By: Omid Fotuhi, Ph.D., Director of Learning Innovation at WGU Labs

As higher ed administrators, faculty, and other stakeholders settle into the new year, one challenge remains top of mind: how to engage and ultimately retain their students. This challenge is not a new one. What is new is the recognition from many institutions that a student’s perception of belonging is a key driver of engagement, higher performance, and ultimately retention. 

Research shows that an individual’s perception of belonging is intrinsically connected with their sense of identity, and is critical to nourish in any domain. In the context of higher education, studies show that students who feel like they belong are less likely to drop out – particularly if they come from underrepresented or first-generation backgrounds. On the flip side, students who aren’t sure whether they belong are more likely to underperform in school. 

While higher education leaders might be starting to see belonging as a foundational step in the success of their students, their efforts are still being refined. After being explicitly told that they belong through things like campus wide campaigns and “You belong here” posters , a student may understandably wonder, “Why would my institution reiterate this message, unless they expect that I won’t fit in?”.

To that end, research rooted in psychological theory—and validated by studies conducted at the College Innovation Network—reveals that the way to show students they belong is not to explicitly tell them so, but to strive to make students feel seen, heard, and valued through intentional strategies. 

How To Help Students Feel Seen, Heard, And Valued In 2023:

  1. Undergo an institutional mindset shift: All too often, we look for a convenient checklist of things we need to do to achieve a certain result, like looking for a recipe to bake a cake. In the case of belonging, no such checklist exists. The perception of belonging is an entirely subjective experience that can only be fostered through an expression of genuine interest and curiosity for each student. As such, there needs to be a mindset shift about the nature of the relationship that institutions have with students. Institutions should move away from the traditional view that all students should equally absorb and master the same standardized learning experiences, instead moving toward a view that prioritizes and values the diverse perspectives and experiences of each student.

    Within this mindset shift, there is also the implicit recognition that an institution may never be able to fully understand all students. Instead, institutions can assume a position of interested inquiry and appreciation for each student. In this case, the effort matters more than any specific gesture. The expression of interest signals to students they are seen and cared for much more clearly than telling a student that they belong ever could.
  2. Normalize common challenges among students: Students are guaranteed to face challenges, but how they interpret and respond to these challenges is what counts. Whether they’re struggling to adapt to living away from home, having a difficult time juggling school and other responsibilities, or experiencing challenges adapting to new tech, faculty and other trusted leaders must convey to students that what they’re going through is common and not a reflection of personal shortcomings. This is particularly relevant for students who may look around and see that there aren’t many other students who look like them, and assume there’s a reason for that. 
  3. Create effective, psychologically attuned messaging: Students are constantly receiving explicit and implicit cues from their institutions, professors, and leaders that convey—oftentimes unintentionally—whether or not a student belongs. Is the campus full of statues and portraits of older white men, or do images and decorations reflect the diversity of the student body? On the first day of class, do professors introduce themselves by highlighting their many achievements, or do they humanize themselves by intentionally talking about the hurdles they experienced along their academic journey? Even subtle messages to students make a difference; for instance, a professor letting a student know he’s being given critical feedback because she has high standards and believes he can reach them.

When it comes to designing learning experiences where all students belong, everyone has a role to play. Whether it’s a faculty member inviting her student to connect after class, or an advisor confiding in his student about a personal challenge he himself while pursuing an education, each of these efforts add up. Too many students have struggled to succeed; as an industry, we have an opportunity to improve our efforts to support them. 

The College Innovation Network at WGU Labs is on a mission to build learning communities where all students belong. Learn more about our work at