5 ways to help students feel like they belong

A new survey sheds light on the link between academic success and positive mental health

Students who report a strong sense of belonging at their college or university typically do better in school, and a new survey points to five key steps schools can take to support students’ mental health and success.

This sense of belonging is critical for students, especially students who are first-generation college students and students of color from low-income backgrounds. In fact, feeling a sense of belonging has been proven to have an effect on college completion rates.

A report based on a survey of alumni from the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP), which aims to prepare its K-12 students to thrive in education and the workforce, points to clear-cut steps institutions can take to help students feel positive about their path.

The survey results indicate five actionable steps colleges and universities can take to help KIPP alumni, and students like them, sustain a strong sense of belonging and positive mental health.

1. Bolster or create more targeted support for first-generation college students before they matriculate: Programs such as Summer Bridge or other pre-college connections can help build community for students. They also provide clarity on how to access the resources that already exist on campus for both academic and emotional support. Colleges should foster these programs to help students feel a sense of community before they arrive on campus. Historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) do particularly strong work with these programs, and other schools can learn from their efforts.

2. Continue to increase the diversity of faculty and staff: Colleges should intentionally recruit faculty and staff who were themselves first-generation college students. These faculty and staff can serve as powerful mentors or presenters at events for first-generation college students.

3. Make it easier for students to access academic and social supports on campus: Colleges can make it easier for students to connect with the services that already exist on campus—for instance, providing office hours and tutoring at flexible hours for students with jobs. They can also frame their resources in inclusive, inviting ways. Additionally, colleges should work to break the stigma students feel about seeking support for mental health in particular, to create a culture in which students feel empowered to advocate for themselves and one another on campus.

4. Seek out student voices and create spaces for students to share their experiences around race and identity: Students do better academically and report stronger mental health when they feel a positive connection to their racial and ethnic identities. Universities should be in dialogue with first-generation college students, students of color, and students from low-income families. By getting student input on what’s working and what’s not, schools can strengthen the support that exists and provide opportunities for new interventions.

5. Conduct and publicize annual surveys on college students’ sense of belonging: Colleges already share data on a host of indicators. Given that a sense of belonging is associated with higher achievement and better mental health, we believe colleges and universities should annually survey students on this topic and share the data with the public.

The five steps are based off key findings from the report.

1. Most KIPP alumni say they feel a sense of belonging in college.

2. The majority of KIPP alumni say they have made friends in college.

3. For KIPP alumni, a sense of belonging and mental health are linked—59 percent say they have good, very good, or excellent mental health.

4. The KIPP alumni reporting higher GPAs also report a stronger sense of belonging; of students reporting a GPA of 3.0 or higher, 68 percent also report feeling a sense of belonging.

5. KIPP alumni are conscious of their racial and ethnic identities—89 percent say their racial and/or ethnic identity is an important part of who they are. Fifty-eight percent say they feel negatively judged by others based on their racial group.

6. The vast majority of KIPP alumni say they believe they can have a growth mindset and that their intelligence can grow (85 percent); a smaller majority said they believe belonging can grow (59 percent).

7. Most KIPP alumni say they seek academic support from peers and instructors.

8. KIPP alumni attending HBCUs are more likely to feel a higher sense of belonging and other positive indicators than KIPP alumni attending non-HBCUs.

9. KIPP alumni who say they see other KIPP alumni on campus are more likely to report a higher sense of belonging and other positive indicators than KIPP alumni who say they do not see other KIPP alumni.

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Laura Ascione