Fixing Belonging is Crucial as Colleges Face Demographic Cliff

Nearly every college and university in America takes turnover as a given, assuming that they will lose 10-20% of their student body after the freshman year.

“Not everyone is going to fit in,” the thinking goes. The student is a key, and the school is a lock – and if the student doesn’t fit, it’s OK for them to try someplace else.

But the reality is that the school shouldn’t view itself as a lock in the first place. The burden of “fitting in” should be on the institution, rather than on the student.

Ultimately, this problem boils down to how willing schools are to examine their campus culture and how dedicated they are to creating a sense of belonging for all their students – not just for the first-gen or traditionally underrepresented college students who often struggle to find it on campus.

So, what does belonging mean?

What we’re really talking about is finding a true sense of community and purpose, and a feeling that you belong in the environment in which you’ve found yourself.

Belonging is, unfortunately, harder to address than academic preparedness or financial stress, which can be predicted through high school transcripts and the FAFSA financial aid form. It’s also harder to identify. After all, you don’t usually realize someone’s struggling unless they tell you. Solving it is a community-wide exercise, rather than a matter of individual outreach.

Creating a sense of belonging is all the more important because colleges – especially residential colleges – are highly diverse environments. With the possible exception of the military, they are some of the only places left in American life where multiple diverse populations come together in one place.

Some students come from large cities, others from rural areas. Some come from zip codes where incomes are high and everyone goes to college; many come from areas with rare economic and educational opportunities. There are some students who have never set foot in a Walmart before, and others who can’t live without one.

The point here is that what is “familiar” or “comforting” to one person might be “alienating” or “uncomfortable” for another. There is no universal silver bullet for creating a sense of belonging on a college campus.

But that doesn’t mean that there’s nothing that schools can do – quite the contrary.

One of the things we do at Wabash College, where I am president, is the Wabash Liberal Arts Immersion Program (WLAIP). As part of WLAIP, select students from low-income, minority, or first-generation backgrounds participate in a month-long summer program before the fall semester that helps them build a strong and supportive network of peers, faculty, and staff mentors. Through these relationships, our young men develop a deep sense of belonging, all before the first day of class. The program then continues with regular check-ins, special information sessions, and networking events during the freshman year, and a paid "second summer" internship afterwards.

This ongoing program builds community and a sense of belonging, but there are certainly other ways colleges can tackle this problem.

Community-campus partnerships, for example, can be incredibly helpful in increasing students' feelings of belonging in a place far from home. A community organization may help them make a meaningful contribution, allowing them to experience welcome, connection, and purpose in a place that seems so different from their own “home.”     

Theater, music, and sports have been traditional ways that students find belonging through structured peer engagement, but schools may need to expand these offerings to include more students from different backgrounds. And while social media might not have been a factor when the people running schools or teaching classes were themselves students, it’s a big part of students’ lives today. Schools should find a way to engage with the student body digitally with online groups, apps that connect students across campus, message threads, dedicated Slack channels, and the like.

Also, there’s nothing stopping schools from being proactive and getting ahead of the “belonging” issue by asking students about it. Sending out a survey during the first month or two at school and then at regular intervals thereafter asking questions like: “Do you feel a sense of community here?” or “Have you found people or activities that matter to you?” can really get at the heart of the issue.

A much talked-about “demographic cliff,” created by declining birth rates over the past two decades, is expected to shrink the potential pool of college applicants by 20% starting in 2025. Colleges, understandably, are worried about how this will impact their enrollments and operational budgets.

I'm not sure there can be a greater motivation to address a sense of belonging than a coming era where there are going to be fewer students to go around. It's in every institution's best interest to do a better job of hanging onto the students they already have. And given the investment students are making in higher education, we owe it to them to provide the people, programs, and places where they will thrive.

Dr. Scott E. Feller is the President of Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Indiana.

For related articles, see: Creating a Sense of Belonging Crucial When Learning Online