08 February 2021
The science behind belonging

If you’ve ever heard from Unibuddy before, you’ve probably seen us use the phrase ‘sense of belonging’ a lot. 

We talk about giving your students a ‘sense of belonging’ before they enroll at your institution, cementing the ‘sense of belonging’ that drives them to apply, how a ‘sense of belonging’ is the key to boosting yield. 

But what is it? And why are we so confident about it? 

Well, it turns out there is a lot of science behind belonging. 

A groundbreaking 1995 paper by psychologists Baumeister and Leary was one of the first to identify belonging as, not just a desire, but a need. A need that, for humans, is almost as strong as the need for food. 

And, according to their theory, belonging isn’t about where you are, or what you are doing – it is about the people you interact with. Baumeister and Leary’s theory was clear that interpersonal relationships are key to belonging. 

When you achieve a sense of belonging, through prolonged, positive social contact, it’s associated with a reduction in anxiety and positive, sometimes celebratory, feeling. 

And when it comes to colleges, a sense of belonging is crucial. What does that mean in education? Here’s how the American scholar Terrell Strayhorn defines it: 

“In terms of college, sense of belonging refers to … a feeling or sensation of connectedness, and the experience of mattering or feeling cared about, accepted, respected, valued by, and important to the campus community or others on campus such as faculty, staff, and peers.”

That sense of belonging influences everything. If a student feels a sense of belonging, they are more likely to enroll, to stay enrolled, and to succeed. And it’s not just us saying that.

Belonging impacts choice

In 2007, academic advisor Martha O’Connell said: “the most important factor in choosing a college is fit.”

A paper by marketing researcher Emma Winter explored this idea further, and gathered empirical evidence to support that claim. “A feeling of belonging is crucial,” she wrote. “The ability of a university to provide a ‘sense of belonging’ was seen as being essential and when specifically asked for the key reasons for choosing one university above another, the feeling of belonging was cited in some form by all participants.”

Research published in the Journal of Further and Higher Education last year found that the ability of a university to provide a ‘sense of belonging’ was seen as essential – this was when prospective students were specifically asked for the key reason for choosing one university above another (Winter & Chapleo, 2017). The importance of personal interactions was overwhelmingly discussed as important by the sample in this research – above university rankings. Why? Well, the research found that interactions were key in facilitating a feeling of belonging and a sense of ‘university fit’.

As professionals in higher education marketing, recruitment and outreach, we understand how this is achieved through Open Days and face-to-face engagement. But the problem is we only reach a small proportion of prospects in this manner. What about the students who can’t afford to travel to an Open Day? What about those who physically can’t get here? What if they’re just too scared?

We need to facilitate meaningful personal interactions in a sustained, accessible way. And if we’re thinking about strengthening university recruitment initiatives through online engagement and digital content, we must acknowledge that today’s prospective students are very aware of online marketing and crave authenticity.

So… how do you achieve belonging?

Now we see that belonging matters – for choice, retention and success – how can colleges achieve it? 

An article in the Chronicle of Higher Education looks at two studies into student belonging and identifies three strategies: “more frequent interactions with diverse peers”, “peer mentoring and staff care and support.” 

And the groundbreaking 2012 report, What Works?, had a clear conclusion: “At the heart of successful retention and success is a strong sense of belonging in HE for all students.” The report suggested four measures for achieving belonging. The top two were:

  • Supportive peer relations
  • Meaningful interaction between staff and students

There’s a clear theme emerging: the key to developing that sense of belonging is the interpersonal relations that are formed between students and staff

At Unibuddy, we believe that work on creating those relationships should start from the very beginning. When a student first considers a university, if they can connect with a current student or member of staff they will develop that sense of belonging. 

And armed with that feeling, they’ll go on to enroll and succeed. 

It’s more than a hunch – it’s backed by research of academics across the Higher Education sector, and the experience of thousands of students. At Queen Mary University, students that used Unibuddy were 34.8% more likely to enrol than those that did not. 

Want to know how peer-to-peer can enhance your student recruitment and marketing strategy and drive engagement? Drop us a line on [email protected] or book a demo.


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