New and huge experiment shows an effective way to make more college students stay in school by working on belonging

This interesting study uses over 26000 students, showing that a simple intervention brief online intervention can have a positive impact.

The intervention was designed to remedy students’ concerns about belonging through a reading-and-writing activity that emphasized how worries about fitting in, struggling in class, and feeling homesick during the college transition are common and improve over time. They found that the intervention improved retention and persistence in school, particularly among historically underrepresented students, when the school context offered students opportunities to belong. The findings have policy implications for academic institutions that strive to better support and retain diverse students.

From the press release:

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.

Abstract of the study:

A promising way to mitigate inequality is by addressing students’ worries about belonging. But where and with whom is this social-belonging intervention effective? Here we report a team-science randomized controlled experiment with 26,911 students at 22 diverse institutions. Results showed that the social-belonging intervention, administered online before college (in under 30 minutes), increased the rate at which students completed the first year as full-time students, especially among students in groups that had historically progressed at lower rates. The college context also mattered: The intervention was effective only when students’ groups were afforded opportunities to belong. This study develops methods for understanding how student identities and contexts interact with interventions. It also shows that a low-cost, scalable intervention generalizes its effects to 749 4-year institutions in the United States.

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