Students' Sense of Belonging Influenced by Four Factors, Study Finds


A student's sense of belonging in college is pivotal for their psychological well-being, academic success, and overall life satisfaction. However, quantifying and comprehending the components of belonging can be complex, especially for students facing educational disparities. To address this challenge, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign conducted a study evaluating the factors that contribute to college students' sense of belonging, aiming to provide insights that can support diverse student populations.

Assessing Sense of Social Fit (SSF) Scale

The Sense of Social Fit (SSF) scale, developed in 2007, has been commonly used to measure college students' belongingness. However, it assesses belonging on a single factor, potentially overlooking the nuanced experiences of students from underrepresented backgrounds, including first-generation students and racial/ethnic minorities. Recognizing this limitation, researchers sought to explore whether the SSF scale adequately captures the multifaceted nature of students' belonging experiences.

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Findings from the Study

The study, published in the Journal of Counseling Psychology, identified four key factors that best measure a student's sense of belonging: identification with the university, social match, social acceptance, and cultural capital in higher education. Through an exploratory factor analysis and subsequent validation with survey data from 419 students at different institutions, researchers demonstrated that these four factors offer a more comprehensive understanding of students' belonging experiences compared to the single-factor approach of the SSF scale.

Key Factors Explained

Identification with the university refers to the extent to which students feel connected to and invested in their institution. This factor encompasses feelings of pride, loyalty, and attachment to the university community, which can significantly influence a student's sense of belonging.
Social match examines the degree of alignment between students' personal characteristics and the social environment of the university. It considers factors such as demographic representation, cultural diversity, and social inclusivity, which play a crucial role in shaping students' perceptions of belongingness.

Social acceptance reflects students' experiences of being valued, respected, and included within the university community. It encompasses feelings of belongingness and acceptance from peers, faculty, and staff, which are essential for fostering a supportive and inclusive campus climate.

Cultural capital in higher education refers to the knowledge, skills, and resources that students possess related to navigating the academic and social aspects of college life. This factor acknowledges the role of cultural background, social networks, and prior educational experiences in shaping students' sense of belonging and success in higher education.

Implications for Underrepresented Students

One significant finding of the study was the identification of cultural capital as a critical factor influencing students' sense of belonging, particularly among racial minority students. The research revealed that racial minority students were less likely to report having cultural capital at their institutions, highlighting disparities in access to resources and support that may impact their sense of belonging.

The study underscores the need for further investigation into how belonging differs across gender, racial/ethnic, socioeconomic, and institutional contexts. Whether in their off-campus student housing or elsewhere, students require inclusivity to foster growth, learning, and the exploration of new experiences. It also emphasizes the importance of addressing systemic barriers and fostering inclusive environments that value the diverse cultural backgrounds and experiences of all students.

Future Directions

Understanding and promoting a sense of belonging among college students is crucial for fostering inclusive and supportive learning environments. By considering the multifaceted nature of students' belonging experiences and addressing disparities in access to resources and support, institutions can create more equitable educational opportunities for all students, regardless of their backgrounds.

Moving forward, future research should continue to explore the complex interplay of factors that contribute to student belonging and develop interventions that promote belongingness among underrepresented student populations. Through collaborative efforts between researchers, educators, and policymakers, higher education institutions can strive to create environments where all students feel valued, supported, and empowered to thrive academically and personally.

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