Why a Sense of Belonging Matters

August 23, 2022
  • Technology
  • corporate
Group of university students sitting outside.

Sponsored by Nearpeer

As your prospective students are making their decisions on where to go to college, they visit campus and peruse marketing materials featuring images of leafy landscapes, old buildings, new residence halls, chemistry experiments, and students having fun on the quad. They do this in the hope of finding a school where they think they’ll belong, fit in, and feel at home – but they can’t find what they want to know:

  • What are the students here really like, and will there be anyone there “like me?”
  • Other students with similar identities?
  • Interests? Life experiences?
  • Is anyone attending from my state?

Finding and connecting with one’s peers is central to students’ “sense of belonging” – a need that begins early in the admissions process and continues throughout the years of enrollment and on through graduation. As noted in the recent Chronicle of Higher Education’s Reimagining the Student Experience report, the Vice President for Student Success at Furman University describes the central importance of belonging: “If you look at best practices in student success, the cornerstone is this intense understanding that if you don’t get ‘belongingness’ right early on, the rest of it will be harder.”

California State University - Fresno works hard to get “belongingness” right, beginning in the admissions process. In an AACRAO webinar last week, Phong Yang, Fresno State’s Director of Admissions and Recruitment, noted,

We promise our students that they will be part of the Bulldog family – that’s our promise to them…we had to find a solution that would deliver on that promise. Nearpeer provides that sense of belonging, that sense of connection.

Nearpeer is a powerful peer-to-peer engagement platform that helps drive a meaningful sense of belonging as early as the point of application. Nearpeer’s service has proven to grow enrollment, reduce melt, improve yield, and increase persistence. It is a safe, healthy place for students to “find their people” – it is particularly effective at increasing belongingness among under-represented populations, including first-generation students, BIPOC students, transfer students, LGBTQ students, and Pell-eligible students. Nearpeer also has separate services to support an increased sense of belonging and connectedness among parents of students as well.

A student’s sense of belonging at a college or university has three critical components: social connection, academic integration, and being comfortable with the campus and its resources. Nearpeer helps with each of these elements. With its sophisticated, permission-based matching algorithms, Nearpeer helps students easily find “people like me” while also serving as a hub for asking and answering questions. This helps students navigate and connect with important resources on campus (e.g. financial aid, tutoring, residence life). Nearpeer can also help build learning communities in the classroom by connecting learners on a more human level and making professors more accessible. 

By implementing Nearpeer as part of their efforts to bring new students into the “Bulldog Family,” Fresno State has demonstrated tangible enrollment outcomes including gains in show rate and persistence. For example, transfer students who used Nearpeer “showed” at a much higher rate. One study looked at 300 students who transferred from West Hills Community College to Fresno State in the fall of 2021. Of these students, those who used Nearpeer had a no-show rate of 8.1%. Incoming transfer students from West Hills who did not use Nearpeer had a no-show rate of 24.9% – a significant difference.

On retention, in studying the full cohort that matriculated in the fall of 2021, those Fresno State students that used Nearpeer were much more likely to persist into the spring term. Nearpeer users had an attrition rate that was three percentage points lower than non-users. The impact on the sense of belonging is profound and students report how using the platform met a real need.

For example, Community College Daily interviewed students who transferred to Fresno State about their experiences using Nearpeer. One of those students, Maleq A., an Arab-American transfer student studying business administration online, suggested that she

...wouldn't have had all the answers immediately" without a service like Nearpeer. Even though all of my classes are online, I'm still able to connect with other students, she explained. [Nearpeer] builds connections right away... I have met different people and have friendships with people because of this app.

Nearpeer has published an Impact on Belonging Report with case studies from Fresno State and five other institutions including the University of Oklahoma and Xavier University of Louisiana. 


AACRAO's bi-weekly professional development e-newsletter is open to members and non-members alike.