Across the country, millions of students have arrived on campuses to begin their college careers. Starting college is a major life transition at any time, and students who have experienced years of pandemic-induced isolation face even more challenges adjusting to the college environment. 

But getting them to college is only half of the battle; helping students feel like they belong and can thrive on campus is a key responsibility for universities. Data from a new report show that ultimately this sense of belonging is critical to a student’s academic success.

The increasingly diverse college-going population makes developing a sense of belonging in our students all the more urgent. In focusing on improving students’ sense of belonging, universities can do an even better job of addressing academic inequities and make changes to support the well-being, engagement, and academic outcomes of all students. 

Thankfully, we have new evidence-based tools to do exactly that.

The University of Colorado Denver, the institution I lead, has set the ambitious goal to be the nation’s first equity-serving institution. Our success depends on the creation of a campus culture that fosters belonging, equity, and well-being for everyone in our campus family, which is why we are laser-focused on creating an ecosystem where everyone can thrive. 

Our 2030 strategic plan, “Make Education Work for All,” lays out a vision for doing just that. It can empower students to go from feeling as if they’re an outsider to being an advocate for a myriad of causes, cultures, and beliefs. It can also transform lives, ensuring students like Luis Hernandez Guerrero, who once struggled academically, can graduate. 

When Hernandez Guerrero began his high school education in Boulder, he felt like an outcast, partially because he didn’t have access to the same resources his peers had, but he found his place at CU Denver. He was drawn to CU Denver because of its diverse student body. He connected with professors who made him feel he belonged from the first day. 

That confidence helped Hernandez Guerrero push to help other immigrants and Latinx students and even serve on the Dean’s Advisory Board in the College of Arts & Media, all while successfully completing his college degree. 

Over the past three years, CU Denver and five other universities have collaborated on a pathbreaking new project aimed at helping more students like Hernandez Guerrero and transform the student experience. The Student Experience Project engaged 300 faculty to foster classrooms where students feel that they belong, are valued, and can succeed. The project then collected feedback from 10,000 students each semester for the 2020-2021 academic year. 

In addition to the work in the classroom, faculty and staff overhauled the way they communicate with students about academic difficulties. The messaging for student support was changed to be supportive rather than punitive: “early alert” referrals, which can cause students to feel alarmed and anxiety about their academic progress, were renamed “early action” to emphasize students’ agency in seeking support to succeed. Notification emails were revised signaling to students that they were capable of success and connecting them to key support resources. 

Our results were powerful. The number of students of color at CU Denver who reported an overall positive classroom experience increased by 36%. And those wins are connected directly to academic success. 

Students of color, transfer students, and first-generation students who felt supported earned A’s or B’s in courses at a rate between 18 to 24 percentage points higher than those students from these groups who didn’t have a positive classroom experience. More than half of our undergraduates are students of color, and half are the first in their families to attend college.

While we are thrilled about the progress shown in the initial results, we still have a long way to go. We’re working on ways to share best practices across other units at our institution. And, of course, all institutions need to find additional ways to be more innovative when it comes to inclusion and belonging work. 

The numbers for us didn’t lie. There is a strong correlation of success when students feel they belong. Our challenge now is scaling up the strategies that work and finding new ones to better support our students.

Michelle A. Marks joined the University of Colorado Denver as chancellor in July 2020. She previously served as vice president for academic innovation and new ventures at George Mason University in Virginia.

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Michelle Marks

Michelle A. Marks is chancellor of the University of Colorado Denver.