What Happens When Students Feel They Don’t Belong–and How to Help

A common issue that arises for college students is feeling like they don’t belong. The modern-day student has a lot of diverse responsibilities and characteristics that may be different from the traditional idea of a college student. This blog will discuss the impact that a student’s mindset, specifically a lack of a sense of belonging, can have on their success and experience in college.  

What is “sense of belonging”?

The term “sense of belonging” is increasingly common in the higher education space, but it’s not always entirely clear what that means. A sense of belonging describes how a person perceives how much they fit in within their current situation. It’s a state of mind that can shape how a student interprets their interactions with others or their environment. While this sense of belonging comes from a student’s personal interpretation, it can be impacted by external factors such as access to resources or strong relationships with others. 

What happens when students don’t feel they belong?

Not feeling a sense of belonging can have many detrimental effects on students. Students may feel isolated or out of place. This can eventually lead them into a defeating self-fulfilling prophecy in which they start to isolate themselves. As a result of the student’s confirmation bias, or the tendency to look for evidence that confirms their existing beliefs, they may start to believe that they don’t belong. For this type of student, feedback from a teacher could be taken as proof that they are out of their element and lead to a stronger belief that they are an outsider. A student who feels that they do belong can see the feedback as constructive and something to improve from. They wouldn’t continue in a downward spiral of believing they don’t belong and eventually isolating themselves. This is one way how not feeling a sense of belonging can negatively affect students.   

Factors that contribute to a lack of a sense of belonging

These mindsets also have long-term effects. A student who sees feedback as an opportunity for growth will tend to pursue this improvement and set themselves up to do better on their next assessment. But a student who feels like the criticism is revealing their flaws can take it as a deterrent and put in less effort. 

Coming from an underrepresented background can contribute to a lack of sense of belonging. Despite the evidence of belonging that comes with getting accepted to a college, students commonly think they don’t belong in college. This is called imposter syndrome, an inability to understand that one’s own efforts got them to where they are. Students who feel that they don’t belong can describe feeling like a fraud or “imposter” at risk of being exposed, when, in reality, they deserve their spot as much as any of their peers. This is another possible consequence of not feeling a sense of belonging.  

Belonging to a group that has negative stereotypes associated to it can also contribute to lack of sense of belonging. These stereotypes cause additional stress to a person, leading them to feel at risk of fulfilling said stereotype. This, in turn, makes them experience a greater lack of belonging and increased self-doubt. This lack of belonging is theorized to be a large reason behind the academic achievement gap commonly noticed in schools between socially disadvantaged students and white students.  

What colleges can do to increase sense of belonging

Institutions can help improve student sense of belonging. There are many experiments that have positively influenced students’ sense of belonging. In one study, researchers deployed a social-belonging intervention to students from underrepresented backgrounds to help them increase their sense of belonging. In this intervention, first-year students were instructed to read a message from an underclassman that expressed how they overcame a lack of sense of belonging (e.g., “I thought I would never connect with anyone at college, but I met lifelong friends”). After reading the message, students wrote their own message about belonging dedicated to future college students. 

Researchers found that this intervention had a positive impact on sense of belonging, improved academic achievement, and increased enrollment from term to term. Participants also showed a boost to mental health down the line. 

This activity helped improve student sense of belonging in multiple ways. The activity required students to think persuasively about belonging, actively engage with the subject, and contextualize their own journey so they recognize their progress in belonging at their institution. This activity also helps reduce the stigma about not feeling like one belongs and asking for support. Students also gain a prosocial boost from helping others through the letter they write.  

Institutions can implement this practice themselves. This strategy helps a student reflect on their current situation to contextualize their challenges with belonging. This helps them reframe their problems as common ones, as opposed to proof of their personal flaws. Researchers found that the intervention was more successful the earlier it was introduced to students.  In general, the interventions are targeted at the root of the issue, the lack of belonging, rather than just academic achievement. 

Sense of belonging is important

When a student has different characteristics or responsibilities to their peers, their sense of belonging can be affected. While belonging can be a bit of an abstract concept, it can significantly influence a student’s success. To help students feel like they belong, institutions can have students engage in different exercises to help contextualize their journey. This will then help with student engagement along with retention.