The University of Arizona

Four Ways to Increase Sense of Belonging

How can institutions increase their students’ sense of belonging?

It’s an important question that many colleges and universities are asking themselves. In higher education, numerous studies have shown that students are more likely to persist and be retained if they feel a strong sense of belonging.

Sense of belonging can be broadly defined as the extent to which students feel personally accepted, respected, included, and supported by others at their institution. 

 The Complexity of Sense of Belonging

Sense of belonging is complex. For example, other researchers have found that belonging is dependent on a number of factors, including social support, academic support, classroom comfort, perception of faculty, perception of value, and perception of peer.  

Sense of belonging can also fluctuate throughout an academic year as students begin to encounter more academic challenges. CatPulse findings from November showed this was the case at the UA.

One reasonable explanation is the crisis of confidence that students commonly experience at this time of the year due to their final exams. But while the exact cause remains unclear, what is clear is that addressing students’ sense of belonging requires a university-wide effort from administrators, faculty, and staff. Critically, these efforts must be framed in a way that asks not what students can do to increase their own sense of belonging, but rather what institutions can do to help its students. In addition, sense of belonging should be treated as a continual building process, rather than simply as a final push near the end of a semester.

Recommendations for Action

Cynthia Demetriou, UA’s AVP for Student Success and Retention Innovation, offered these tips for how staff, faculty, and administrators can approach sense of belonging:

1. Create messages that are positively oriented.

Instead of focusing on "challenges," talk about helping students reach their potential, fulfill their goals, and thrive in college.

2. Advance institutional responsibility for sense of belonging.

Look at programs, supports and services. Imagine how they can be made to be more welcoming and inclusive.

3. Micro-affirmations go a long way.

Ask partners to remind students that you are glad when you see them, that we believe they belong here.

4. Make the first move.

A student who feels they do not belong, is unlikely to step out and use a resource, especially if it is framed as a way for them to get over their challenges. Instead, invite people in to communicate to students that we believe they belong, that we believe in their success.