Notes on belonging


Gunter Kleist

Elaine Harvey

I hope you can tell by now that talking about “belonging” makes my tail wag like a lab puppy waiting for treats. I care about it because it is a fundamental factor in helping students get their degrees. However, according to an Inside Higher Ed report from 2019, nationwide, only 59 percent of undergraduate students graduate within six years. If we add in community colleges, the largest single sector within American higher education, the picture is only bleaker; only 14 percent of community college students who say that they plan to get a four-year degree actually obtain one within six years of beginning community college.

Devastatingly, this means that there are students who take on massive debt and don’t even finish; the student loan crisis is disproportionately a crisis for those without degrees. The likelihood of default is in inverse correlation to the size of the debt. That means that almost one in four of those with less than $5,000 in student debt are in default, while only seven percent of those with more than $40,000 in student debt are in default. This data, provided by the same 2019 Inside Higher Ed report, also costs institutions money. Colleges and universities collectively spend billions on students who do not graduate while still having to spend more to recruit, advise and teach new students to take their place.

So, what is to do be done about our seemingly cyclical problem? We, as an institution, can be better prepared to serve our students in the classroom. Faculty members are often the most direct way to help at-risk students. While you may be able to ignore emails from the advising staff, or the first-year experience staff, if you fail to participate in your classroom assignments—well, you fail. Therefore, it stands to reason, that the most impactful way we as an institution can reach students is through our talented and dedicated faculty. Here at Northern Vermont University-Johnson, we can’t simply go department by department and look at retention rates to determine success. We know that the amount of times an undergraduate student switches their major makes it hard to draw conclusions on a department-based scale. The best indicator is whether or not a student leaving a major also leaves the institution as a whole and fails to graduate.

Current best practices indicate that the best ways to foster a sense of academic belonging are a combination of a few factors. First, individual instructors make a huge difference. Think about a professor who you connected with—didn’t learning in that environment feel different, somehow? Next, we know that introductory courses are crucial for success. Recently, our federal Title III grant has awarded mini grants to those instructors willing to redesign introductory courses to ensure that they meet the needs of our students today. Thirdly, we need institutional commitment to banning the “deep dive” approach. We know that a slow ramp allows for at-risk students to perform better if they take the most difficult courses at a measured pace, rather than a demanding load in the first semester. Lastly, we must foster a culture of collaboration. Sounds easy right? Fear not loyal reader, the Title III grant is here to assist.

Reducing barriers to access is a number one priority among professionals addressing student persistence. So, what are those barriers? Come let me know. I’m in Dewey 131 and I want to hear from as many of you as possible. Oh—did I mention that I have snacks?