the team collected new data from 419 students at a different institution via an online survey to validate the four-factor model. The survey sample was limited, so researchers were only able to evaluate individuals who identified as male or female and Asian/Pacific Islander or white.

This second survey showed that SSF is a reliable measure of general belonging, but when looking at the separate factors, racial minority students were less likely to report having cultural capital at their institution, impacting their feelings of belonging.

What it means: Based on these findings, the researchers call for further evaluation of how belonging looks different for other gender and racial and ethnic groups, first-generation and low-income students, as well as institution types (minority-serving, HBCU, commuter or community colleges, etc.).

In peer reviews of the research, other scholars pushed back on the idea that cultural capital is a factor in belonging; they would classify it as separate but related. The Illinois researchers emphasized that underrepresented students, or those who don’t have the same valued cultural capital at a PWI, may see a greater connection.

“For students such as first-generation or racial/ethnic minoritized students whose cultural wealth is not always valued and doesn’t translate into automatic success the way it does for the dominant, more privileged groups, we need to intervene at the individual student and systems levels and make sure that they are able to integrate into the system or to feel a sense of belonging,” Maghsoodi said in a university press release.

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