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Student Sense of Belonging

Insights from the OUE Research Team

We hear a lot about the importance of a sense of belonging for student happiness and success. Belonging is linked to persistence in college, and research shows that developing a stable sense of belonging early in college—or at least a strong sense of optimism that one will eventually belong—has cascading effects that promote help-seeking, relationship development, stronger achievement, and even better mental and physical health. The benefits of a stable sense of belonging in college extend to post-college outcomes such as career satisfaction and success, psychological well-being, and community involvement and leadership (Brady et al., 2020), and are especially strong for students who have been historically and structurally disadvantaged in higher education, including Black/African American, Hispanic/Latine/a/o/x, and Native American students; first-generation and lower-income students; LGBTQIA+ students; and women students in STEM fields.

But what does it mean for a student to feel like they belong? In our research, we define belonging as a “positive affective state that involves feelings of comfort and security derived from the perception that one is an integral part of a community, place, organization, or institution.” Across US higher education, in four-year colleges and universities, racial/ethnic minority students and first-generation college students report lower levels of belonging compared to their White or Asian and continuing-generation peers, respectively, and we tend to see a similar pattern among Duke undergraduates. Although these differences tend to be small in magnitude, they both reflect and play a role in perpetuating structural inequities in educational and life outcomes for students. Interestingly, this pattern is reversed at two-year colleges in the US, such that underrepresented minority, first-generation, and women students report higher levels of belonging compared to their peers in these contexts.

We find, on average, that Duke students tend to report relatively favorable feelings of belonging (60.5% agree or strongly agree that they feel like they belong at Duke). At the same time, a significant proportion of students report either ambivalence about their sense of belonging (25.5%), or outright disagree that they feel like they belong at Duke (14.0%). Factors that contribute to students’ feelings of belonging are those that contribute to their sense of fit on campus, and to the perception that they are valued members of the campus community. Having friends, having high-quality friendships, having a sense of enthusiasm and gusto for academic work, and even being a fan of Duke varsity sports are key predictors of belonging that reflect the fit dimension. Perceptions of identity safety (that is, feeling that one won’t be judged negatively or stereotyped based on their group memberships) and perceptions that faculty and other adults on campus care about students and view them as whole people with a range of personal values, social identities, and relationships are key predictors of belonging that reflect the value or mattering dimension. In our work in OUE, we have opportunities every day to communicate to students that they fit here and that they are valued members of the Duke community. We would love to hear from you about the practices you use to help support student belonging!