A new study led by Indiana University researchers finds that incoming students who participated in an online affiliation exercise completed their first year as full-time undergraduates at a higher rate than their peers, but only when their institution had strong strategies and resources to support diverse student affiliation.
Led by the College Transition Collaborative and IU Equity Accelerator, the research team delivered brief online reading and writing practice to nearly 27,000 students from 22 diverse colleges and universities across the United States in fall 2015 and 2016, including IU. These results, the country’s largest multisite randomized controlled trial of this affiliation intervention, were published May 5. Sciences.
IU Equity Accelerator, Mary Murphy, founder of IU Equity Accelerator, is a professor of psychological and brain sciences and a class of 1948 Herman B Wells Endowed Professor in the IU Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences. “The Equity Accelerator Program helps institutions understand what they can do to help students feel a sense of belonging, and that they are receiving academic support.
“It is important that students never feel alone, and that the institution provides tangible expenses that are recognized and used by students to help them feel a sense of belonging and succeed academically in college.”
The researchers found significant effects on students’ perseverance and study in the course and their sense of belonging after engaging in a reading and writing exercise. The intervention increased the rate of students completing their first year of college as full-time students, especially among students in groups that historically progressed at lower rates. However, across 22 institutions, the effects were much greater when the institutions had strategies and resources in place to help students feel a sense of belonging.
The researchers calculated that their findings could be generalized to more than 1 million students annually at 749 four-year colleges and universities in the United States, where the 12-month dropout rate for undergraduate freshmen is 24.1 percent, according to the Education Data Initiative. If all schools in the circular sample implemented the social affiliation intervention online, 12,136 other full-time students would have completed their first year of college each year. The benefits are greatest among historically low-performing groups—students whose combined race/ethnicity and generation performs historically lower at a given institution—helping to reduce inequality on campus.
The Social Belonging intervention was delivered through an online module in the summer before students begin undergraduate studies, usually as part of a pre-term checklist of necessary forms and requirements. It included survey results from older students showing that everyday concerns about belonging are normal in the transition to college and can improve over time; carefully curated stories from older students describing these fears and how you got better from them; and an opportunity to reflect on these stories in writing.
Results varied across the 22 institutions, each offering different strategies, resources, and programs to support specific groups of students who historically struggle completing their first year of college. The researchers say that institutional transformation and increased support for students on campus — as well as students’ knowledge and attitudes about these resources and their use — is critical to improving student success.
“This work reimagines the role of institutions in student outcomes, not only from an academic perspective but also from a student life perspective,” said Sarah Woodruff, chief strategy officer at IU Equity Accelerator. “This is a call to action for ways in which institutions harness their power and use it to truly move students. Through the Equity Accelerator, we help institutions rethink the contract they create with students, helping them articulate existing inequalities and telling them in real, accurate terms what they can do to change.” .
The IU Equity Accelerator, formed in July 2022, is a focused research organization whose mission is to use and apply the social and behavioral sciences to provide a more equitable learning and work environment where everyone can achieve their full potential. Institutions nationwide that are working to improve student belonging can work with the Equity Accelerator to identify, from their students’ perspective, the resources and strategies needed to facilitate student belonging on campus.
“In addressing equity, it is important to have actionable outcomes that can be used to improve student experiences and outcomes and help them be the people they are meant to be,” Murphy said. “We hope that institutions can build on our findings and IU Equity Accelerator’s work to identify better ways to support their students.”