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For a long time, colleges and universities pushed back on the idea that students are customers. Colleges and universities don’t like to think of themselves as serving customers, but as enrollment challenges persist, many campuses have adopted a “serving the customer” mind-set with the goal of helping students matriculate and thrive.
Persistence and thriving start with a sense of belonging on campus. Terrell Strayhorn, a professor of urban education and the vice president for academic and student affairs at Illinois State University, describes this as the “perceived social support on campus, a feeling or sensation of connectedness, the experience of mattering or feeling cared about, accepted, respected and valued.” How students persist toward graduation is correlated with their sense of belonging. Because campus environments shape students’ sense of belonging, students’ perceptions of and experiences within the campus environment, including institutional policies and practices, known as campus climate, may determine how much they engage with the campus community (including utilizing student support services), the success of their adjustment and achievement, and, ultimately, whether they stay.
Results of a recent Student Voice survey, conducted by Inside Higher Ed and College Pulse with support from Kaplan, start to connect good student services and a sense of belonging on campus. The bad news is that only 15 percent of the 2,239 undergraduate students surveyed indicate that they have been receiving better student services since the pandemic began.
Nearly two in three students (64 percent) say that their institution does not, to their knowledge, have a one-stop shop where students can access support such as financial aid and advising. Yet more than seven in 10 respondents would like to see their campus create this type of office.
Without students making those deep connections to campus services that support their success, departure is more likely. Furthermore, the students who are most likely to need these services and leave our institutions if they don’t get them are minoritized students.
Sense of belonging for students who hold minority identities takes on additional significance when there are “situations that individuals experience as different, unfamiliar, or foreign, as well as in contexts where certain individuals are likely to feel marginalized, unsupported, or unwelcomed,” writes Strayhorn.
For many minoritized students, their sense of belonging on their campuses is paramount, particularly in its promotion of cultural engagement and utilization of student services that positively influence their college-going process and serve as solid predictors of their persistence. Research suggests, however, that marginalized students have characteristically different experiences of engagement and success than their majority peers.
As higher education professionals, we want to ensure our students are seeking support services that are known to lead to positive academic and health outcomes. We must ask ourselves, when students don’t feel safe and comfortable, will they reach out for support to maximize their potential or simply depart?
Having conducted more than 250 campus climate assessments across the U.S. and Canada, at Rankin Climate we have found that a lack of sense of belonging is the No. 1 reason undergraduate students have seriously considered leaving their institution, even more than financial needs. A secondary reason is a lack of support services.
Further, our research indicates a lack of sense of belonging and support services are exacerbated for marginalized students (e.g., African/of African descent, Latinx, first generation, low income, queer/trans spectrum, students with mental health challenges), and this contributes to lower rates of persistence. Student voices underscore that insufficient institutional support, lack of campus activities, unresponsive advisers and limited faculty and staff role models who hold minority identities added to their perceptions and experiences of an unwelcoming campus climate.
What Can Institutions Do?
Assessing campus climate and infusing a service mind-set will only help institutions that struggle with student retention issues. The simple fact is that our students’ perceptions are their reality. Understanding this reality can help us allocate resources to help students thrive.
The creation of more space for student interactions, particularly for those who feel less connected, is also something institutions can do to help. Increased sense of belonging can be accomplished through institutional actions such as faculty mentorship of students; effective advising; opportunities for cross-cultural dialogue among students and between students, faculty and staff; and development of a process to address student complaints of bias by faculty/staff and other students in learning environments.
And what could be most influential in a student deciding to stay at their institution? A network of peers and other campus supports that reduces isolation, fosters belonging, offers encouragement and provides academic and social support. That is what every college and university should strive for.