How Campus Climate and Student Services Interactions Connect (Opinion)

For a long time, colleges and universities have pushed back against the idea that students are customers. Colleges and universities don’t like to think of themselves as customer-serving, but as enrollment issues persist, many campuses have adopted a “customer-serving” mindset in an effort to help students to enroll and thrive.

Perseverance and growth begin with a sense of belonging on campus. Terrell Strayhorn, professor of urban education and vice president of academic and student affairs at LeMoyne-Owen College, describes this as “the perceived social support on campus, a feeling or sense of connection, the experience of being important or to feel supported, accepted, respected and valued. Students’ persistence toward graduation is correlated with their sense of belonging. Since campus environments shape students’ sense of belonging, students’ perceptions and experiences within the campus environment, including institutional policies and practices, known as the campus climate, can determine their degree of engagement with the campus community (including use of student support services), success in adapting and achieving, and ultimately whether they stay.

The results of a recent Student Voice survey, conducted by Inside Higher Education and College Pulse with support from Kaplan, are beginning to connect good student services and a sense of community on campus. The bad news is that only 15% of the 2,239 undergraduate students surveyed say they are receiving better student services since the pandemic began.

Nearly two in three students (64%) say their institution does not, to their knowledge, have a one-stop-shop where students can access support such as financial aid and counselling. Yet more than seven out of 10 respondents would like to see their campus create this type of office.

Without students making those deep connections to campus services that support their success, leaving is more likely. Moreover, the students most likely to need these services and to leave our institutions if they do not obtain them are minority students.

The sense of belonging for students who hold minority identities takes on added importance when there are “situations that individuals experience as different, unfamiliar, or foreign, as well as in contexts where some individuals are likely to feel marginalized , unsupported or unwelcome,” writes Wandering Horn.

For many minority students, their sense of belonging to their campus is paramount, especially in its promotion of cultural engagement and use of student services that positively influence their college enrollment process and serve strong predictors of their persistence. Research suggests, however, that marginalized students have different characteristic experiences of engagement and achievement than their majority peers.

As higher education professionals, we want to ensure that our students seek out support services known to lead to positive academic and health outcomes. We have to ask ourselves, when students don’t feel safe and comfortable, will they ask for help to maximize their potential or just leave?

After conducting over 250 campus climate assessments across the United States and Canada, we at Rankin Climate have found that lack of a sense of belonging is the number one reason undergraduate students have seriously considered leave their establishment, even more than financial needs. A secondary reason is the lack of support services.

In addition, our research indicates a lack of sense of belonging and support services are exacerbated for marginalized students (e.g. contributes to reduced persistence rates. Student voices point out that insufficient institutional support, lack of On-campus activities, unresponsive counselors, and limited faculty and staff role models who hold minority identities added to their perceptions and experiences of an unwelcoming campus climate.

What can institutions do?

Assessing the campus climate and instilling a spirit of service will only help institutions struggling with student retention issues. The simple fact is that our students’ perceptions are their reality. Understanding this reality can help us allocate resources to help students thrive.

Creating more space for student interactions, especially for those who feel less connected, is also something institutions can do to help. An increased sense of belonging can be achieved through institutional actions such as faculty mentoring of students; effective advice; opportunities for intercultural dialogue between students and between students, faculty and staff; and developing a process to address student complaints about bias by faculty/staff and other students in learning environments.

And what could have the most influence on a student’s decision to stay at their institution? A network of peers and other campus supports that reduces isolation, promotes belonging, offers encouragement, and provides academic and social support. This is what every college and university should aim for.