Within college systems, underrepresented minority (URM) students question their social belongingness. Interventions to affirm and cultivate social belonging can positively affect student behavior over time and may have broad relevance as university programs increasingly focus on retention. Given persistently high rates of attrition from higher education and the negative outcomes associated with attrition, there is a need to further evaluate the potential impact of social-belonging programs on student persistence and retention in higher education, especially URM students. Thus, this project presents results from a random control trial testing a social-belonging intervention to improve retention among college students.
The sample was drawn from students who were enrolled in the first semester of their first year at a mid-western state community college during the 2017 fall semester. The sample consisted of 207 students who self-enrolled: 105 students in the intervention group and 102 students in the control group.
Students in the intervention classes received, as a group, a structured introduction via a 13-minute video: You Are College Material – You Belong. Social-belonging theory guided the development of the video. Featuring college students of different ages, races, and sexes, the video documents experiences associated with being a new college student and conveys four key messages: 1. every new student feels out of place at first; 2. each student worries about making friends; 3. all students worry that they are unprepared for college, and; 4. these feelings disappear after a brief time. Students in comparison group received no intervention. Students in the control group received a similarly-timed presentation consisting of various students’ services on campus and the process of receiving those services. This study draws upon standardized administrative data (re-enrollment) collected by the community college system.
The results indicate that the fall 2017 to spring 2018 re-enrollment rate was 17.4 percentage points higher among students in the intervention group than among counterparts in the control group. The cross-tabulation indicated that the study condition was significantly associated with re-enrollment, χ2(1, n = 207) = 6.36, p = .012. That is, 76.2% of students in the experimental group re-enrolled versus 58.8% of students in the control group (Φ = .18, OR = 2.24).
This social-belonging intervention is notable as a brief and comparatively simple program to improve persistence in higher education for URM students. Although there are structural inequalities between URM and other students, this investigation suggests that there are also academic barriers for URM students who feel that they do not belong. A remedy for low persistence may be a social belonging intervention that leads to more opportunities to form relationships. This study suggests that social belonging interventions may serve as an important complement to college preparation and other activities for URM students, which would improve racial, health, economical and other inequalities.