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  • Social Belonging and College Retention: Results From a Quasi-Experimental Pilot Study
  • David A. Patterson Silver Wolf (Adelv unegv Waya) (bio), Jacob Perkins (bio), Sheretta T. Butler-Barnes (bio), and Thomas A. Walker Jr. (bio)

Educators, policymakers, and institutions have worked for decades to increase rates of college graduation, but about half of students who enter college drop out without completing a bachelor’s degree (National Student Clearinghouse, 2014). Although the rate of student attrition is higher in the United States than in any other industrialized nation (Harvard Graduate School of Education, 2011), about 30% of U.S. students will drop out during their first year of college (Schneider, 2010). Persistence and retention point to an array of negative individual-level consequences that can have implications for society in general.

Higher education persistence and retention programs seek to avoid the negative consequences of attrition by offering support for students (Habley, Bloom, & Robbins, 2012; Tinto, 2006). Models of academic and social integration provide the conceptual foundations for such programs (Lee, Donlan, & Brown, 2010; Longwell-Grice & Longwell-Grice, 2008; Wolf-Wendel, Ward, & Kinzie, 2009). Those models reflect the evidence that integration within a campus community and an individual-level sense of belonging are important dimensions of student persistence in higher education (Hoffman, Richmond, Morrow, & Salomone, 2002; Palmer, Wood, Dancy, & Strayhorn, 2014; Strayhorn, 2012).

Walton and Cohen (2007) described social belonging as a central human need to have positive relationships with others. The alternative, acute belonging uncertainty culminating in social exclusion in the long term, results in poor health and many wellness issues. Within college systems, some racial minorities (e.g., African Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans) and stigmatized groups (e.g., first-generation or sexual-minority students) question their social belongingness (Hobson-Horton & Owens, 2004; Hollifield-Hoyle & Hammons, 2015; Walton & Cohen, 2011). Interventions similar to the one in this study that affirm and cultivate social belonging can positively affect student behavior over time and may have broad relevance as university programs are increasingly focusing on retention (Patterson, & Butler-Barnes, 2015). For instance, Walton and Cohen (2007) tested a social-belonging intervention that exposed students to statements about social difficulties in college. Findings indicate that the intervention successfully protected participants’ sense of belonging and that overall academic performance was better among participants than among nonparticipants. A randomized controlled trial subsequently replicated the findings on academic performance using a sample comprising African American and [End Page 777] European American students and, in particular, demonstrated improvements for the racial minority subsample, both academically and for health and well-being 3 years postintervention (Walton & Cohen, 2011).

As racial minority and stigmatized groups are not mutually exclusive within these college systems, the saliency and interplay of these varying identities in the collegiate social environment from the classroom to the larger campus has implications for the visibility of such students in these locales and ultimately on everyday experiences of social belonging (Basu, 2007; Orbe, 2004; Purdie-Vaughns & Eibach, 2008; Stewart, 2009). For these students, a toxic campus culture and climate marked by identity-based stereotype threat and overt and covert microaggressions can erode the motivation to persist via heightened stress and mental load and subsequent negative psycho-emotional and somatic outcomes, including acute belonging uncertainty (Smith, Allen, & Danley, 2007; Steele, Spencer, & Aronson, 2002; Taylor, Austin, Perkins, & Edwards, 2012; Torres, Driscoll, & Burrow, 2010). Social belonging interventions mitigate the aforementioned effects of these identity-based threats and stressors through affirming these student identities (Good, Aronson, & Inzlicht, 2003; Walton & Cohen, 2007) and, conceptually, retain the efficacy to impact students across multiple identities.

Given persistently high rates of attrition from higher education and the negative outcomes associated with this attrition (Patterson, VanZile-Tamsen, Black, Billiot, & Tovar, 2015), there is a need to further evaluate the potential impact of social-belonging programs on student persistence and retention in higher education, particularly for racial minority and stigmatized students. Thus, this article presents results from a quasi-experimental pilot study testing a social-belonging intervention to improve retention among college students.



The St. Louis Community College system consists of four campuses located throughout the metropolitan area. In Fall 2011, 29,230 students were enrolled within the system; of these, 61% were female, 52...


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