Improving Student Retention, Engagement and Belonging

Nov 13th, 2018 | Category: Research in Education, Secondary Education
By Elizabeth Owolabi

One of the major challenges currently facing higher education is student attrition. The United States has the highest college attrition rate among the world’s most developed nations. The U.S. is falling behind in educational attainment and achievement at a time when education is critical for upward mobility (Harvard Graduate School of Education, 2011; O’Keeffe, 2013). College graduation rate is at an all-time low in the United States. “…About 60 percent of students who began seeking a bachelor’s degree at a 4-year institution in fall 2010 completed that degree within 6 years; the 6-year graduation rate was higher for females than for males (63 vs. 57 percent)” (National Center for Education Statistics [NCES], 2018, “Undergraduate retention and graduation rates,” para. 1).

Highly selective institutions tend to have higher graduation rates. There are differences in graduation rates based on institution classification: public, private-nonprofit, and private-for-profit institutions. The institution’s admission policy also has an effect on graduation and retention rates. For example:

…The 6-year graduation rate was 59 percent at public institutions, 66 percent at private nonprofit institutions, and 26 percent at private for-profit institutions. The 6-year graduation rate was 63 percent for females and 57 percent for males; it was higher for females than for males at both public (62 vs. 56 percent) and private nonprofit (68 vs. 63 percent) institutions. However, at private for-profit institutions, males had a higher 6-year graduation rate than females (28 vs. 23 percent). (NCES, 2018, “Undergraduate retention and graduation rates,” para. 6).

Historically, individuals from low socio-economic strata, marginalized groups, and racial minorities have not had equal access to higher education. This has changed significantly as federal student loans and financial aid have become more readily available to diverse student populations. As access to higher education improves; retention and graduation have become critical challenges facing higher-education institutions. A large number of American students are leaving college without completing their degrees, and many of them have accumulated huge student loans. Scholars in the field have argued that the society as a whole has done a better job of opening up access to higher education but collectively, we have not paid enough attention to student success and retention. To fully reap the benefits of open access, access has to be met with success. As Strayhorn (2015) indicated, “Access without success is useless, but access with success is everything” (p. 58).

Federal and State Completion Agenda

America is losing its competitive advantage of having the most-educated workforce in the world. We were once a world leader in the proportion of our population between the ages of twenty-four and thirty-five holding a college certificate or bachelor’s degree, but this is no longer the case. Many countries are catching up and America is now lagging behind other countries in educational attainment. According to the World Top 20 Project (2018), in 2017, U.S. ranked 16th out of 209 countries around the world. In his remarks on education reform, former President Barack Obama, argued that “America cannot lead in the 21st century unless we have the best educated, most competitive workforce in the world” (Obama, 2009, “Remarks on education reform,” para. 4). He urged Americans to once again take the lead in higher education attainment. In the past decade, there were policy initiatives from the U.S. government and the state government to increase degree and certificate completion and job placement, with special attention to the fast-growing first-generation, under-represented, and economically-disadvantaged populations.

The federal/state governments and accrediting bodies now require higher- education institutions to ascertain quality and ensure that students persist through college and can earn their degrees. Setting reasonable and ambitious goals to move students toward degree completion is one of the criteria for accreditation by most regional accreditors. For example, the Higher Learning Commission (HLC) Criterion 4.C. reviews whether institutions demonstrate “…a commitment to educational improvement through ongoing attention to retention, persistence, and completion rates in its degree and certificate programs” (HLC, 2018, “Criterion 4. Teaching and learning: evaluation and improvement,” para. 4). State governments collect longitudinal data and student-unit records to inform policy decisions on their completion agenda. Again, the need for degree completion is evident as half of the fastest-growing occupations in America require a Bachelor’s degree or more (Tinto, 2012). Consequently, young adults without an earned college degree are at a disadvantage to compete in the job market. Furthermore, earning a 4-year college degree is a path to upward mobility, higher socio-economic strata, and access to prestigious positions within society (Bowen, Kurzweil, & Tobin, 2005; Tinto, 2012).

High student-attrition rates do have negative financial implications for higher-education institutions that are tuition dependent. Institutional survival is now contingent upon the number of students that successfully complete their degrees. As Tinto (2012) observed, “some institutions, primarily the smaller tuition-driven colleges, have teetered on the brink of financial collapse. Indeed, many have closed their doors in recent years with many more predicted to follow suit” (p. 2).

Student enrollment remains a challenge in higher education, which also has implications for student retention. Higher-education enrollment has been on the decline. Enrollment tends to vary by the type of institution and by the institutions’ admission policies and selectivity. Highly-selective higher-education institutions have always experienced huge increases in student enrollment while smaller tuition-driven colleges and universities are experiencing a significant drop in enrollment of traditional undergraduate students (Tinto, 2012). As institutions experience low student enrollment from their homogenous feeder high schools, they have changed their recruitment strategies to include huge marketing campaigns with minority and underserved populations. They have also intensified their recruitment efforts, which have resulted in minimal increases in overall student enrollment. These have resulted in more diverse student bodies which are comprised of first generation students, racial minorities, women, and students from low socio-economic strata.

Differences in Retention by Student Population

Open access means the college population is becoming more diverse. Heisserer and Parette (2002) identified ethnic-minority students, academically-disadvantaged students, students with disabilities, students from low socio-economic strata, and probationary students as being at risk of non-completion of their degrees. Collier and Morgan (2008) argued that first-generation college students need to be included in the at-risk student populations. In general, the term “first generation” is used to describe college students for which neither parent has completed a four-year higher-education degree. These students are the first in their families to attend a four-year college/university to earn a bachelor’s degree.

Some of the first-generation students may not be as successful as their counterparts because they do not have parents at home with college experience who can provide advice and support on how to navigate the terrains of higher education. Also, some of the minority students or students from low-socio-economic backgrounds may not be well prepared for college and may face academic challenges as a result. Some could become trapped in a continuous cycle of developmental education without any opportunity for academic success or progress toward credit-bearing courses. When students from underserved populations are faced with these obstacles in the first year of college, they may have a negative perception of themselves. Some even doubt their decision to attend college and their own ability to succeed. All they need at that period of self-doubt is confirmation from faculty or institution staff that they don’t fit in or they don’t belong or they don’t matter, and they will give themselves the permission to quit.

Tinto (2012) observed that the largest proportion of institutional leaving occurs in the first year and prior to the beginning of the second year. The first year of college is considered the most vulnerable period in a student’s academic career because students are making a transition from home to college for the first time. During this period, the majority of the students are separated from their parents and are coping with their new lives as young adults, making decisions for themselves. Integration into the social fabric of the institution may also be a challenge during this first year (Lee, Olson, Locke, & Michelson, 2009). There is a higher likelihood of degree completion for students who persisted beyond the first year of college.

New Perspectives to Improve Student Persistence and Completion

Tinto presented two perspectives on student retention: the institutional and the student perspectives. He argued that for several years student retention was viewed from an institutional perspective with an emphasis on actions that institutions can take to retain their students. He further argued that “students, however, do not seek to be retained. They seek to persist” (Tinto, 2016, para. 1). While there is a relationship between these two perspectives, they are not the same. In order to promote student success, institutions have to look at retention from the students’ perspective. Students’ ultimate goal is to earn a college degree without any regard to the institution in which it is earned. The responsibility of the college or university is to ensure that students persist to earn that college degree. Persistence from the students’ viewpoint requires effort and motivation even when faced with what appear to be unsurmountable challenges.

The institution’s capacity to affirm, encourage, and provide appropriate support to ethnic-minority students, students with disabilities, students from low socio-economic strata, probationary students, and first-generation students may increase students’ ability to persevere against all odds. A number of researchers claim that social isolation in school is more strongly associated with low academic interest for ethnic-minority students than ethnic-minority students admitted (Walton & Cohen, 2007; Zirkel, 2004).

Walton and Cohen conducted two experiments on how a belonging-uncertainty, a sense of not knowing where one fits in, undermines the motivation and achievement of people whose group is negatively characterized in academic settings. “The intervention aimed to lessen psychological perceptions of threat on campus by framing social adversity as common and transient” (Walton & Cohen, 2011, p. 1447). They observed that the intervention buffered African-American students’ sense of fit against academic adversity, “it raised African Americans grade-point average (GPA) relative to multiple control groups and halved the minority achievement gap…It prevented students from seeing adversity on campus as an indictment of their belonging” (Walton & Cohen, 2011, p. 1447).

The capacity of universities to increase degree completion is contingent on the increase in the number of students who want to persist to completion. If universities successfully meet student’s needs for social and intellectual growth, retention will be a natural outcome of those institutional efforts. This will require institutions to understand how student experiences on campus shape their motivation to persist. There are effective strategies that institutions can use to enhance student motivation. For example, higher-education institutions can be more intentional in developing inclusive programs that lessen the impact of social isolation and loneliness.

In his most recent writing, Tinto (2016) identified students’ self-efficacy, sense of belonging, and perceived value of the curriculum as factors that can influence student motivation to persist. Yamauchi, Taira & Trevorrow’s review of over ten years of research indicated that “academic and social engagement had indirect effects on student persistence through institutional commitment…” (Yamauchi, Taira & Trevorrow, 2016, p. 460). These authors argued that engagement is related to persistence, retention, and grades. It is key for all student learning and especially for culturally-diverse students without role models. These scholars emphasized dual responsibility for student engagement, namely at the student level and at the institutional level. Students have the responsibility to be engaged in meaningful activities. Institutions, on the other hand, have the responsibility to provide activities that will engage those students (Harper & Quaye, 2007; Pascarella & Terenzini, 2005; Quaye, Griffin, & Museus, 2015).

Student Engagement

The majority of higher-education institutions in the U.S. and Canada administer the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) annually to first-year and senior students on college campuses. The survey measures the extent to which students are engaged in and are exposed to proven educational practices that correspond to desired learning outcomes. Institutions use the data to improve undergraduate education. As NSSE (2018) articulated:

Student engagement represents two critical features of collegiate quality. The first is the amount of time and effort students put into their studies and other educationally purposeful activities. The second is how the institution deploys its resources and organizes the curriculum and other learning opportunities to get students to participate in activities that decades of research studies show are linked to student learning. (NSSE, 2018, para. 1).

Student Engagement and Retention

A true measure of learning is what students know and are able to do. Kuh et al. (2005) claimed that “what students do during college counts more for what they learn and whether they will persist in college than who they are or even where they go to college” (p. 8). A number of researchers have indicated that the time and effort students devote to their studies and other educationally purposeful activities is a predictor of their learning and personal development (Pace, 1980; Pascarella & Terenzini, 1991; 2005). Yamauchi, Tara & Trevorrow (2016) observed that engagement is related to important student outcomes such as persistence, retention, and grades. Their critical review of research findings affirmed that academic engagement and social engagement together had indirect effects on student persistence. Engagement is associated with the degree to which students were committed to staying at a particular school (Pascarella & Terenzini, 2005). Carini (2012) identified the following dimensions of engagement: behavioral investment, cognitive investment, emotional investment, and social investment. Behavioral engagement consists of actions students take on their part to foster their own learning such as coming to class and completing assignments. Cognitive engagement is described as the students paying attention and problem solving. Emotional engagement is the interest and enthusiasm students show for the task at hand. Social engagement is the feeling of being connected to classmates and teachers and a sense of being in a supportive campus environment. According to the National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine (2004), students tend to view the curriculum as relevant when they have emotional engagement. This could mean that emotional engagement is essential before cognitive engagement is possible. It is critical that schools address the needs and interests of their students. Students will devote time and energy to learn new materials that they have considered relevant and that meet their needs and interests (Tinto, 2016).

Research has shown that student experiences on campus (social and academic adjustment) were related to a student’s decision to persist at the university (Woosley, 2003). Other researchers have provided evidence that commitment to the university and involvement in campus activities (social and academic) are strongly related to retention (Astin, 1984, Beil, Reisen, Zea, & Caplan, 1999; Cadet, 2008; Milem & Berger, 1997, Mutter, 1992). Social interactions with their peers, contacts with faculty, and perceived value of the quality of their academic experiences are indicators of whether students will persist at that institution. It will be difficult for a student to depart from an institution after spending a considerable amount of time there (Astin, 1984).

Scholars in the field have suggested that there is a dual responsibility for engagement and retention (Tinto, 2016). In this case, students have a responsibility to be engaged in meaningful activities and the university has a responsibility to provide activities that will engage them. It is imperative that institutions provide learning opportunities that are relevant, meaningful, and meet the needs and interests of the students. When students are emotionally engaged, they tend to have a positive view of the curriculum. Engagement also includes the ways in which the institution allocates resources and organizes learning opportunities and services to induce students to participate in and benefit from such activities (Kuh et al., 2005). Quaye, Griffin, and Museus (2015) advocated that educators need to shift their pedagogical practices to match the needs of students of color who are often required to assimilate in predominantly white institutions. Engaging students in purposeful learning activities will improve retention and lead to higher graduation rates. The best-known engagement indicators as described in the “Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education” include: student-faculty contact, cooperation among students, active learning, prompt feedback, time on task, high expectations, respect for diverse talents and ways of learning (Chickering & Gamson, 1987). Other researchers have also provided evidence on the impact of sense of belonging on student success and retention (Strayhorn, 2012; Tinto, 2016).

Sense of Belonging

Abraham Maslow (1954), in his explanation of basic human needs, affirmed that people are generally motivated to fulfill basic physiological needs for food and shelter, as well as those of safety, love/belonging, and esteem. All people have an innate desire for self-actualization which is a desire to fulfill one’s individual potential. However, this level of need can only be attained after lower-level needs for food and shelter, love and belonging have been met. The ultimate goal of education is to inspire students to self-actualize and strive to reach their full potential. The highest level of need on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is attainable if all other lower-level needs have been met. According to Maslow (1962) all people share a strong need to belong.

There are various definitions of belonging. Strayhorn defines sense of belonging as:…a basic human need and motivation, sufficient to influence behavior…students’ perceived social support on campus, a feeling or sensation of connectedness, the experience of mattering or feeling cared about, accepted, respected, valued by, and important to the group (e.g., campus community) or others on campus (e.g., faculty, peers). It’s a cognitive evaluation that typically leads to an affective response or behavior. (Strayhorn, 2012, p. 3)

In the literature, sense of belonging is often associated with “sense of community.” McMillan and Chavis (1986) define belonging as “a feeling that members matter to one another and to the group, and a shared faith that members’ needs will be met through their commitment to be together” (p. 9). In a similar sense, Goodenow (1993a) defines sense of belonging as “students’ sense of being accepted, valued, included, and encouraged by others (teachers and peers) in the academic classroom setting and of feeling oneself to be an important part of the life and activity of the class” (p. 25). In an earlier study, Strayhorn (2008) viewed sense of belonging as relational:

Sense of belonging consists of both cognitive and affective elements. An individual assesses his/her position or role in relation to the group (cognitive), which, in turn, results in a response, behavior, or outcome (affective). Sense of belonging, then, reflects the extent to which students feel connected, a part of, or stuck to a campus… for example, some scholars measure sense of belonging as how much others would miss you if you went away (Rosenberg & McCullough, 1981, as cited in Strayhorn, 2008, p. 505).

Sense of belonging is also a sense of fitting in; being part of a group, a community, membership in an organization with acceptance from other members of the group. Strayhorn (2012) observed that college students stress the importance of social acceptance, support, community connections, and respect to their own identity, well-being and academic success. Sense of belonging is so important that it is literally a matter of life and death for some students. Strayhorn (2012) in his review of the literature identified seven core elements of sense of belonging which are summarized below:

Core Elements of the Sense of Belonging

Sense of belonging is a basic human need.
Using Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, Strayhorn (2012) explained how important belonging is to all human beings. First the basic need for food and shelter have to be met before belonging, esteem and self-actualization, the highest level in the hierarchy of needs. If goals of the middle motivations, like sense of belonging are not met, the higher-order needs such as self-actualization, which is the ultimate goal of higher education, cannot be met. Strayhorn argued that sense of belonging is a basic human need and, is also a basic need for college students. Belonging is critical to a sense of self and crucial for meeting the higher-order needs like knowledge, understanding, and self-actualization. Students cannot experience higher-order needs until the need for sense of belonging has been met.

Sense of belonging is a fundamental motive, sufficient to drive
human behavior.

All of us yearn to belong, which is the motive behind our actions, and the reason that we act in certain ways. Some have joined churches, the military, girl’s/boy’s scouts, peace corps. While some of these actions and behaviors may be prosocial, others are antisocial. “In their desperation or longing to belong…, to feel worthwhile, some impressionable youth may join a gang…” (Clark, 1992, p. 289). Strayhorn (2012) explained that the drive to belong is so powerful that it keeps people in bad romantic relationships that may even be toxic to their own existence. People stay in such relationships because “all people want to feel cared about, needed, valued, and somewhat indispensable as the object of someone else’s affection…” (p. 19). In educational settings, “the need to belong can drive students to or against academic achievement norms.” (Strayhorn, 2012, p. 19). Brilliant female students may underperform in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) to fit in with other girls. In their need to belong, students may dis-associate “…with adults and achieving peers in schools, and consequently satisfy their need to belong by affiliating with those who promised them security, community and support in exchange for their commitment to anti-academic values” (Strayhorn, 2012, p. 19).

Sense of belonging takes on heightened importance in certain contexts, at certain times, and among certain populations.
In certain contexts, sense of belonging becomes very important when one is “a newcomer to an otherwise established group” (Strayhorn, 2012, p. 20). It is quite challenging for newcomers to become fully accepted and integrated into an established group because it is human nature to be clannish and tribal and view others as outsiders. Hence the heightened need for belonging for individuals in a new context. Sense of belonging is also important at “late adolescence when individuals begin to consider who they are (or wish to be), with whom they belong, and where they intend to invest their time and energies” (Chickerings & Reisser, 1993; Sanford, 1962 as cited in Strayhorn, 2012, p. 20). Also, it is critical among certain populations especially those that have been marginalized (Goodenow, 1993a).

In the context of a department or classroom, sense of belonging has the greatest influence on outcomes (e.g., adjustment to college or achievement in college). Goodenow (1993b) argued that issues of inclusion and belonging can predominate to a point that “until members resolve where they stand in a particular social setting they face difficulty in attending to the official tasks at hand” (p. 88). Strayhorn (2012) applied this same concept to higher education and argued “that college students face serious difficulty in attending to the tasks at hand (studying, learning, retaining) until they resolve one of their most fundamental needs – a need to belong” (p. 20).

Sense of belonging is related to, and seemingly a consequence
of, mattering.

Schlossberg (1985) defines mattering as “feeling that one matters, is valued or appreciated by others.” Rosenberg and McCullough (1981) identified five dimensions of mattering a) attention (noticed in positive ways, commands interest), b) importance (cared about, special, object of another’s concern) c) dependence (feeling needed, reciprocity, d) appreciated (feeling respected) e) ego extension (believing others share in one’s success).

Mattering emphasizes the relational aspect of sense of belonging. To meet the need to belong, an individual must feel respected, valued, appreciated and that someone cares about them, that he or she matters. This sense of belonging is what most families provide for their members and what others seek from social organizations and anti-social organizations.

Social identities intersect and affect college students’ sense of belonging.Strayhorn (2012) argued that although a sense of belonging is universal and all human beings have a need and desire to belong, individuals experience belonging in new and different ways based on their social identity as college students. “Social identities (e.g., race/ethnicity, gender, class, sexual orientation, religion) …intersect and often simultaneously affect college students’ sense of belonging.” Individuals may have to negotiate multiple dimensions of these identities (Asian male who is gay; Black woman who is from a working-class family). Each identity may send conflicting messages which must be negotiated for a successful outcome.

Sense of belonging engenders other positive outcomes.
There are some obvious benefits to satisfying the need for a sense of belonging. It leads to positive and prosocial outcomes such as engagement, achievement, wellbeing, happiness, and optimal functioning. Research has shown that sense of belonging in college influences persistence intentions. (Hausmann, Schofield, & Woods, 2007). Strayhorn (2012) urged higher-education institutions to create campus environments that foster sense of belonging so students feel connected with other students on campus. He believes once students establish a positive relationship with others on campus, it will be difficult for them to break such a relationship, and as such they may choose to continue their college career for the sake of the relationship.

Sense of belonging must be satisfied on a continual basis and changes as circumstances, conditions, and contexts change.
Sense of belonging is a basic human need and motivation which needs to be met on a continual basis. It is not static, it changes as circumstances and conditions change. Any disruption to one’s sense of belonging may have negative consequences and individuals may need to reengage in meaningful relationships or activities that foster a positive sense of belonging to feel connected to the community once again.


Higher-education institutions in the U.S. are experiencing challenges with student persistence and retention. As student enrollment declines, tuition-dependent institutions are recruiting from underserved populations who previously did not have easy access to higher education. Access to financial aid is making education more affordable for under-privileged students. Such improved access now means that more and more college students are ethnically diverse, first-generation students, and are from the lower socio-economic strata. Institutions are good at making education accessible, but that does not guarantee degree completion. Federal and state governments and regional accrediting bodies are now holding higher-education institutions accountable for degree completion to increase America’s competitive advantage.

Students who are ethnic minorities, academically disadvantaged, have disabilities, are from low socio-economic strata, and/or are first-generation college students are at risk for degree non-completion (Collier & Morgan, 2008; Heisserer & Parette, 2002). The capacity of universities to increase degree completion is contingent on what they do to ensure that more of their students want to persist to degree completion (Tinto, 2016). This requires institutions to understand how experiences on campus shape student motivation to persist and institutional understanding to enhance such student motivation. It is imperative that institutions take these differences into consideration in programming and provide additional support as needed so diverse groups of students feel a sense of belonging, and are supported in achieving their academic and professional goals. Students are motivated to learn, and succeed in their studies when they are in a supportive campus environment. Sense of belonging, students’ feeling of mattering, and their being able to count on the support of faculty and staff to meet their academic needs, social interests, and desires are all critical elements for fostering student success and student retention. LEJ


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Author Information

Elizabeth Owolabi, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Research and is the Director of Institutional Research at Concordia University Chicago. Her areas of expertise include research methods, assessment of student learning, program review and evaluation, organizational development and leadership, curriculum and instruction and adult education. Prior to CUC, Dr. Owolabi served at the University of Illinois, College of Lake County and Oakton Community College.