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When Students Feel They Belong, They Thrive

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Students sitting at graduation


Even the most prepared students of color have worse grades and health than their European-American classmates.


When African-Americans are reassured that they belong in school, their grades and health improve.


At a prestigious college in the northeastern United States, social psychologists Gregory Walton and Geoffrey Cohen developed an intervention to reaffirm first-year African-American students’ sense of belonging in college. They first randomly assigned half of the 92 study participants (the belonging condition) to read survey results showing that most first-year students at their school, regardless of race or gender, worry whether they belong in college, but then later feel at home. The other half of the students (the control condition) read about how their classmates’ social and political attitudes changed over time. 

Walton and Cohen found that African-American participants in the belonging condition earned higher and higher grades over the course of their four-year college careers, while African-American participants in the control condition maintained the same GPA. (European-American students in both conditions improved their GPAs over time.) By senior year, the gap between African-American and European-American students’ GPAs closed by 79%. African-American students in the belonging condition also reported better health and fewer trips to the doctor than did students in the control condition.

Why This Works

Many people worry whether they fit in at a new place. This is especially true of African-American college students, who often encounter the suspicion that they are not as smart as European Americans. This intervention reassures African-American students that their struggles in school are normal, and not a sign that they are not cut out for college life. When students are reassured that they indeed belong in college, they work harder and better, eventually earning higher grades.

When This Works Best

Belongingness interventions work best when people are not sure whether they fit in to a new place or situation.

The Original Study

Walton, G. M., & Cohen, G. L. (2011). A brief social-belonging intervention improves academic and health outcomes of minority students. Science, 331, 1447-1451.

In the Press



See Also

Walton, G. M. & Cohen, G. L. (2007). A question of belonging: Race, social fit, and achievement. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92, 82-96.

Related Topics

Education Health


Photo by US Department of Education