How students know they belong

September 23, 2019
  • Admissions and Recruitment
  • Communication
  • Communications Plan
  • Community Colleges
  • Competencies
  • Enrollment Management
  • Retention
  • Student Recruitment
  • SEM PRS
paper that says "I can't" with scissors cutting off the "t"

It is common for students to question whether they belong at college -- especially first-generation students and students from low socioeconomic groups. 

Students' beliefs about themselves and feelings about school can greatly influence their academic performance, and even lead to attrition. 

“Mindset of students has become a big topic in student success,” said Diane Walleser, Vice President for Enrollment Management, Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC). “Classroom faculty know if students come in thinking they aren’t good at math, they’re often setting the course for failure. In contrast, having a positive mindset with the right work and practice, they can succeed at math.” 

Research shows that having a growth mindset can be really helpful for students in the classroom, but what about the work that leads up to the classroom? That’s the question that propelled BMCC to rethink how offices across students -- from admissions, financial aid, and enrollment services -- communicated with students to incorporate a growth mindset approach. 

4 tenets of growth mindset and belonging

“Mindset of students has become a big topic in student success,” said Diane Walleser, Vice President for Enrollment Management, Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC). “Classroom faculty know if students come in thinking they aren’t good at math, they’re often setting the course for failure.  In contrast, if they approach their course with a positive mindset with the right work and practice, they can succeed at math.” “Research shows that having a growth mindset can be really helpful for students in the classroom, but what about the work that leads up to the classroom?”

Walleser and others across campus uphold the following four tenets that inculcate a growth mindset in students and help them feel like they belong at college. 

1. Students are capable of learning. The brain is a muscle that can be developed and conditioned to take on more. This is a belief that “I can grow and change” rather than a fixed belief that “I am not smart enough” which will impact their ability to learn.  

2. Students are welcome. Social belonging -- a sense of being connected to peers, faculty, and curriculum -- is key to enrolling and retaining students. 

“What are we doing in intake, in financial aid, in interactions with students during registration, for example, to make them feel welcome and at home?” Walleser asked.

3. Students know college has value. Students are very savvy consumers and they know they can leave at any time. They need to know their courses have value, and the checklists they go through and hoops they have to jump through -- such as immunizations, intake processes, and so on, have a purpose. If they don’t know why they’re doing something or how it prepares them for academic success, they may just walk away.

“For us that’s very alarming: 30 percent of our students -- if they don’t come here,  they just don’t go to college,” Walleser said, “If somewhere in the process it was overwhelming for them or they didn’t see the relevance, they didn’t even get a chance to start because we turned them off along the way. We have failed to meet our access mission.  If they believe they ‘weren’t ready,’ part of the issue is that we didn’t help prepare them in the right way.” 

4. Students have access to resources. They need to know who to talk for financial aid counseling, questions about the enrollment process, and everything else that goes on outside the classroom -- before they even enroll.

“They need to know they are more than a student ID to us,” Walleser said. “Through training we’re helping our intake folks understand the power they have in creating a positive experience for students.” 

To communicate these four tenets, BMCC has rewritten all communications to students from a growth mindset. For example, admissions and acceptance letters have been made more welcoming, personally addressed and signed, with education jargon removed. They’ve also implemented a one-stop shop to assist students with their questions.

“We want to reach those students who aren’t sure they’re ‘college material,’” Walleser said. “If we don’t change how we approach them, we may be reinforcing that message and sending them out the door before they even get started. If we can make them feel welcome and create a sense of belonging, they will stay.”

Learn more

Walleser and a team of BMCC officers will be at the AACRAO SEM Conference this November to discuss how they are making this shift toward a growth mindset orientations across campus. They’ll discuss how they enlisted the help of a faculty member who is an expert on growth mindset, how they implemented various changes across campus, and what they’ve learned so far.

Join this session “Mind Over Matter” and explore many more student success strategies at AACRAO SEM, November 3-6 in Dallas.