Is belonging important for retention and success in HE?

In many higher education systems around the world, the rate of degree completion has been a pressing concern. In the US in particular, completion rates are low and a wide range of models have been developed to help explain the issue and seek to remedy it. Two of the most widely adopted of these models in the UK are Tinto’s (1993) integration model and the model of student engagement (e.g. Kuh 2005). These models attempt to explain factors that impact on students persistence and ultimately success in higher education. However, these models attempt to explain the impact for students in general and it is unclear to what extent they are applicable to different groups of students; in particular non-traditional students.

In the UK, we know that black and minority ethnic (BME) students are less likely to complete their degree and are less likely to get a first or a 2.1 degree classification than white students.  Despite the adoption of student engagement and integration models these results have persisted and have been fairly consistent for over a decade (e.g. ECU 2012). Recent research in the UK as part of the  ‘What Works? Student Retention and Success Programme’ identified sense of belonging alongside student engagement as a important factor in retention and success (Thomas 2012). Sense of belonging as it pertains to student success is an under-researched area of the literature (Hausmann, Schofield & Woods 2007). Hurtado & Carter (1997) argue that understanding minority students’ sense of belonging is key to understanding their experiences at university.

My concern here is that sense of belonging could be particularly important for black students in predominately white institutions (PWIs).  Harper (2009) describes the concept of ‘onlyness’ to capture the experiences of many black students at institutions where they may be the only person from their ethnic group in their class. Therefore, the current models which we use to understand student retention and success may therefore not be sufficient in understanding the experiences of black students without a consideration of belonging and thus may not be entirely helpful in addressing the completion and attainment gaps for black students in UK higher education.


ECU (2012) Equality in Higher Education: Statistical report. Equality Challenge Unit: London

Harper, S.R. (2009) ‘Niggers no more: A critical race counter-narrative on black male student achievement at predominantly white colleges and universities.’ International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education. 22 (6), pp. 697-712.

Hausmann, L.R.M., Schofield, J.W. & Woods, R.L. (2007) ‘Sense of Belonging as a Predictor of Intentions to Persist Among African American and White First-Year College Students’, Research in Higher Education 48 (7) pp.803-839

Hurtado, S. & Carter, D. (1997) ‘Effects of College Transition and Perceptions of Campus Racial Climates on Latino College Students’ Sense of Belonging’, Sociology of Education 70, pp.324-345

Kuh, G.D. et. al. (2005) Student Success in College: Creating Conditions that Matter, Jossey-Bass: San Francisco

Thomas, L. (2012) Building student engagement and belonging in Higher Education at a time of change: final report from the What Works? Student Retention & Success programme, Paul Hamlyn Foundation: London

Tinto, V. (1993). Leaving college: Rethinking the causes and cures of student attrition (2nd ed.), University of Chicago Press: Chicago

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