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The Overlooked Factor in College Success: Belonging

Steve Katsouros

The problems in higher education are well known. As costs rise and graduation rates stagnate, some wonder if college still holds the same value in 2024 as it did for previous generations.

However, most of the young adults I work with at the Come to Believe Foundation — students who are first-generation, students who are from low-wealth backgrounds, and students who are often on the margins of high-quality higher education programs — know the value of a college degree. The issue is that they don’t feel like they “belong” in higher ed.

Steve KatsourosSteve KatsourosThere is no question that affordability is part of the problem — you can’t belong in college if you can’t afford tuition. The Pell Grant is one solution. It bridges the funding gap that prevents students from belonging, or even applying, to college. The Biden administration’s goal to increase Pell grants is admirable — and needed. Back in 1975, the Pell Grant covered three-fourths of the average cost of attendance at a university. Now, Pell covers less than 30% of tuition, fees, and living expenses, at public colleges and universities.

Besides financial barriers, however, students experience other obstacles that prevent them from feeling like they belong at a university. Some students, particularly those who were not at the top of their high school class academically, think they aren’t smart enough to go to college. Others experience tech insecurity or food insecurity or housing insecurity. Several former students of mine talked about impostor syndrome. These students were Black or Hispanic, and they were enrolled in primarily white institutions, where they doubted their skills, talents, and accomplishments. Still, others simply feel isolated within vast postsecondary institutions where no faculty or staff members know their names.

Belonging is critical for college persistence, success, and completion. For any student from any background, being on a campus where you don’t feel you belong is difficult. For first-generation students from low-wealth backgrounds, belonging is all the more important, especially for students of color at PWIs (primarily white institutions). Yet belonging is often an afterthought when it comes to institutional reform and innovation within higher ed. That needs to change.

Belonging was at the forefront when my colleagues and I started Arrupe College at Loyola University Chicago. Arrupe is a two-year college designed for first-generation students from low-wealth backgrounds. We emphasized community with our students; what’s more, our students collaborated with faculty and staff in building our community. Their insights, experiences, and goals informed our pedagogy and planning in the new college. They knew they belonged at Arrupe, and their belonging led to their success. Arrupe graduation rates are several times higher than national averages for two-year college students. 90% of the students graduate with no debt and more than 80% of the graduates continue on for their bachelor’s degree.

What’s the secret to Arrupe’s success? I have a hard time putting it better than an Arrupe student who remarked, “I came to Arrupe for the affordability. I stay at Arrupe for the opportunity and for the community.” That student recognized what many policymakers miss: affordability gets students in the door, but belonging gets them across the finish line.

The University of St. Thomas in Minnesota replicated our model — and our emphasis on belonging — and their high student retention and graduation rates are similar to Arrupe’s. I started the Come to Believe Foundation, or CTB, to scale the model nationally, and in November Butler University in Indianapolis and the University of Mt. St. Vincent in the Bronx announced their plans to replicate the CTB model on their campuses.

In CTB’s work with Butler and Mt. St. Vincent, we emphasize creating a culture of belonging with students, and we look forward to seeing the unique and powerful communities that develop on their campuses as a result. CTB also looks forward to working with more universities interested in our model — universities interested in creating a culture of belonging with their students. If the word of 2023 is “rizz,” you could learn a lot from CTB students about charisma. But I hope you learn from them about belonging, the word of this year, and every year on campus.

Steve Katsouros, SJ, is the president and CEO of Come to Believe Foundation, a nonprofit organization that assists higher education institutions in developing and launching two-year college programs that provide pathways for underserved students to receive four-year degrees.

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