Thwarting the Temptation to Leave College: An Examination of Engagement’s Impact on College Sense of Belonging among Students of Color

Joseph A Kitchen, Michael S. Williams
Journal for the Study of Postsecondary and Tertiary Education  •  Volume 4  •  2019  •  pp. 067-084

Persistence rates among Black and Latinx students continue to fall behind those of their White peers. One way to address this issue is to promote a stronger college sense of belonging. While student involvement has been linked to sense of belonging, postsecondary institutions need to seriously reflect on, and recommit to, their own role in engaging Black and Latinx students to promote their sense of belonging, a strong correlate of persistence and college completion.

A sense of belonging has been linked to college success, including student persistence. One potential way to promote a sense of belonging among Black and Latinx students is through student engagement. This paper examines the relationship between student engagement and college sense of belonging among a national sample of 10,475 Black and Latinx students. Guided by student engagement theory, we parse out the role of student involvement and institutional engagement to examine the unique and net impact of each facet of engagement as it relates to college sense of belonging among Black and Latinx students.

This study employs hierarchical linear regression modeling to examine the unique and net impact of two facets of student engagement: (a) student involvement, and (b) institutional engagement, as each relates to college sense of belonging among a national sample of 10,475 Black and Latinx students.

This paper contributes to scholarship on persistence, engagement, and belonging among Black and Latinx students. Guided by engagement theory, the study takes a nuanced view of student engagement that acknowledges the role of student involvement, and critically, examines the role of institutional engagement in terms of variance explained in sense of belonging among Black and Latinx students. Consistent with calls from the literature, this study provides an empirical examination that recognizes institutional responsibility for promoting a sense of belonging among Black and Latinx students, who are often marginalized in higher education, rather than placing the onus on the students alone.

Overall, student engagement explains 18% of variance in sense of belonging among Black and Latinx students, controlling for a range of student characteristics. Student involvement explains a significant amount of variance above and beyond student background characteristics alone. Institutional engagement explains unique variance in belonging above and beyond student involvement alone, and it has the largest impact on sense of belonging of any variable in our models.

Administrators, practitioners, and leadership at postsecondary institutions should acknowledge their central role in engaging Black and Latinx students. Institutions should seek out ways to communicate the resources, support, and involvement opportunities they offer through appropriate venues such as minority student and allied organizations, cultural events, and by working with existing networks of minorities on campus. Increased efforts on the part of institutions to have a broader and more inclusive reach to engage their students may communicate to students that they matter and the institution cares about their success—leading to a greater sense of belonging. Findings from this study suggest there may be ways for students and university staff to collaborate on student success to promote desirable student outcomes like sense of belonging.

The results provide evidence for the utility of a multidimensional conceptual or theoretical model in research that parses out involvement, engagement, and sense of belonging as independent constructs and specifies the relationship between each construct. It also calls attention to the important role of institutional support and engagement as a means of promoting sense of belonging among Black and Latinx students, and supports shifting the onus of engagement and belonging away from the student alone and toward institutions and their practices. Researchers should continue to explore how to promote belonging through different facets of engagement, and acknowledge the role of the institution in promoting belonging.

This paper contributes to addressing seemingly intractable gaps in college persistence rates among Black and Latinx students and their White counterparts. Specifically, it contributes to an understanding of practices and policies to promote sense of belonging through student engagement to reap associated benefits such as college persistence and completion. Closing the persistence and completion gaps among student racial/ethnic groups can contribute to greater educational equity and in turn greater societal equity.

Future research should continue to parse out student involvement, institutional engagement, and sense of belonging as distinct constructs when examining the relationship between student engagement and belonging. The present study demonstrates the merit to this approach, permitting the researcher to determine the unique and combined influence of each element of engagement on belonging that would have otherwise been obscured if treated as a single construct. Adopting this approach also offered insight into the specific facets of engagement that appear to impact belonging for Black and Latinx students instead of a monolithic treatment of student involvement or engagement, allowing for a more nuanced understanding.

Black and Latinx students, sense of belonging, college student engagement
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