Student Belonging: The Next DEI Frontier in Higher Education

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More than half of college students say they feel excluded based on an aspect of their identity. Is student belonging the next frontier for colleges and universities to prioritize in their diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts? 

64% of students believe their college or university is supportive of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) on their campuses, but many believe more must be done to see tangible results. 

Institutions often focus on messaging that highlights diversity-related statistics or closing equity gaps in retention and completion, but how they address the concept of inclusion has proven murkier. The extent to which students feel included, valued, accepted, and connected on campus — particularly those from historically underrepresented or marginalized groups — deserves our attention, especially as students emerge from the lingering trauma and isolation of the pandemic. 

Understandably, inclusion is a challenging element of DEI to pin down and one that’s harder to quantify. Its importance, however, is clear: When students don’t feel included or connected to their college experience, they aren’t as successful. 

One of the primary goals of DEI in higher education is to create a learning environment where all students succeed and thrive. When students experience a sense of belonging on campus, their academic, health, and engagement outcomes improve. It’s imperative for colleges and universities to shift more focus to inclusion and belonging, even as they continue other DEI efforts. Here are some ways to begin. 

Understand the Difference Between Inclusion and Belonging

Inclusion and belonging are related but different concepts. It’s important for college and university leaders to understand and define both. For example, Harvard University defines inclusion as when “everyone is included, visible, heard, and considered.” Belonging is defined at Cornell University, as “the feeling of security and support when there is a sense of acceptance, inclusion, and identity for a member of a certain group.” 

Typically, inclusion has to do with the ongoing processes and activities colleges and universities engage in to meet everyone’s needs, while belonging is the outcome or effect that people feel from those efforts. In other words, institutions take inclusive measures that, when done correctly, foster a sense of belonging among students and employees.  

In Hanover’s 2022 Higher Education Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Survey, 54% of students report feeling negatively singled out at their institution based on their identity. These feelings of exclusion happen in students’ interactions with faculty, staff, and peers across various settings. To address inclusion, institutions must consider not only the classroom, but also campus buildings, remote experiences, and extracurricular activities: 

  •  Classroom: Do students see themselves reflected in the curriculum? Are inclusive conversations encouraged, and do all students participate? 
  • Services: Can students get the specific support they need? Are services and processes set up to accommodate all students? Are students offered multiple ways to access services and complete enrollment tasks?
  • Extracurricular activities: Are clubs, sports, and campus events set up to include all groups? Who participates in campus activities, and who isn’t represented? 
Learn how other higher education leaders are addressing barriers faced by marginalized or underrepresented students. Watch Hanover’s webinar, Meeting the Needs of An Increasingly Diverse Student Population. 

Address Student Trauma and Well-Being with Urgency

After living through COVID-19 lockdowns, racial unrest, economic uncertainty, and abrupt educational shifts, every student has experienced some level of trauma in the last two years. Despite a return to predominantly in-person learning and campus operations, many students are still physically set apart from each other because of reduced-capacity classrooms, fully online programs, and hybrid courses. Even in face-to-face classes, professors report that student engagement is at an all-time low. It’s clear many college students continue to struggle with isolation, depression, anxiety, and difficulty concentrating. 

Many returning students feel vulnerable and need additional support. The pandemic also fractured a cohesive sense of community that once existed on many campuses. These conditions make it even more important now to focus on a sense of belonging. Administrators, faculty, and staff must resist the urge to go “back to the way things were” and find new ways to help students feel valued and ready to learn. Institutions must be intentional in rethinking how to authentically include and engage students, foster social connections, and build community. 

Read about the growing trend to focus on measurable DEI plans that foster belonging in Hanover’s 2022 Trends in Higher Education report.  

Foster A Sense of Belonging for Students on Campus 

As with all DEI work, becoming a more inclusive institution is an ongoing process, not a one-time project with a clear conclusion. To fuel a sense of belonging on campus, institutional leaders can make headway by taking the right steps and fostering the right mindset. That includes: 

  • Defining diversity, inclusion, and belonging at your institution: Diversity is about much more than race or ethnicity; It covers any aspect of identity that could affect whether someone feels like they belong in a given setting. Think about the prism of differences within your population and use locally defined terminology to talk about them. Encourage others to avoid bundling all DEI concepts under one label or strategy. Using consistent language with clear definitions will help your institution acknowledge and disaggregate the full spectrum of experiences that exist in your community.
  • Bringing students into the conversation: Talk and listen to students to find out their needs and identify where your institution falls short. National surveys of students such as the 2022 Higher Education Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Survey are helpful to learn about broad patterns and fuel research ideas, but they do not replace dialogue and direct feedback from your specific student body. Each college or university must find ways to emphasize the student voice in DEI work through a combination of methods, such as surveys, online polls, focus groups, committee representation, and other strategies.
  • Throwing pre-pandemic rules out the window: When it comes to meeting student needs, don’t automatically return to what you think worked in 2019. Students may be largely back on campus, but inequities they experienced before the pandemic are even more pronounced now. Recognize that we’re in a new era and institutions must use a clean slate to serve students effectively. Every institution should be taking steps to normalize mental and emotional health challenges, enrich support services, and develop inclusive ways for students to find and access those services. Don’t assume that students know what support resources they are eligible to receive or that they know how to tap into them. 
  • Addressing faculty and staff inclusion: Employees, too, often struggle with the same feelings of disconnection and exclusion that students face. Solicit faculty and staff feedback about their needs and find ways to enhance a sense of belonging in the workplace. If your institution is planning to survey students about DEI perceptions, include employees in the survey as well. Disaggregating the findings across different employee groups can help your leadership team better understand different perceptions of marginalization among campus community members. 

Right now, students are in greater need than ever when it comes to connection and support. They’re getting lost in processes more easily, many are disengaging in the classroom, and some have left school with no plans to return. Yet, we know that all students can succeed and thrive under the right conditions. It’s up to higher education leaders to understand the roles that inclusion and belonging play in achieving equitable student outcomes. Institutions have an opportunity — and an obligation — to rethink what kinds of support students need, to seize more inclusive ways of operating, and to nurture a sense of community and connection so that every student feels like they belong. If not now, when? 

— Amy Kurfist, PhD, Senior Research Advisor, Hanover Research 

See how college students feel about their institution’s DEI progress with the full results of the 2022 Higher Education Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Survey.

Inclusion and belonging is important to students

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