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,

Mark

 

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