Developmental Stage

Publication Type

Could mitigating persistent worries about belonging in the transition to college improve adult life for black Americans? To examine this question, we conducted a long-term follow-up of a randomized social-belonging intervention delivered in the first year of college. This 1-hour exercise represented social and academic adversity early in college as common and temporary. As previously reported in Science, the exercise improved black students’ grades and well-being in college. The present study assessed the adult outcomes of these same participants. Examining adult life at an average age of 27, black adults who had received the treatment (versus control) exercise 7 to 11 years earlier reported significantly greater career satisfaction and success, psychological well-being, and community involvement and leadership. Gains were statistically mediated by greater college mentorship. The results suggest that addressing persistent social-psychological concerns via psychological intervention can shape the life course, partly by changing people’s social realities.

In a nationally representative sample, first-year U.S. college students “somewhat agree,” on average, that they feel like they belong at their school. However, belonging varies by key institutional and student characteristics; of note, racial-ethnic minority and first-generation students report lower belonging than peers at 4-year schools, while the opposite is true at 2-year schools. Further, at 4-year schools, belonging predicts better persistence, engagement, and mental health even after extensive covariate adjustment. Although descriptive, these patterns highlight the need to better measure and understand belonging and related psychological factors that may promote college students’ success and well-being.

In this chapter from the revised Handbook of Competence and Motivation, the authors offer a definition of belonging that goes beyond personal relationships to consider a set of implicit worries, questions and inferences that arise for individuals about the quality of fit between themselves and a given setting. The authors provide an overview of the evidence base and literature on belonging.

Previous experiments have shown that college students benefit when they understand that challenges in the transition to college are common and improvable and, thus, that early struggles need not portend a permanent lack of belonging or potential. Could such an approach—called a lay theory intervention—be effective before college matriculation? The lay theory interventions raised first-year full-time college enrollment among students from socially and economically disadvantaged backgrounds exiting a high-performing charter high school network or entering a public flagship university (experiments 1 and 2) and, at a selective private university, raised disadvantaged students’ cumulative first-year grade point average (experiment 3). These gains correspond to 31–40% reductions of the raw (unadjusted) institutional achievement gaps between students from disadvantaged and nondisadvantaged backgrounds at those institutions. Further, follow-up surveys suggest that the interventions improved disadvantaged students’ overall college experiences, promoting use of student support services and the development of friendship networks and mentor relationships.