Background/Context: A sense of belonging in school is a complex construct that relies heavily on students’ perceptions of the educational environment, especially their relationships with other students. Some research suggests that a sense of belonging in school is important to all students. However, we argue that the nature and meaning of belonging in school is different for students targeted by negative racial stereotypes—such as African American, Latino/a, Native American, and some Asian American students. Our conceptual framework draws upon stigma and stereotype threat theory and, specifically, the concept of belonging uncertainty, to explore how concerns about belonging in academic contexts may have different meaning for—and thus differentially affect the academic outcomes of—White students compared with underrepresented racial and ethnic minority students.
Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: Although feelings of belonging are important to all students, there are reasons to believe that students from stigmatized racial and ethnic groups may have especially salient concerns about belonging in school because their social identities make them vulnerable to negative stereotyping and social identity threat. Three studies examined how college and middle school students’ feelings of belonging at school relate to their academic aspirations, motivation, and performance.
Research Design: One experiment (Study 1) and two longitudinal studies (Studies 2-3) examined the influence of belonging among students in different educational settings. Study 1 examined first year college students’ social representations of the kinds of students that comprised various majors on campus and their self-reported sense of belonging in those majors. Study 2 examined middle school students’ self-reported sense of belonging and how it related to their educational goals and efficacy. Study 3 examined college students’ belonging and its relationship to academic performance one year later.
Setting: The settings for the three studies varied. The setting for Study 1 was a large, urban, public university in a major Midwestern city that is racially, ethnically, and socioeconomically diverse. The setting for Study 2 was Prince George’s County, a predominantly African American, largely middle-class county near Washington, DC from which the student sample of middle school students was drawn. The setting for Study 3 was a large predominantly White “flagship” university located in a Midwest college town.
Data Collection and Analysis: Findings revealed that college students’ anticipated sense of belonging in various college majors was predicted by their social representations of the students that comprised those majors. Both White students and students of color anticipated more belonging in majors where they perceived their group to be represented. In Study 2, middle school students’ self-reported belonging in school predicted educational efficacy and ambitions of African American middle school students, but not of White students. Finally, in Study 3, self-reported feelings of belonging in the first weeks of college predicted second semester grades (from university transcripts) among stigmatized college students of color, but not White college students (Study 3). Taken together, we suggest a more nuanced understanding of belonging is essential to creating supportive schools for everyone.