The communities our students bring to and build on our campuses are a key component of the portrayal of the college experience. The most memorable and lasting experiences for many when looking back on the college experience are the connections forged during that time. And, these connections are happening across our campus. But, what do we really know about student community and its relationship with student success? For a thorough examination, student community has to be: defined, developed and sustained, and evaluated.
In particular, colleges and universities put significant efforts towards strategic initiatives to help students feel a sense of belonging to their campus community. Many of these efforts stem from years of research framing the role of social interactions and connections to and within the college environment contribute to desired outcomes, like performance and retention. For instance, Vincent Tinto’s (1993) classic theory of student departure identifies issues related to social integration as a major source of departure for college students. Social Integration is the means through which people interact, connect, and validate each other within a community. Social integration theory proposes that people experience mental, emotional, and physical benefits when they believe they are a contributing, accepted part of a collective. (Skipper 2005). Tinto’s model of social integration illustrates the connection between social integration and student success by showing how a student’s feeling of connectedness relates to their connection to the institution as a whole and ultimately their individual persistence and success (Tinto 1993) (Fig 1.1)
In many ways, the (much used) saying, “it takes a village to raise a child” could be expanded to say that it takes a community to produce a graduate. Student community are not limited by a single classification or origin. And, community develops both formally and informally across our campuses. There are the communities that develop organically in residence hall and classrooms. There are hybrid communities, both formal and informal, built and strengthened through attending programs, taking a common course, or participating in engaged learning opportunities.
There can also be more formal and strategic initiatives that schools can put into place that foster student community so that students aren’t left feeling disconnected. Research has shown that the feelings and effects of marginality diminish when people feel like they matter and are a part of something. Schools that put intentional effort behind not only developing formal strategy around student community but also support those informal and organic communities have a better chance of deepening institutional commitment (which might bode well for schools wanting to keep a connection with alumni).
While many of us intuitively know of the importance of helping our students to feel a sense of belonging, it is vital that we put data behind our stories and theories. There is a proven correlation between students’ academic performance and their feeling of connectedness as well as the decision to remain in school. For instance, data from Mapworks, which collects both institution-provided data on outcomes and student experience data in the form of surveys, frames the relationship between social integration and retention. In a recent webinar on first-year college students, Skyfactor Research Manager Matt Venaas highlighted survey and outcome data from Mapworks showing the importance of these connections. Not only is social integration statistically related to one-year retention rates, but it is also related to key academic concepts, like academic resiliency, academic self-efficacy, academic integration.
This community is not a one sided relationship with the students, as this data proves. There is also a sense of accountability to the community as well, to show up as a member of the community that gives as much as they receive. Mutual trust can be developed and strengthened between faculty and students which can only enhance the learning process for everyone involved and create a space for a stronger school community as a whole.
Schlossberg, N. (1989). New Directions for Student Services, p.5-15
Skipper, T.L. (2005). Student Development in the first college year, pg 69
Tinto, V. (1993) Leaving College: Rethinking the Causes and Cures of Student Attrition