One reason why a sense of belonging on campus matters

Over the past two years we’ve been asking seniors to give us a ballpark comparison of their participation rates in on-campus events during their junior and senior years.  We inserted this question into our senior survey for a couple of reasons.  First, we thought it would be useful to get a sense of whether our seniors maintained a similar level of campus engagement once they move off campus.  Since we describe ourselves as a four-year residential liberal arts college, it seemed appropriate to ask whether our seniors’ participation patterns met the spirit of such a claim even if, technically, the basic reality might not be quite so. Second, given the possibility that living off campus might set circumstances in motion that could decrease campus participation among seniors, we thought it would be useful to know if any particular experiences increased the likelihood that seniors continued to stay involved on campus despite living elsewhere.

Even though surveying this year’s seniors isn’t finished yet, the response to this question in each of the last two years suggests a clear change in campus engagement between the junior and senior year.  Here’s the distribution of responses for both classes of seniors.

“How often did you participate in on-campus events during your senior year?”

2012-13 Seniors

  • 4% – More than when I lived on campus
  • 54% – About the same as when I lived on campus
  • 41% – Less than when I lived on campus

2013-14 Seniors (with about 80% of the seniors’ responses submitted so far)

  •  4% – More than when I lived on campus
  • 46% – About the same as when I lived on campus
  • 49% – Less than when I lived on campus

Of course, there are a variety of opinions on whether this is a good thing or a bad thing. There may be some value in seniors stretching their legs and starting the transition to independent life after college while they are still seniors. Similarly, there are more than a few opinions about whether we should try to build more residences on campus and require seniors to live in them. But as long as seniors continue to move off campus for their last year at Augustana, it seems to me that the question we ought to ask is (assuming that we would like to have our seniors involved in on campus events during their senior year – a foregone conclusion, I hope): what do we know about the factors that predict more campus involvement among our seniors? And how can we ensure these factors are equally experienced across our entire student community?

With the data we now have at our disposal, we can begin to peel back this onion a little bit. The guiding question for this analysis ultimately turned on whether or not the obligations of participation in formally organized activities (sports teams, music ensembles, student groups, etc.) explained all of the difference between seniors who stayed involved on campus and those who did not, or if there were other informal experiences that influenced on-campus participation above and beyond those obligations.

It turns out that the degree to which seniors said that they felt a strong sense of belonging on campus correlated significantly (in a statistical sense) with participation in on-campus events compared to the junior year, even after taking into account membership in athletics, music, Greek groups, or student clubs.

At first glance you might argue that this is self-evident.  And I wouldn’t argue with you one bit.  However, I’d add that, in the context of the way in which we currently organize our students’ college experience, this finding makes even more clear the importance of helping students feel like they belong on our campus.  We already know that this sense of belonging varies across student types and groups. For example, students in the Greek system on average feel a significantly stronger sense of belonging than non-Greek students. Similarly, some of our data suggests that students in some of the smaller STEM majors also feel a lower sense of belonging on campus. Based on these variations, once seniors move off campus, it is reasonable to suggest that the culture of our campus might be shaped in part by the type of seniors who choose to stay involved in campus events during their last year.  This, in turn, could perpetuate a similar variable sense of belonging across student types, and make it more likely that we cultivate a student culture that privileges some types of students more than others.

I’m not saying that we are desperately off-kilter or need some sort of radical readjustment in our student culture.  I’m only hoping to point out that a feeling of belonging is more than just an abstract feeling.  It has real consequences in student behaviors that in turn produce a demonstrable student culture with identifiable characteristics.  Finally, this finding also means that we shouldn’t consider ourselves powerless to change it.

Make it a good day,



A new (and maybe better) way to understand the impact of an Augustana education

As you probably know by now, the new Augustana 2020 strategic plan places our graduates’ success after college at the center of our institutional mission.  In real terms, this means that what our students learn in college matters to the degree that it contributes to their success after college.  Put another way, even if our students learn all kinds of interesting knowledge and complicated skills, if what they have learned can’t be effectively and meaningfully applied to life after college, then we haven’t really done our job.

Now whether you think that this is the last nail in the liberal arts coffin or the long-awaited defibrillator to revive liberal arts education, our own success hinges on something else that I’m pretty sure we haven’t thought much about. Exactly what are we talking about when we talk about a successful life after college? Do we have a working definition of what might make up a successful life for an Augustana graduate? In order to grapple with those vertigo-inducing questions, we have to know a lot more about what happens to our graduates after college.  But do we have anything more than vague notions about our own graduates’ lives?

I’m afraid that the answers to those questions are probably no, no, and no. In part, it’s because these are big, hard questions.  And to be fair, I don’t know of a college that has tried to get a real handle on these ideas.  So . . . . here we go . . . .

This is the kind of research project that can keep you up at night.  Because it isn’t just about getting data to figure out the relationship between one thing (an Augustana college experience) and another thing (a successful life after college).  For starters, these are two monstrously complicated constructs.  Distilling them down to some essential qualities may well be impossible.  I’m not saying that it’s NOT possible; I’m just admitting to the fact that I’m intimidated by the very idea of trying to identify a set of valid essential qualities. And as if that weren’t enough, we (higher education researchers writ large) have yet to have developed a conceptual framework that is complex enough to account for the almost infinite range of ways in which people’s lives evolve. To date, every effort to link alumni success to their college experience has presumed a straight line – even when we know that very few of us traveled a straight path to get to where we are now.

So over the past six months or so, Kimberly and I have built a multi-stage study in an attempt to get at some of these questions.  We settled on calling it “The Winding Path Study” (all credit to Kimberly for the title) and we have organized it around two initial stages, with room for additional exploration.  First, we had to find a conceptual framework that fit the way that people live their lives.  We found one that I think works that comes out of sociology and anthropology called Life Course Perspective. Essentially, this framework describes lives as amazingly complex and almost infinitely unique, yet full of three common elements – trajectories, transitions, and turning points. While Life Course scholars have extended definitions for each of these terms that I won’t try to summarize here, I think we all know what these terms mean just because we can likely point to moments in our own lives where the impact of these concepts became clear.

Next, we built a survey (but of course!) to try to get a better sense of the range of trajectories, transitions, and turning points that our graduates have experienced.  I hoped that we might get 1000 responses.  From these respondents, I hoped that we might find 100 that were willing to participate in a 30 minute interview.

Well, apparently we struck a chord.  We got 1000 responses from Augustana alumni in the first 12 hours of the survey, and finished with 2,792.  In addition, over 1200 respondents said that they would be willing to participate in a 30 minute interview.

I’ll share more about this project in the next several months as we pore through the data. One thing that jumped out at me as I began to watch the data coming in was the extent to which people were willing to tell us surprisingly personal details about their lives.  Our respondents wrote and wrote and wrote. We now have a treasure trove of data that we have to read through and organize.  At the end of this project, however, we will likely have a much greater understanding of the range of life courses that our alums have taken. Better yet, we hope to find some patterns that will help us think about the way that we guide our students during college.

The goals of the Augustana 2020 strategic plan are lofty and complicated.  I’m not sure we even realized how challenging this plan would be when the Board approved it in the winter or when we designed it last fall.  But now that we’ve started to roll up our sleeves, I think we already have information on our graduates that most colleges could only wish that they had.  Now comes the fun part!

Make it a good day,



Do we privilege extroverts?

Over the past couple of decades, researchers have uncovered all sorts of ways in which certain types of students experience college differently.  Racial and ethnic minority, international, LGBTQ, first-generation, lower SES, and even politically conservative students encounter marginalizing experiences that can undercut the quality of their education.  Interestingly, researchers examining systemic differences in the ways that students experience college have spent the vast majority of their energy parsing students by demographic traits.  Far fewer studies explore whether certain personality traits might disadvantage specific groups of students.  Today I want to describe some new findings from our own Augustana data regarding more introverted students.  I think these findings are worth considering seriously if we are going to ensure that all students are given an equal opportunity to feel like they belong on campus.

Two items in the mid-year freshman survey address key aspects of academic and social acclimation.  One question asks, “How many of your professors did you talk to outside of class about how to best succeed in their course?”  The other question asks students if they have “begun participating in at least one student organization that interests them.” We know acclimation is important because students who don’t acclimate to Augustana tend to feel like they don’t fit in and then are much more likely to struggle, leave, or both.  And we know about the connection between acclimation and a sense of belonging because we also ask freshmen in the mid-year survey about the degree to which they feel like they belong on campus.  In addition to a host of research findings that lay out the positive relationship between acclimation, fit, and student success, our analysis has produced similar findings in each of the last several years.

But now that we have been able to link the Student Readiness Survey (data collected in the summer prior to enrollment) with the mid-year freshman survey (data collected at the end of winter term), we can add a potentially important personal disposition to the mix. This measure is a three-item scale called Comfort with Social Interaction that asks students to indicate their level of comfort meeting new people and interacting in a large, unfamiliar social setting.  So the goal of this analysis was to see if, even after accounting for acclimating behaviors (talking to professors and joining student organizations), this personal disposition continued to impact students’ sense of belonging on campus.

First, we found that the Comfort with Social Interaction scale produced a statistically significant positive effect (in a statistical sense) on the number of professors that freshmen talked to outside of class.  In other words, students who were less comfortable with social interaction were significantly less likely to talk to their professors than those students with high Comfort with Social Interaction scores.  This finding held even after controlling for gender (because we know that female students tend to seek out professors more often than their male counterparts).

Second, we found that the Comfort with Social Interaction scale also produced a statistically significant positive effect on the likelihood that a student had begun participating in a student organization that interested them.  Put another way, students with lower Comfort with Social Interaction scores were significantly less likely to have begun participating in a student organization that interested them.

Finally, we investigated whether the Comfort with Social Interaction score might influence a freshman’s sense of belonging on campus even after taking into account whether or not he or she had joined a student organization.  Sure enough, even after accounting for joining a student organization, the Comfort with Social Interaction produced a statistically significant positive effect.  In fact, our analysis found that the degree of discomfort with social interaction (i.e. a low score on the above scale) could ultimately produce a larger negative impact on a sense of belonging on campus than simply not belonging to a student group.

Both of these findings seem to hold important implications independently.  The impact of a student’s comfort with social interaction on the number of professors he or she talked to outside of class is important because it suggests that simply inviting students to faculty office hours may not be enough, especially if the students who might benefit most from such interactions are also more introverted.  This may well mean that those students need some incentive to initiate such an interaction and “break the ice.”  Although we often infer that students who don’t come to office hours are less engaged in the course, this may well be a mistaken conclusion.  In addition, this finding might even translate to the nature of student participation in class discussion.

Indeed, there seem to be multiple instances in our interactions with freshmen where we seem to pathologize introversion.  In talking about these findings with some of the Student Affairs administrators, they reflected on how often residence hall staff or peer mentors might worry about students who they don’t see as often hanging out in common areas.  While it is possible that these students may be struggling, it is also true that they may simply prefer environments with fewer people.  Pressing these students to participate in activities that aren’t comfortable for them may well simply contribute to a sense of isolation and marginalization.  It may even be that our goals for freshman orientation don’t fully take into account the needs of our more introverted students at a time when they probably need us to show that we welcome them into our community too.

Taken together, these findings make me wonder if we have unintentionally created a culture at Augustana that privileges extroverts and makes it more difficult for introverts to find a niche.  I’ve had several conversations in the last year or two with faculty from disciplines that stereotypically enroll “less socially adept” individuals about their own senior survey data that hints at a lack of a “space” for those students on our campus.

I’m no where close to having some sort of smoking gun proof of such a cultural squeeze that pervasively excludes introverted students.  However, I think this is an issue that is worth considering more seriously.  So I would ask you, based on your own observations or experience might we privilege extroverts?  What do we do to make sure that more introverted students have the support necessary to acclimate – even if it takes them longer to do so?  How might we make our community more welcoming to all students regardless of their comfort with social interactions?

Make it a good day,



What Millennials Regret about College

A couple of months ago, The Pew Research Center published The Rising Cost of Not Going to College.  The primary finding of this study was pretty straightforward: Yes, a college degree predicts a substantially higher average income than those without a college degree.  Moreover, the gap in average salary between those with and without a college degree has widened, suggesting that a college degree is even more critical to individual economic success than it was for previous generations.

Although these findings add another powerful piece of evidence to rebut those who might argue that a college degree is no longer worth it, this study also asked respondents to reflect on several key within-college decisions and consider whether they should have done some things differently.  I thought I’d share on of these findings that I think might inform our work as we help our current students prepare for life after graduation.

The Pew survey asked, “Thinking back to when you were a college student, do you think that any of the following things would have better prepared you to get the kind of job you wanted, or not?”  The response options included choosing a different major, gaining more work experience, starting to look for work sooner, and studying harder.

By a substantial margin, respondents chose “gaining more work experience” more than any other option.  50% of the individuals surveyed indicated gaining more work experience, while 38% selected studying harder. Choosing a different major was selected least often (29% of respondents).  More interesting still, respondents categorized as millennials (those born after 1980 who were age 25 to 32 in 2013 when the survey was conducted) were much more likely to regret not gaining more work experience than older respondents.

I find this result interesting because millennial students are the ones who are most likely to have been met with a college engagement and involvement philosophy during their first year.  Although the theories of student engagement and involvement are several generations old, the popularity of the National Survey of Student Engagement and the NSSE juggernaut has helped turn student engagement and involvement into a pervasive theme across all types of higher education institutions.  Yet the proportion of individuals who indicated that gaining more work experience during college would have better prepared them to get the kind of job they wanted suggests to me that at least some proportion of those individuals recognize that they should have given up some of the time they spent doing other things in college in order to gain more work experience.  This work experience would have most likely been located off campus.  As such, this finding seems to throw a wrench into the engagement and involvement mantra.

With that said, it is true that increasing involvement and engagement in student organizations or other educationally purposeful activities was never included as an option on the survey.  So it’s entirely possible that these responses would have differed if that option had been included.  Interestingly, this omission does seem to indicate the degree to which at least one higher education research center thinks that student involvement and engagement might prepare students to succeed in their future employment.

Please don’t misunderstand me – I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t care about student engagement and involvement.  On the contrary, the evidence clearly indicates that these behaviors are crucial for student learning and success.  However, I think that it would do us good to revisit the way that we design many of the activities in which student participate.  For student activities and organizations – do the experiences coordinated by these organizations encompass aspects of accountability, long and short-term planning, problem-solving with consequences if the problem is not fixed (or if the solution produces negative unintended consequences), and image management?  Likewise, for on-campus student employment – are students asked to engage in complex work that requires them to think, plan, design, implement, and adapt?

Some of the explanation for the millennials’ response to this question may well result from the harsh economic conditions into which these student graduated in the last several years. However, I am not sure that this reality explains all or even part of their response. For there is a long list of institutional examples where involvement initiatives have focused on making sure that students feel satisfied in the present or feel like they fit in right now – a construct that focuses less on effectively preparing students for their future and more an making sure that they will like things at their present institutions enough to stay.

Of course, there are a lot of big-picture things we can do to impact whether the wealth of activities in which our students participate actually prepare them to succeed in the future. But one of the best things about the work we get to do is that we get to influence our students one by one.  So I hope you’ll find a way this week to help a student stretch him or herself and choose experiences that will best prepare them to succeed in the future, no matter if they aren’t quite as much fun in the present.

Make it a good day,