For the last few years we’ve been talking a lot about our students’ “sense of belonging” after seeing some troubling differences between various student types. Although the overall scores might seem pretty good, stark differences between black and white students suggest a disturbing problem. Looking deeper, we found that hispanic male students also indicate a notably lower sense of belonging. We’ve since found indications that low-income students, first generation students, and lesser academically prepared students can exhibit signs of a lower sense of belonging as well.
Although this news has been tough to swallow, I’ve been really proud of the way that our whole community has committed to making Augustana a more inclusive place. This is a critical first step that shouldn’t go unnoticed, since there are lots of examples of places that have responded to this kind of sobering news by sticking their proverbial head in the sand (or snow, as the case may be). But finding answers to this challenge is complicated. None of our students fit into neat little exclusive categories like hispanic or low-income or first-generation or male. Instead, every student possesses some mix of characteristics that, taken together, uniquely affect the way that they experience Augustana. So improving any student’s sense of belonging means that we need to know a lot more about the perceptions that lie beneath this more general malaise.
Last spring several of my students and I decided to see if we could figure out a bit more about those underlying perceptions. Although there are probably lots of ways to tackle this challenge, after digging into the relevant research my student-workers and I decided to build a set of survey items derived from research on a concept called microaggressions. In short, microaggressions are expressions that communicate animus, aversion, or disregard toward someone specifically because of that person’s membership in a marginalized group. They can be verbal or nonverbal and are sometimes intentional and sometimes not. Although there are some legitimate critiques of the applications of the microaggression construct, this taxonomy of microaggressions provided a useful framework that aptly applied to our project. After testing and tweaking these items with a small group of students, we plugged them into the freshman survey that went out at the end of last year’s spring term. Each item was accompanied by five response options ranging from strongly disagree to strongly agree. The final list of survey items were:
- I can learn anything if I set my mind to it.
- I have to work harder to fit in at Augustana than most students.
- People on this campus believe that I am just as capable as everyone else.
- People on this campus believe that everyone has the same chance of making the most of their college career as long as they work hard.
- I’ve gotten better at bouncing back after facing disappointment or failure.
- Augustana students recognize discrimination when it happens on campus.
- People on this campus seem to feel uneasy or nervous around me.
- People on this campus do not seem to acknowledge the characteristics that make me different.
- People at Augustana tend to assume that I come from a different culture.
- More than once students on campus have made inappropriate comments or demeaning jokes about me or the group to which I belong.
- Students at Augustana often make assumptions about me based on the way I look and dress.
- More than once I have felt overlooked when trying to interact with faculty or staff.
Our first clue that we might be on to something came when we tested the correlations between each of these items and sense of belonging. In all but one case (“I can learn anything if I set my mind to it.”), the correlations were statistically significant and in several cases intriguingly large. (For all you stats nerds out there, by “intriguingly large” I mean approximately .3 and .4 or -.3 and -.4 depending on the phrasing of the item). Then, when we ran more elaborate regression equations that took into account race, gender, incoming ACT score, socioeconomic status, and first-generation status, we found that 10 of the 12 hypothesized sense-of-belonging predictors (all of the above items except “I can learn anything if I set my mind to it” and “People at Augustana tend to assume that I come from a different culture”) produced statistically significant results in the direction that we would expect. In other words, most of these items appear to capture some of the perceptions that underlie a reduced sense of belonging and, consequently, might also give us some hints about the ways that we could bolster sense of belonging among students who lack it.
Lastly, we noticed a curious pattern in our regression equations. In 7 of the 12 equations, race (coded as white/non-white) produced a statistically significant effect, and, in all 12 equations socioeconomic status (coded as receiving a Pell grant or not) produced a statistically significant effect. In other words, race and socioeconomic status consistently play a critical role in shaping a student’s sense of belonging even after accounting for each individual predictor above. So we conducted one more set of analyses to identify the items that might be most prominent in shaping sense of belonging for different types of students.
Although I’ll summarize what we found below, I’ve added a link to the full table of results testing differences by gender, race, socioeconomic status, first-generation status, and incoming ACT score (for clarity’s sake we compared the bottom third against the top third of incoming ACT scores). We’ve included the items where the difference between the two groups was statistically significant as well as the two instances where the difference was just a hair above the p=.05 threshold.
In essence, we found that differences on various items appear between groups across all of the pairings that we tested. In many cases, the differences played out as we would expect. Students of color exhibited disadvantaging self-perceptions on numerous items, particularly items addressing the assumptions (be they perceived or real) that others make about them. Students with lower incoming ACT scores also exhibited a number of disadvantaging self-perceptions. Moreover, “I have to work harder to fit in at Augustana than most students” and “People on this campus seem to feel uneasy or nervous around me” produced statistically significant differences across multiple pairings.
Interestingly, some results challenged prior applications of microaggression theory. For example, the differences between men and women clearly suggested that men potentially suffer from several disadvantaging perceptions. Contrary to the prevailing assertion that women would be the ones to exhibit lower self-perceptions, men scored lower on four items, most notably, “People on this campus believe that I am just as capable as everyone else” and “People on this campus believe that everyone has the same chance of making the most of their college career as long as they work hard.” And although students of color scored lower on a host of items than their white counterparts, they did score higher on the item, “I can learn almost anything if I set my mind to it.”
So what are we to do with all of this? Clearly, this analysis seems to suggest some useful hints about the types of students who might be susceptible to a lesser sense of belonging as well as some hints about ways that we could validate their membership in our community. For example, for students who might feel like they have to work harder to fit in, we can take the time to explain that with regard to academics, developing a robust workrate is a vital precursor to a successful life and if a students already finds themselves increasingly working hard, this may well mean that they are further along than many of their peers. Conversely, if their sense of working harder to fit in relates to their social integration, then we might just have carved out an opening to the kind of conversation or referral that could address this concern. I suspect that some reflection on each of the items noted in the full table might generate additional ideas about how to help students who find themselves wondering if they really belong.
One other implication of these findings seems worth noting. Much of the research on microaggressions has argued that evidence of differences in self-perceptions on items like these is likely, or even necessarily, evidence of discriminatory behaviors or beliefs on the part of members of the pairing who scored higher on that item. In some cases, maybe. But it seems that the pervasiveness of differences that we found across all of these pairings suggests that the factors contributing to a lack of belonging can’t be solely attributed to verbal and nonverbal, intentional and inadvertent slights, snubs, or insults. It’s likely much more complicated than that. It seems to me that this taxonomy of microaggressions is more useful in guiding the way that we might build up someone’s sagging sense of belonging than it is in forcing an interaction to be perpetually framed within the confines of a target/victim label. Intent is a dicey thing to presume, and although we certainly want to help our students understand the implications of their words, arguing about the intentions of another seems likely to become an unresolveable errand after which there is little chance of learning the greater lesson.
As educators, we are always striving for two simultaneous results:
- to foster an ideal learning environment in the present, and
- to prepare our students to succeed no matter what life throws at them in the future.
While we absolutely want every student to feel a similarly robust sense of belonging, and while we certainly want every student to feel a similarly minimal set of inferiorities and anxieties, I wonder whether we could ever achieve an ideal learning environment without moments of interactive difficulty that spawn feelings of self-doubt and uncertainty. In the Wabash National Study of Liberal Arts Education, we saw that institutions where students’ intercultural skills grew the most also reported higher frequencies of positive and negative diverse interactions. Certainly we will always need to teach students to think carefully about the import of their words, but I hope we can remember to balance our efforts to support our students in the midst of their hurt or offense with equal efforts to push, prod, and persuade our students to grow in the presence of difficulty. It would be in those moments that, when we support and challenge, we will most fully accomplish our educational mission.
Make it a good day . . . and a good holiday break,