News Release

Social-belonging intervention promotes college success, increasing proportion of students who complete first year

Summary author: Walter Beckwith

Peer-Reviewed Publication

American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)

Where and with whom does a brief social-belonging intervention promote progress in college?

image: CTC retreat, Bloomington Indiana. view more 

Credit: College Transition Collaborative

A randomized controlled experiment featuring more than 26,000 students across 22 4-year U.S. universities shows that the effects of a low-cost, brief online intervention focused on social belonging can promote success and equity for college students. This finding was particularly apparent among those from groups that have historically achieved at lower rates. The likelihood of earning a university degree in the U.S. is highly unequal across racial-ethnic and socioeconomic groups. In most cases, programs designed to help, by promoting college persistence, work differently for different people. Understanding these heterogenous effects is crucial in designing interventions that work well across a broad diversity of students and institutions. One promising way to mitigate inequality and promote college success is addressing students’ worries about belonging in college. Although previous studies have shown that the social-belonging intervention can enhance academic outcomes, important details about its efficacy, including whether the benefits systematically generalize to a broader sample of academic contexts and individuals, remain poorly understood. In a randomized controlled experiment involving 26,911 students at 22 diverse U.S. universities, Gregory Walton and colleagues systematically evaluated the heterogenous effects of a social-belonging intervention. The intervention – a brief reading-and-writing activity delivered online to incoming students – addresses social belonging concerns by presenting results of a survey of older students focused on their worries about belonging; providing carefully curated stories of students describing worries and how they improved; and engaging participants to reflect on these stories in writing to help future students as they come to college. Walton et al. found that the intervention increased the rate at which students – particularly historically underrepresented students – completed their first year as full-time students, which is a leading indicator of overall academic success and future college graduation. What’s more, the authors demonstrate that the findings can be extrapolated across 749 4-year institutions that enroll more than 1 million first-year students annually. In a related Perspective, Nicholas Bowman discusses how the study advances on previous research in the field in three key ways, and also highlights some of the study’s limitations. “Fortunately, colleges and universities can implement this established intervention as part of their efforts to bolster student retention and graduation because the online materials in the Walton et al. study are freely available,” Bowman writes.

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