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Group Seflie

Operational Definition: What is Sense of Belonging?

Sense of Belonging refers to a feeling of connection to the people within a college or university. It is one of many social integration factors that have been explored as part of retention theories for the last several decades.


Vincent Tinto’s (1975) foundational model of retention, as well as his ongoing research over several decades, played a major role in not only drawing attention to student attrition, but also shifting perspectives around student success. Perhaps most notable about Tinto’s work is the concept that attrition is a social, rather than academic process. His work - and a great deal more based upon it - supported the theory that students who do not feel integrated into the social environment of an institution are less likely to feel a commitment to that institution and their studies.


Later research focusing specifically on this perception of social integration and support provided greater depth and clarity in defining the construct. For example, Bollen and Hoyle (1990) proposed the concept of “perceived cohesion” to explain an individual's attachment to a group. Their model included two factors: “feelings of morale,” which referred to a positive or negative attitude about the group as a whole, and “sense of belonging,” which referred to an individual's perceived relationships with members of the group. 


Similarly, Elliot, Kao, and Grant (2004) proposed the construct of “mattering” to explain an individual’s relationship to a group. In their model, mattering consisted of three components: awareness (“I am the object of others’ attention”), importance (“I am the object of others’ concern”), and reliance (“Others look to me”). 


Finally, France, Finney, and Swerdzewski (2009) integrated these and other theories with a specific focus on the adjustment of college students. In defining “university attachment,” the authors referred to “group attachment” (affiliation with the university itself) and “member attachment” (affiliation with the people within the university).


The France et al. model provides the most insight into ISSAQ’s framing of student social perceptions. Sense of Belonging is closely related to member attachment, as the factor focuses on personal relationships within the institution. Contrast this with Institutional Commitment, which deals with an attitude toward the college or university itself.


Empirical Relationship to Success (Does it Predict Student Success?)

Several large-scale studies have examined constructs similar to Sense of Belonging in relation to student success outcomes. A meta-analysis by Robbins et al. (2004) found that both perceived social support and social involvement were significant predictors of both first-year GPA and retention. However, Markle et al. (2013) and Richardson, Abraham, and Bond (2012) found little connection between measures similar to Sense of Belonging and student outcomes.

One hypothesis for these variance in findings is that Sense of Belonging has differential effects on certain student subpopulations (e.g., Johnson et al., 2007; Maestas, Vaquera, & Zehr, 2007; Mark, 2007). For example, one could easily imagine that students from traditionally underserved populations (e.g., first-generation college students, students from underrepresented minority groups) could either feel different levels of belonging, or experience belonging differently as a part of their success. Feeling disconnected may be more of a hurdle to a student of color form a low-income family than a white student from an affluent background. In this case, observing an effect of Sense of Belonging across a large student sample may be difficult.

Practical Relationship to Success

For those who work in higher education, it can be difficult to understand how college might seem like a foreign culture to many students. The typical faculty member, for example, was likely successful in their undergraduate studies, graduate studies (perhaps across multiple institutions), and as an employee of that same system. If there ever was a time when college didn’t make sense, it might be hard to recall. 

Yet this is the experience for so many college students, particularly those from traditionally underserved populations. Not only might they feel unable to navigate that system, but they are likely to fail to see the connections to other students around them, let alone understand that many of their peers are experiencing the same challenges.


Understanding this is perhaps the greatest contribution of research by Vincent Tinto and others. It helped faculty, staff, and administrators understand that student success was not merely a process of learning and success in the classroom, but a social endeavor. Once Tinto proposed a concept such as institutional commitment, other concepts such as student involvement (Astin, 1985) and engagement (Kuh & Vesper, 1997) followed. 


Sense of Belonging plays a critical role in student success because it is the underlying perception that drives this social component of higher education. Students who feel like they don’t belong are less likely to engage, either academically or socially, they’re less likely to reach out for help when they have a problem, and ultimately, it is this culmination of factors that leads to attrition in many cases.


How do I help students improve in Sense of Belonging?

Sense of Belonging is a Dispositional Factor.

This means that direct interventions should be provided in the context of a broader coaching conversation.

It likely makes sense that individual interventions are not recommended for students feeling socially disconnected (i.e., why Sense of Belonging is not a Strategy Factor). However, Sense of Belonging is somewhat different than other Dispositional Factors in that the main role of a coach may be to connect students with existing institutional resources.


Initial conversations should focus on specifying the source of students' current Sense of Belonging. Is it that students are generally unaware of how to make social connections? Or do they feel disconnected in a more cultural way, perhaps due to belonging to a traditionally underserved population (e.g., first-generation college students).

In the former case, students may simply need to be connected with clubs, activities, or programs based on their needs and interests. In the latter, more targeted resources are necessary, focusing on that student's needs. In these cases, peer mentoring or certain affinity group programs will be more helpful.

While the Student Resource Hub attempts to guide and connect students with such resources, the helping hand of a Coach is likely to be far more effective.



Astin, A. (1985). Achieving educational excellence: A critical assessment of priorities and practices in higher education. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Bollen, K.A. & Hoyle, R.H. (1990). Perceived cohesion: A conceptual and empirical examination. Social Forces, 69(2), 479-504.

Cabrera, A. F., Nora, A., & Castaneda, M. B. (1993). College persistence: Structural equations modeling test of an integrated model of student retention. The journal of higher education, 64(2), 123-139.

Elliott, G. C., Kao, S., & Grant, A. (2004). Mattering: Empirical validation of a social–psychological concept. Self and Identity, 3, 339–354.

France, M.K., Finney, S.J., and Swerdzewski, P. (2009). Students’ group and member attachment to their university: A construct validity study of the University Attachment Scale. Educational and Psychological Measurement, 1-19.

Johnson, D. R., Soldner, M., Leonard, J. B., Alvarez, P., Inkelas, K. K., Rowan-Kenyon, H. T., & Longerbeam, S. D. (2007). Examining sense of belonging among first-year undergraduates from different racial/ethnic groups. Journal of College Student Development, 48(5), 525-542.

Maestas, R., Vaquera, G. S., & Zehr, L. M. (2007). Factors impacting sense of belonging at a Hispanic-serving institution. Journal of Hispanic Higher Education, 6(3), 237-256.

Markle, R., Olivera-Aguilar, M., Jackson, T., Noeth, R., & Robbins, S. (2013). Examining evidence of reliability, validity, and fairness for the SuccessNavigator assessment. ETS Research Report (No. RR-13-12). Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service.

Richardson, M., Abraham, C., & Bond, R. (2012). Psychological correlates of university students’ academic performance: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 138(2), 353-387.

Robbins, S. B., Lauver, K., Le, H., Davis, D., Langley, R., & Carlstrom, A. (2004). Do psychosocial and study skill factors predict college outcomes? A meta-analysis. Psychological bulletin, 130(2), 261.

Rubin, M. (2012). Social class differences in social integration among students in higher education: A meta-analysis and recommendations for future research. Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, 5(1), 22–38.

Kuh, G. D., & Vesper, N. (1997). A comparison of student experiences with good practices in undergraduate education between 1990 and 1994. The Review of Higher Education, 21(1), 43-61.

Tinto, V. (1975). Dropout from higher education: A theoretical synthesis of recent research. Review of educational research, 45(1), 89-125.

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