For Your Teens To Feel Like They Belong in College, Do This Before Fall

May 4, 2023 By Eric Williamson, williamson@virginia.edu Eric Williamson, williamson@virginia.edu

One of the big fears for parents of recently admitted college students is whether their child will feel accepted once they get there.

Many will be away from home for the first time, and nothing will be familiar. Many will question whether they fit in. They may even ask themselves if four more years of school is right for them.

Establishing a sense of belonging often determines if students will complete their degrees. That’s important because education can be a pricey investment these days, and degree-holding can be a strong indicator of future job stability and financial well-being.

Fortunately, parents can help. A Stanford University-led study published Thursday in the journal Science, in which a University of Virginia researcher participated, points the way to what parents, students and schools can do to make sure students’ first year of college won’t be their last.

The New Research on Belonging

The new research examined the experiences of almost 27,000 students at 22 diverse institutions, verifying on a large scale what works and what doesn’t. The authors say the results can be generalized to about 750 institutions of various sizes nationwide.

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To do what works, the researchers say, start with a free online tool offered by the Project for Education Research That Scales, or PERTS, a nonprofit institute sponsored by the Tides Center. The tool has proved effective, and anyone can take it prior to entering college.

The PERTS tool has prospective students read essays from older students who have experienced feelings of not belonging and describe how they persevered. Prospective students then write their own essays. The tool, which is estimated to take under 30 minutes to complete, is meant to reframe thoughts and help students adopt a growth mentality, rather than a defeatist one.

However, it only works as the first part of a one-two punch, the research verifies. The catch is that the educational institution has to follow up by providing meaningful resources that affirm the student’s value to the community.

Portrait of Chris Hulleman
Chris Hulleman is a UVA research associate professor of education, psychology and public policy who studies educational interventions. He also runs the Motivate Lab. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

“The intervention is more likely to work if you have strong opportunities to belong,” said one of the study’s authors, Chris Hulleman, a UVA research associate professor of education, psychology and public policy who studies educational interventions.

“For parents there are two aspects: one part is readying your child for college, and the other part is trying to understand if a college is ready for your child.”

Hulleman is the father of four children who have shopped for colleges and a fifth who will be in the market soon. He said it has been hard for him, even as a white middle-class college professor who studies the topic, to help match his children to the schools that are best for them. He can sympathize with other parents who are struggling to do the same.

Dropping Out Versus Fitting In

Dropping out has become a staggeringly large problem that affects almost every identity. Of college students nationwide, 40% will exit before obtaining a degree, with 25% leaving in their first year.

Students who find themselves in a racial minority will be more likely to abandon a degree, as will people from lower incomes or first-generation college backgrounds.

UVA was not one of the schools studied and has a relatively high graduation rate of about 95% overall, but researchers say no institution is a stranger to the issues. Dropping out is a risk for just about anyone who doesn’t feel a strong sense of embrace and support, Hulleman said.

The new study builds on previous efforts, including an initial study of “an unnamed selective institution” that sought to understand why African Americans with similar high school credentials as their white counterparts more often struggled with completing their degrees.

“The original study was looking to address those same concerns about belonging, and those kinds of concerns are pretty common,” Hulleman said. “Am I smart enough? Am I good enough to fit in? Many of those concerns are temporary and fade over time, but not all. If you’re a Black student, for example, you can still experience racism.”

Gregory M. Walton, a Stanford psychology professor who has led all of the research, found that with both the online PERTS tool – reinforcing the idea that everyone struggles in a new setting – and meaningful opportunities to feel both valued and helped by the community, the achievement gap for Black students was reduced by about 50% from sophomore to senior years, helping those students finish college and go on to greater success.

Examples of activities that fostered belonging include faculty mentoring and being included in study groups.

Walton tested his results at other schools before expanding the research in 2015-16 to as many schools as were willing to opt in, resulting in the findings released this week. The ambitious partnership between experimental psychologists and university administrators was dubbed “the College Transition Collaborative.”

The study found that the likelihood of completing the first year of college increased in experiment participants by 2%.

The research found that 85% of students in the control group self-reported medium to high feelings of belonging in a spring survey. In 15% of that group, no effect was found, which Hulleman attributes to a lack of active school support for the kind of belonging opportunities that matter. That was reinforced by students' survey responses about their educational experiences.

What Parents Can Do

Hulleman said, given the results, parents can’t relax after helping their children become “college ready.” Besides knowing if a college is generally considered a good school, a little more research is required.

“Institutions can do a lot to either support or thwart your belonging,” he noted.

He advised parents to learn as much as possible about the graduation rates of students from similar family backgrounds. The schools themselves and the U.S. Department of Education can provide a lot of this data.

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Next, he said, parents should identify what support resources are available to students at the chosen school and be ready to suggest that their students make contact as warranted.

“They’re going to be told about all those resources at open house, and they’re going to forget all of them,” he said. Even then, “You can also regularly ask your child if they’ve reached out to their adviser or talked to any of their faculty.”

Hovering over your student is not a good idea, however.

“You can help them, but keep in mind that helicopter mode is not always the best strategy,” he said. “Just be sure to be there if your child is in crisis.”

You Belong at UVA

Hulleman stressed that while parents and students can do a lot, administrators and the resources they provide are the most crucial component. Fortunately, connection and collegiality are part of UVA’s well-established brand. The University has a wide assortment of support resources and programs, including Hoos Connected, which brings students together to learn about each other and form lasting relationships.

For his part, Hulleman runs Motivate Lab, which helps colleges and universities find the most effective ways to engage, support and retain learners.

He is currently wrapping up a semester-long “learning community” with UVA faculty who teach introductory STEM courses. The focus has been on instructional approaches that maximize belonging and inclusion.

Ultimately, thoughts like, “It’s common to go through challenges like this and overcome them,” are what Hulleman and his fellow researchers want students to keep top of mind. With examples that reinforce the positive thought, because students are supported, the brain makes it a truism.

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Eric Williamson

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