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  • The Impact of Culturally Engaging Campus Environments on Sense of Belonging
  • Samuel D. Museus (bio), Varaxy Yi (bio), and Natasha Saelua (bio)

Low rates of student persistence and degree completion are a major concern of colleges and universities across the United States. Of all incoming students enrolled at four-year institutions in 2005, less than 60% completed their bachelor’s degree within six years (National Center for Education Statistics [NCES], 2013). In addition, students of color exhibit lower rates of degree attainment than the overall population. While 62% of first-time, full-time White students who matriculate at a four-year college complete a bachelor’s degree in six years, that percentage is significantly lower for American Indian and Alaskan Native (39%), Black (40%), and Latino (50%) students (NCES, 2013). [End Page 187] And, while Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders exhibit relatively high rates of degree completion in the aggregate, many Southeast Asian American and Pacific Islander ethnic groups within this racial category suffer from substantial disparities in degree attainment. For example, Vietnamese (26%), Hmong (14%), Cambodian (13%), and Laotian (12%) Americans, as well as Chamorro (21%), Native Hawaiians (17%), Guamanians (13%), Fijians (11%), Tongans (11%), Samoans (10%), and Micronesians (4%) all hold bachelor’s degrees at rates lower than the national average of 28% (Museus, 2013).

These low levels of degree attainment pose negative consequences for both individual students and larger society. For example, individuals without higher education credentials will have lower lifetime earnings and are more likely to remain at or near poverty levels (Baum, Ma, & Payea, 2010). Regarding the impact of low levels of degree attainment on society, those without a college degree will contribute fewer tax dollars and are less likely to engage in civic participation at local, state, and national levels. Thus, it is important for higher education researchers, policymakers, and practitioners to better understand how to maximize the success of higher education’s increasingly diverse undergraduate populations.

Previous research has demonstrated that students’ ability to find a sense of belonging in college is positively associated with their intent to persist to degree completion (e.g., Hausmann, Schofield, & Woods, 2007). This reality underscores the importance of college educators understanding how to foster a sense of belonging among their students. The current investigation aims to increase knowledge of how campus environments shape students’ sense of belonging in college. In the next section, we briefly discuss the evolution of scholarly theory and discourse on college student success. Next, we provide a synthesis of existing literature on the impact of campus environments on sense of belonging in college. Then, we offer an overview of the Culturally Engaging Campus Environments (CECE) Model of college success, which seeks to explain the ways in which particular aspects of institutional environments influence sense of belonging and other important student outcomes in postsecondary education. In the remainder of the article, we focus on our analyses of the relationship between culturally engaging campus environments and sense of belonging in college.

From Integration to Cultural Consciousness and Sense of Belonging

For three decades, Tinto’s (1975, 1987, 1993) theory of student integration dominated much of the discourse around student success in higher education. Tinto’s integration theory is based on the notion that students must go through a process of separation from their precollege communities, navigate [End Page 188] a period of transition into college life, and integrate into the academic and social subsystems of their campuses to maximize their likelihood of success. The theory posits that the extent to which students are able to integrate into these two subsystems of campus partially determine their subsequent commitments to their institutions and their goals to attain a college degree, which ultimately predict their likelihood of persistence and graduation.

Since its inception, several scholars have critiqued Tinto’s theory and noted its limitations in explaining persistence processes, especially among students of color (Attinasi, 1989; Rendón, Jalomo, & Nora, 2000; Tierney, 1992, 1999). For example, researchers have questioned the underlying cultural foundations of Tinto’s theory, which suggest that students must dissociate from their cultural communities and adopt the dominant values and norms of their respective campuses in order to succeed. These...


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