A ‘sense of belonging’ found to be crucial to campus diversity

A sense of belonging, says author Terrell Strayhorn, “has a powerful influence.”

The numbers Dr. Terrell L. Strayhorn points to are stark and, at the very least, troubling.

Here’s just one example: Of the 18 million college students in the United States today, only about 3 percent are African-American men. Of those, a disproportionate amount attend nonselective institutions.

Since 2006, Strayhorn has been investigating diversity and inclusion in higher education, producing dozens of studies funded by the Department of Education, the National Science Foundation, Ohio State University and the University of Tennessee.

No matter his starting point — from LGBT groups to Latino men — Strayhorn found his research pointing to a crucial theme: the deeply ingrained desire of students to simply feel that they belong in their college environment.

This month Routledge will publish Strayhorn’s “College Students’ Sense of Belonging: A Key to Educational Success for All Students,” a comprehensive look at what is perhaps the most significant factor in educational diversity.

“This is not an esoteric construct just for college students. In fact, this a basic need that is expressed by Maslow. We really can’t access higher order needs, like love and affection, without feeling this sense of belonging,” says Strayhorn, from his office at the University of Ohio. “We’ve always thought of this as a kind of soft variable that you can’t really measure, but I argue it can be measured quite consistently. And, when it is measured, it has a powerful influence on the kinds of outcomes all of us care about.”

Strayhorn also argues that, largely, institutions have attempted to address this issue with ineffective, overly broad programs.

“This data gives me an opportunity to speak to the educational community: If our national imperative is to have more people get in and out of college, then we have to be very intentional about providing the kind of support students need,” says Strayhorn. “That’s not a broad-based one-shot approach. It needs to be specifically targeted.”


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