Longing to Belong: An Important Issue for Higher Education

by Wendy Fischman

In higher education, the context can shift quickly. When we began our national study in 2012, higher education seemed to be highly valued (funding for Pell grants nearly doubled), MOOCs were on the rise, and “liberal arts” as a form of education was admired and emulated in many parts of the world. In fact, we originally named our study “Liberal Arts and Sciences for the 21st Century.” Now, seven years later, after ascertaining that “liberal arts” is not widely understood in the United States, we use a more neutral title: “Higher Education in the 21st Century.”

Of course, we had concerns about higher education—otherwise we would not have undertaken 2000 interviews with it major stakeholders, including incoming students, graduating students, faculty, administrators, parents, trustees, and young alums. As consumers of the national media, we were prepared to hear about the escalating costs of higher education, and also about incidents of racial, sexual, or political conflict on campus. But as we carried out our interviews, we came to see that issues of “mental health” and “belonging” loom large for every constituency and on every campus; they seem to be the biggest struggles students confront, impacting both academic experiences and other features of college life.

In our efforts to gain deeper insights into issues of belonging, our research team devised a coding scheme. We parsed the concept of “belonging” into three separate categories:

1) Academic: mastery and ownership of course content/major/scholarly work;

2) Peer: meaningful connections with other students; and

3) Institutional: identification with mission and spirit of the campus.

These categories help us to understand whether these forms of belonging correlate with one another (positively or negatively) and whether they differ across majors, gender, kinds of campuses, and other independent variables. We also wanted to see whether we would find patterns across constituency groups—for example, incoming students and graduating students, and across the ten disparate schools participating in the study. Accordingly, we designated several questions about belonging (and non-belonging) that can be grouped into three categories: 1) overall sample; 2) types of schools; and 3) correlations with other concepts and constructs in our study.

1) Overall Sample: How does belonging (in each of the three areas) for first year students compare to belonging for graduating students? How does belonging for male students compare to female students? How does belonging compare for students in the humanities, natural sciences, or social sciences?

2) School Type: How does belonging (in each of the three areas) for students at small schools compare with students at large schools? How does belonging for students at residential campuses compare to students at campuses that are primarily for commuters? And how does belonging for students at more selective institutions compare to students at less selective institutions?

3) Correlations with Other Concepts: What is the relationship of belonging (in each of the three areas) to the mental models that we have delineated—do “transactional” students have more or less belonging than “transformational” students? What is the relationship of belonging to “higher education capital” (HEDCAP), formerly referred to as “liberal arts and sciences capital” (LASCAP)—another major concept of our study? Do students with higher HEDCAP scores have more or less belonging than students with lower HEDCAP scores?

So far, an initial finding has surprised us: for all three belonging categories, the overall percentage of students who describe a sense of belonging “decreases” between the group of first year students and the group of graduating students.

At first glimpse, the finding seems counter-intuitive. That is, why do graduating students who have been enrolled for 4-6 years (or 2-3 years in the case of community college students) tend to feel less connected to academics, peers, and the institution than do their first year counterparts? And, why is it that graduating students tend to feel more alienated than those who have just arrived on campus? 

There may be several explanations—for example, the kinds of orientation programs and residential requirements of a particular campus. Pursuing this example, before school begins, some institutions offer opportunities for incoming students to bond with peers and faculty in service activities or on camping trips. At least one of the schools participating in our study added a residential requirement for sophomores in order to facilitate deeper connections among peers. As a contrast, perhaps graduating students have the proverbial “foot out the door” and are ready to “move on.”

We suggest another possibility. Over the course of college, as students further identify their own interests and passions, get to know their peers in deeper ways, and experience campus life in its fullness, they come to realize that they have different values from other students, and possibly as well from their faculty and administrators. In other words, they really “don’t belong” on their campus. It is also possible that initially, in the first year of college, some students simply assume that others are like them, due to superficial traits, and later find that this is not true.

One such example is a student I’ll call Alex.

Alex is a graduating student at a selective college, a double major in literature and neuroscience. He comes from a rural area in the United States, where he graduated from a high school without having received useful advice about the college experience. Half the students from his graduating high school class went to college, while many of the others went into the military. Of those who went to college, he estimates that half went to a community college. He came to college with the belief that “[college is] important [because] searching for knowledge is the number one goal in life, and this is just like the most noble thing you could do…”

But, over time, Alex finds that his “noble” ambitions are at odds with those of other students. He says, “Everyone here has pretty much the same goals… the same career goals of just making a lot of money.” Specifically, he reports that within the neuroscience department, “I’m the only person I know…that’s not trying to go to med[ical] school. Everyone is very pre-med or just pre-tech, pre-finance, very career oriented and genuinely don’t care that much about the major that they’re doing a lot of the time…”

Alex also faults administrators for a focus on lucrative careers, rather than for emphasizing the humanities. As he explains, on-campus adults encourage students to attend career fairs and to network because they will make “connections for life” and that through these experiences, connections will be “set in stone forever.”

On the cusp of graduation, Alex reflects: “I wish somebody had told me more about [this] when I came in…[I] generally bec[ame] disillusioned over time with how and why people come into college, and how they deal with their classes, and why they take their classes, and what their career goals are, and realizing that so few people, especially here, are interested academically in what they’re doing in any way.”

In our terms, Alex’s “mental model” for college is “misaligned” with the models of those around him, particularly students and administrators. He approaches college with an “exploratory” mindset—that college is an opportunity to immerse in different fields and “search for knowledge.” This mindset comes into direct opposition with the “transactional” mode, in which the goal of college is to get a degree and meet people in order to build a resume for a future job or career. In a nutshell, Alex feels alienated from the academic realm, peers around him, and overall institution in which he attends.

Though we certainly don’t want to advocate for feelings of alienation or loneliness per se among students, it is clear that Alex “found himself” through the college experience. This form of discovery is evident in his articulation of the great distance between his own goals and the ambitions and motivations of many others on campus. Though he may be “dismayed” by his experience, he stayed true to his values, rather than compromising on these values in order to “fit in.”  

Interestingly, though we were not prepared for “belonging” to emerge as one of the most pressing issues on campus, the topic may well be tied, in some ways or in some circumstances, to finances, “ROI,” and jobs—concerns we had thought would dominate our interviews. Perhaps the issues of “ROI” and “belonging” are not as distant from each other as we might initially have believed.

For their useful comments, we thank Shelby Clark, Kirsten McHugh, and Katie Steele.

© 2019 Wendy Fischman and Howard Gardner

Tags: ,

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s