How Feelings of "Belonging" Relate to College Persistence


By Jenn Ho

July 2016


Students’ “sense of belonging” in college life is regarded as a critical factor in the experiences of aspiring biomedical students and their transition into college. A “sense of belonging” is generally understood as an indicator of the degree to which students feel part of their overall campus community (Bollen & Hoyle 1990). More specifically, Hagerty and colleagues (1996) define “sense of belonging” as a combination of perceived “fit” and “valued involvement.” “Fit” refers to the perception that one’s values or characteristics are congruent with others, and “valued involvement” refers to the perception that one is valued, needed, or important to others.


Empirical research confirms that a student’s “sense of belonging” within an institution is associated with their persistence in the first year of college. Work conducted by Hoffman, et al. (2002), for example, suggests that a “sense of belonging” is influenced by the ability of peer relationships to support them in meeting the challenges and changes of a new environment, as well as the belief that faculty are compassionate and regard them as more than “just another face in the crowd.”


Hurtado and colleagues (2007) promote the construct of a “sense of belonging” as useful in assessing whether minority students experience more social isolation in fields where they are under-represented. Through their work, student perceptions of a hostile climate were found to have a negative effect on sense of belonging for all students, and a persistent negative affect on academic adjustment for underrepresented minorities (both science and non-science). Institutional selectivity, and perceptions of a highly competitive environment were also found to have a negative impact on students’ sense of belonging. On the other hand, the development of positive cross-racial interactions tended to assist all students in achieving a higher sense of belonging on campus. Additionally, student satisfaction with the relevance of their coursework in everyday life and positive changes in students’ ability to conduct research were both associated with students’ “sense of belonging.” This finding highlights the importance of active and experiential curricular content and its influence on students’ academic and social adjustment during college.


“Sense of belonging” items are included on student surveys administered to BUILD students. These are intended not only to gauge perceived cohesion amongst student bodies across BUILD campuses, but are also expected to advance a more nuanced understanding of how differences in a “sense of belonging” amongst students relate to differences in biomedical students’ transition to, and persistence in college.



Bollen, K. A., & Hoyle, R. H. (1990). Perceived cohesion: A conceptual and empirical examination. Social forces, 69(2), 479-504.

Hoffman, M., Richmond, J., Morrow, J., & Salomone, K. (2002). Investigating “sense of belonging” in first-year college students. Journal of College Student

     Retention: Research, Theory & Practice, 4(3), 227-256.

Hurtado, S., Alvarado, A. R., & Guillermo-Wann, C. (2012). Inclusive learning environments: Modeling a relationship between validation, campus climate for

     diversity, and sense of belonging. In Annual Conference of the Association for Studies in Higher Education (Vol. 53, pp. 1689-1699).


Suggested citation

This brief literature review was first published as a DPC newsletter article at

The Diversity Program Consortium Coordination and Evaluation Center at UCLA is supported by Office of the Director of the National Institutes of Health / National Institutes of General Medical Sciences under award number U54GM119024.
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