Whether we like it or not, the pandemic forced higher education to stress test a fundamental assumption about student success: do students really need to be in person to learn effectively? Like most important questions in life, the answer is “it depends.” And while there were varying reports of positive consequences (e.g., less commute time, more flexible learning), we also heard students report about the hardships of feeling “isolated” and “disconnected” from their learning experience.

The good news is that research is, once again, showing that students’ sense of belonging in a higher education institution may be the antidote against those negative consequences by buffering students’ mental health and academic engagement, especially for students from underrepresented and first-generation backgrounds. When students feel that they have a place that accepts them, values them, and looks forward to seeing them, they are less likely to withdraw from the opportunities that those institutions offer–these patterns have been well documented in the psychology literature.

Administrators, too, have recognized  the importance of student engagement and belonging as part of the core institutional priorities during the pandemic. Our College Innovation Network group here at WGU Labs has been working to understand the influence of critical levers for fostering belonging, such as effective educational technologies for connecting students with their peers. We’ve also worked collaboratively with college leaders from across the country to understand what belonging and engagement are, and set metrics for what success in each domain looks like.

Our collective work with CIN and the broader research community have helped to surface four powerful strategies for college leaders to improve belonging at their institution.

1 – Changing Institutional Mindsets

College leaders can start to create an atmosphere of belonging at their institution by first shifting their institution’s mindset. That is, one of the most powerful ways to create contexts of belonging is to shift the onus of belonging away from the students. All too often institutions will try to instill a sense of belonging by repeatedly, and explicitly, telling their students that they belong throughout their academic journey.

However, as any effective teacher knows, getting the belonging message right is something that requires that the key lessons be more “caught than taught”. Belonging emerges organically when the leaders of the institution are able to commit an ongoing process of interested inquiry that positions the students’ voice and experience at the center of institutional policy and practice. By being listened to, they will be more likely to feel understood and valued.

2 – Remember to Measure Belonging

In order to help foster belonging among students, we must know where students are starting and how they are progressing with their sense of belonging. But this means that institutions must measure belonging – It’s hard to improve on what you don’t measure.

Measuring belonging, especially at scale, can be as simple as asking students to indicate their agreement with statements like, “I feel like I belong at [school]”. Often, though, we don’t ask students this, or don’t ask often enough to identify patterns, changes over time, or to identify students who report low belonging so that we can target interventions toward those that could most benefit. If belonging is a strategic focus, make sure you’re measuring it.

3 –  Meet Students Where They Are

One of the more ironic insights from the last couple years is that although technology-enabled has been a part of the belonging crisis on campuses across the country, technology is also part of the solution moving forward. Technology has increasingly helped to facilitate the connection that students need in times of social distancing and flexible, online learning.

CIN has recognized this and specifically aims to leverage technology to boost belonging and connection among students. It’s undeniable that technology is a ubiquitous feature of the student experience – we just need to learn how to use it in a way that builds connections rather than isolating students.

4 – Focus On Your Holistic Messaging

Messages about belonging come from numerous sources, both explicit and implicit. Leaders must take a holistic look at how their communications, environments, and practices foster belonging among all students, not just particular groups.

For example, one clear indicator is representation on campus or in particular programs. If a student looks around and sees few others that look like them, they might wonder why that’s the case. Another is what values and priorities the institution conveys through communications? When they tout that they value “excellence” are they buying into the implicit notion that excellence is the singular outcome that can only be achieved through a very specific and singular path, or are they explicitly communicating that excellence is the continuous process of including diverse perspectives towards the progressive iterations needed to derive meaningful impact?

As students return to campus for another year, let’s ensure that each one feels they have a place they belong and peers to connect with – their success may depend on it.

The College Innovation Network at WGU Labs is dedicated to supporting institutions throughout the full life cycle of EdTech implementation, from needs identification to research evaluation. Interested in joining? Find out more: https://wgulabs.org/cin-institutions/