08/29/2023 • 5 min read

3 Dimensions That Heighten Belonging in Higher Ed

How schools can help students feel like they belong

by Haworth, Inc.

A college student who feels accepted, noticed, heard, respected, and appreciated in their campus community experiences a sense of belonging. That feeling can have a tremendous impact on their overall campus experience—socially, academically, and in the student’s future work.

The role of student belonging goes beyond the individual. The dynamics of belonging create mutual reinforcement for groups too. Whether as members of a class, social group, club, study group, or athletic team, people who feel they belong tend to contribute more across their campus experience. And when their contribution is accepted, the acceptance has a positive impact on the individual’s willingness to offer again. Belonging helps both individuals and groups thrive.

We’ve learned how higher education institutions can heighten the sense of belonging for students. The following discussion, based on research and insights from a panel of experts, outlines how to create campuses that contribute to students’ sense of belonging.

Our Panel of Higher Education Experts

For our recent expert series panel discussion on belonging in higher education, we tapped into the expertise of:

  • Kim Harrington, PhD – Executive Director for Student Engagement and Well-Being at Georgia Institute of Technology
  • Jody Jessup-Anger, PhD – Professor, Department Chair and Student Affairs in Higher Education Program Coordinator at Marquette University
  • Loren Rullman, PhD – Principal and Director of Higher Education for Workshop Architects

The 3 Dimensions of Belonging in Higher Ed

Student belonging exists in three dimensions: social, academic, and institutional. Jessup-Anger notes that belonging is highly individual to each campus. “It can’t be a one-size-fits-all approach.” she said. “What works at Georgia Tech doesn’t necessarily work at Marquette [University]. What works at Marquette doesn’t necessarily work at [the University of] Michigan.”

Still, all campuses can bolster students’ sense of belonging by cultivating the three dimensions. Let’s take a closer look at each.

1. The Social Dimension of Belonging

The social dimension makes students feel they have a community that would miss them if they weren’t there. Those students generally feel like they:

  • Have people who text them in the evening
  • Have people they can road trip with
  • Are a member of a team or club

2. The Academic Dimension of Belonging

The academic dimension shows students have what they need for academic success. This revolves around:

  • Relationships with faculty members
  • Comfort with asking questions, engaging in class, and interacting with other students
  • Feeling like they will be able to master the subject material

3. The Institutional Dimension of Belonging

For the institutional dimension of belonging, students often answer “yes” in response to this question: Do I feel this place belongs to me?

A student who feels a sense of belonging probably has shirts with the school logo. They feel pride in the school as well as the programs, services, staff, and facilities. They also feel that they can take advantage of all the benefits of being on campus.

“Belonging is important because we know that when students feel they belong and that they matter in a space, they're more likely to stay and persist and complete their degree.”

—Kim Harrington, PhD
Executive Director for Student Engagement and Well-Being, Georgia Institute of Technology 

Barriers to Student Belonging

Fostering a sense of belonging among students is not as simple as checking the boxes for the three dimensions. Rullman says colleges and universities must also overcome two key barriers that prevent students from feeling like they belong.

The first barrier is that students must be invited to join a group. Belonging has to be offered. They can’t just take it because they want it. They can’t pick and choose where they belong. Only groups, other individuals, and institutions have the power to offer belonging.

The second barrier, a big one for many students, is unmet basic needs.

It’s difficult for students to feel a sense of belonging if they’re hungry and don’t know where the next meal will come from. For students who lack housing and find themselves couch surfing, adequate rest is a challenge. Unmet financial needs also hinder a feeling of belonging in higher education. A student who doesn’t have childcare or gas money to get to school will have difficult time concentrating on schoolwork or connecting with classmates.

How Higher Ed Can Heighten Belonging in the 3 Dimensions

Members of our expert panel shared several ways that campuses can support belonging in each of the dimensions.

1. Heightening Belonging in the Social Dimension

In the social dimension, a school’s orientation program can be designed to connect people and enhance a sense of belonging, Rullman says.

To further support the social dimension of belonging, he says it’s important to have spaces that create “social collisions” where people can meet friends and make new acquaintances. Student centers, cafés, study lounges, and libraries are campus spaces that can be designed to facilitate spontaneous interactions. Students frequently cross paths and mingle, which helps form new social connections and friendships.

2. Heightening Belonging in the Academic Dimension

Schools can broadly address the academic dimension by asking, “Do our students have everything they need to succeed academically?”

According to Rullman, academic factors that contribute to a sense of belonging include:

  • Well-trained tutors and advisors that help students develop competence and confidence to achieve academic mastery
  • Internships that connect with what students learn in class
  • Recognition of a student’s whole self through proper pronunciation of names and the use of preferred pronouns

3. Heightening Belonging in the Institutional Dimension

“Students want to be in facilities that really speak to them,” Jessup-Anger said. “[They want to] feel like they can find small niches to study in and places to socialize. Sometimes first-year students in particular don’t automatically have a social group when they get to college. So they might want to be sort of an attentive outsider—looking for the spaces where they might belong.”

Engaging spaces are designed for connection and collaboration. They have comfortable task chairs and easy access to power. Classrooms and meeting rooms can be easily rearranged to foster collaborative interaction. Enclaves allow first-year students to engage informally with other groups and start to feel more integrated on campus.

Spaces that support well-being include elements for socializing and relaxation, like living room settings with fireplaces and soft seating that help students feel at home.

Providing the right mix of spaces that offers students choices contributes significantly to helping them feel like they matter. For example, today’s library has grown beyond a place just for locating information and synthesizing it. Higher ed libraries now offer a variety of space options that broaden the value today’s library brings to students, faculty, and staff. Open library spaces are particularly valuable because they make faculty more accessible, which contributes to student well-being and belonging.

Privacy is another space element that can contribute to an overall sense of well-being. For example, use of high-back lounge seating and surfaces that absorb sound in study niches provide privacy and a quiet atmosphere. These features give students what they need so they can focus, think deeply, and solve problems while often amid a lot of activity (being alone, together). 

Actively Seek Student Involvement

“Belonging is important because we know that when students feel they belong and that they matter in a space, they're more likely to stay and persist and complete their degree,” Harrington said. She also provided a caveat. “Sometimes things can get lost in translation between what administrators think students want and what students themselves want.” Her advice to is to check with students themselves to discover what they want.

To get an accurate view of student desires, “Make sure they have not only a seat at the table, but a voice at the table,” said Harrington. Additionally, provide input opportunities for students who may not be in leadership positions. Have face-to-face conversations with students and take surveys to hear more student voices.

Harrington also advises campus decision makers to speak to folks other than those in purchasing or building management, especially those who observe student behavior. “I had a team member who struggled, [saying,] ‘I'm resetting furniture all the time. Students move it this way and I'm pulling it back.’ And I said, ‘The fact that you're resetting it is giving me information in terms of how students use it.’”

In this case, movement demonstrated success, the design of the space was flexible enough to serve its purpose. The ways students arrange furniture and where they gather provide important clues about what matters to them. Harrington says it’s also important to observe students at different times.

Creating campus spaces and atmospheres that heighten belonging isn’t one-size-fits-all and doesn’t happen overnight. It takes dedicated effort to cultivate the social, academic, and institutional dimensions of belonging. When colleges and universities do so, it benefits both the student and the institution.

Learn More about Student Belonging on Campus

Watch a recording of the webinar that features Dr. Harrington, Dr. Jessup-Anger, and Dr. Rullman discussing how to cultivate belonging in higher education.


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