The Importance of Student Belonging, and Why You Should Be Measuring It

The Importance of Student Belonging, and Why You Should Be Measuring It.

Along with diversity, equity, and inclusion, belonging is a key measure of success, representing the extent to which a student feels included, accepted, valued, and supported on their campus. 

As a concept, belonging is both emotional and abstract, which makes it challenging to measure. This article explores the ways that universities can help students feel more connected on campus, along with some tips on measuring belonging.

Building Student Belonging on Campus

The benefits of belonging are well documented: higher levels of happiness and life satisfaction, more positive relationships with friends and family, lower levels of stress, better physical health, less anxiety and depression, and stronger academic performance, to name a few.

Belonging is especially crucial to college administrators for several reasons:

  • Students who feel they belong in school are more likely to succeed academically.
  • Students who feel they belong in school are more likely to graduate on time.
  • Students who feel they belong show higher levels of happiness, which leads to better performance overall.

It’s not surprising, then, that as college enrollment has increased over the years, so have conversations about how best to engage students in campus life. In fact, there are numerous initiatives on campuses across America aimed at improving student belonging. Some examples:

  • Orientation programs that encourage new students to get involved in campus activities right away by joining clubs or teams before classes even begin.
  • Peer mentoring programs pairing upperclassmen with newly admitted freshmen so they can feel at home within their new community.
  • Private digital communities that enable schools to supplement in-person communication and reach students wherever they are.
  • Alumni mentorship programs that extend the feeling of belonging beyond the university by helping them build a valuable network for when they graduate.

The Challenge Behind Measuring Student Belonging

While these initiatives are a great first start, it’s not enough to simply “build” belonging; in order for these initiatives to be effective year over year, program administrators need to be able to measure what worked, what didn’t, and what needs improving.

So how are schools measuring belonging? 

Frequently, schools use questionnaires or student surveys at the institutional level to gauge feelings of belonging in students. However, results don’t always reflect reality. For example:

  • Students may not fully understand the questions.
  • Students might not be accurate in their responses, either because they don’t want to share their views with the university or they have not reflected on their feelings themselves.
  • Some survey questions may not be relevant to the student’s real experience or feelings.
  • A survey might not capture the most disconnected students and the results typically represent a small percentage of the student body
  • Survey results often take a long time to compile and may be obsolete by the time they are analyzed

With that in mind, what other means can schools use to measure belonging, aside from (or in addition to) general student surveys? 

Here are a few ideas:

  • Observing digital engagement metrics or offering quick-pulse polls for more accurate, real-time feedback
  • Developing a research-based, standardized “sense of belonging” scale. 
  • Examining differences in belonging data between diverse groups to find patterns.
  • Proactively designing interventions to help new students find their place in their institution prior to measuring belongingness.

Creating a Sense of Student Belonging That Truly Matters

Given the evidence of the critical importance of “belongingness,” it’s easy to see why so many administrators are choosing to focus on developing new strategies to foster student belonging. 

From accurately gauging the student experience to providing safe spaces for them to discuss their feelings, administrators tasked with engaging students and developing a true sense of belonging have a huge task ahead of them.

Rather than rely on gut instinct each time, administrators that provide relevant, private digital spaces for their students to engage within will be able to easily collect event metrics and student analytics. And armed with this data, admins will then be able to start evaluating the school’s current belonging practices and adapting them to create an environment where people feel safe, valued, and cared for.