Broad-access institutions — colleges and universities that are relatively affordable and less selective than elite institutions — open doors for many students from disadvantaged social backgrounds who might not otherwise pursue higher education. Yet these institutions struggle with persistence and graduation rates among this population. A Penn State College of Education faculty member is part of a research team that is seeking to help first-generation and racial-ethnic minoritized college students succeed by enhancing their sense of belonging through a social-psychological intervention.
“While this study was a field experiment that enables us to make causal inferences, my earlier work using descriptive research on larger, nationally representative datasets also lends support for the main hypothesis: that a strong sense of social belonging might be a protective factor that enables students to persist and thrive in college,” said Maithreyi Gopalan, assistant professor of education in the Department of Education Policy Studies in Penn State’s College of Education and Social Science Research Institute cofunded faculty member.
Gopalan’s research team, led by Mary Murphy, the Herman B Wells Professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Indiana University, recently published a paper, “A customized belonging intervention improves retention of socially disadvantaged students at a broad-access university” in Science Advances. The paper describes a three-year study longitudinal intervention field experiment, in which 1,063 first-year students at a large, urban, broad-access university in the Midwest were randomized to treatment or control exercises during one class session of an institutionally required, first-year writing course in their second semester in college.
According to Gopalan, the broad-access, Hispanic-serving institution was selected for the study mainly because the researchers were interested in comparing the results to those of similar, previous interventions that were administered at highly selective universities. The treatment was theorized to be especially effective for structurally disadvantaged students — in this case, for Black, Latinx, and Native American students, and first-generation students of any racial-ethnic background — whose groups have been historically excluded from American higher education and thus reasonably face greater belonging concerns in college. The earlier studies in the highly selective institutions demonstrated that the intervention was powerful in promoting a sense of belonging among students.
“We wanted to see if it would have a similar impact on students who are disadvantaged structurally in other contexts as well,” she said.
During the 50-minute social-belonging treatment exercise, students read stories written by upperclassmen about how they navigated the transition to college, how they perceived their sense of belonging on campus, as well as strategies they offered to improve outcomes. The intent of the writings, Gopalan said, was to convey that “sense of belonging is something that happens over time” and that students shouldn’t blame themselves if they struggle during transition. Additionally, students in the treatment condition wrote letters to future students offering strategies to navigate college.
The treatment was compared to a placebo control exercise as well as two additional cohorts of students who took the first-year writing course the year before and the year after the study was conducted (where no social belonging exercise was included in the curriculum).
To measure the treatment’s impact on college persistence, the researchers assessed continuous enrollment records gathered from the university for two years post-intervention. They also conducted daily diary surveys for nine days after the intervention and conducted a one-year follow-up survey to assess how the intervention affected students’ psychological experiences.
“We were able to compare students assigned to the belonging condition versus those in the control condition and we found that (the treatment) has an impact on their persistence,” Gopalan said.
After analyzing the data, the researchers found that the intervention improved college persistence by 10% one-year post-intervention (from 76% to 86%) and 9% two years post-intervention (from 64% to 73%) for Black, Latinx, Native American and first-generation students.
Examining the long-term psychological and academic outcomes of the intervention, the researchers found that “structurally disadvantaged students in the treatment condition experienced greater feelings that they fit in socially and academically in college one year later and this explained their increased college persistence two years later.” On the other hand, there were no consistent effects for continuing-generation white students. Additionally, the intervention decreased the number of structurally disadvantaged students in the bottom 10% of their class.
While the results of the intervention for college persistence were promising, Gopalan said, the study does have limitations.
First, the researchers were not able to assess effects on graduation rates due to lack of data availability. She suggested that future research should explore those key college success outcomes.
In addition, Gopalan emphasized that the intervention will not work everywhere since psychological interventions critically depend on the context in which they are implemented. While in the process of customizing the belonging intervention, the researchers sought to understand the barriers that prevented broad-access university students from acclimating to their environments. One of their discoveries was that 80% of students at this particular university commute to campus and thus don’t have the same opportunities for socializing and engaging in extracurricular activities as students who live on campus. Additionally, many of the students had work and family obligations outside of college, and struggled to achieve work-life and work-school balance.
“It’s not a one-size-fits -all intervention that can just be applied to other universities, but it has to be specifically targeted toward the barriers that students in broad-access universities face,” she said.
One of the reasons the intervention generated positive results, Gopalan said, is that this particular university had “a lot of institutional support to actually implement some of these policies.” In institutions where the necessary structural factors to help students belong on campus don’t exist, the same types of interventions might not help.
“Institutions really do have to provide resources for students to integrate on campus to ensure they feel like they are supported and that they can succeed in college,” she said.
One of the main takeaways from the study, Gopalan said, is that education researchers have had a somewhat lopsided focus on elite institutions. Broad-access institutions, which include four-year universities as well as community colleges, not only provide educational opportunities to students from a wide variety of socioeconomic backgrounds but also are “important drivers of local economies.”
“I think the role that broad-access institutions play in democratizing education is really important and I think research and policy should focus a lot on these institutions as well,” she said.