Helping college students find a way to belong

New research shows how personality is associated with belonging

Shannon Brady, assistant professor of psychology


  • Belonging can serve as a facilitator or a barrier to students’ success in school as well as their well-being.
  • Students drawn to larger institutions tend to be higher in extraversion and emotional stability.
  • Tweaking campus life programming to reach both extroverts and introverts could improve a sense of belonging.

Extroverts were more likely than introverts to feel a strong sense of belonging in their college, an important indicator of whether a student succeeds – or goes home.

That’s a key finding in a new study by Wake Forest University’s Shannon Brady, an assistant professor of psychology. The study, Who feels like they belong? Personality and belonging in college, appears in the peer-reviewed journal PLOS One.

Shannon Brady portrait

Shannon Brady

“Lots of studies suggest that a sense of belonging is important for student persistence and for performance, especially in four-year institutions,” Brady said. “One of the things that I was really interested in was the way in which belonging can serve as a facilitator or a barrier to students’ success in school as well as their well-being.”

In an analysis of surveys completed by 4,753 students entering college, Brady and her colleagues, independent researcher Alexandria M. Stubblebine and Maithreyi Gopalan of The Pennsylvania State University, looked at five dimensions of personality. Those included: extraversion (Are you sociable, outgoing and uninhibited?); emotional stability, sometimes called neuroticism (Do you get nervous easily or handle stress poorly?); agreeableness (Are you trusting, friendly and accepting?); conscientiousness (Are you thorough and dependable?); and openness (Do you have an active imagination and artistic interests?).

They found that more extroverted and more agreeable students were more likely to report a strong sense of belonging on campus, while less emotionally stable students were less likely to feel a sense of belonging. That’s something for campus life staff to bear in mind when designing programs intended to foster belonging among their first-year students.

“If all of your programming is designed for students who are already outgoing, easy to get along with and emotionally stable, you might be unintentionally leaving out the students who could most benefit from cultivating a feeling of connection to campus.” Shannon Brady, assistant professor of psychology

Determining what works for extroverts versus introverts and tweaking the offerings could improve that sense of belonging, and in turn, increase the number of students who stay at the school and earn their degree.

For example, extraverted students might use different strategies to build their sense of belonging on campus than introverted students. Such information could be useful for college recruitment offices as well as campus life offices.

Moreover, this study also found that students drawn to larger institutions tended to be higher in extraversion and emotional stability. In addition, the relationship between extroversion and belonging was more pronounced at large schools, which makes sense: being outgoing might be more of an asset at larger schools. On the other hand, this also means that introverted students in larger schools might need particular encouragement and alternative opportunities to develop their connections on campus to thrive.

Similar findings have been reported in a recent study by researchers at another university that analyzed differences in the coping strategies used by introverts and extroverts beyond college amidst the pandemic.

About the study

The researchers used data from the College Transition Collaborative (CTC) Social-Belonging Multi-Site Randomized Control Trial, a large study of first-year students who entered a range of four-year colleges in 2015 and 2016.

Students were surveyed the summer before the first year of college and again at the end of the first year.

The findings, Brady said, shed some light on how universities can structure their services for students to better foster that feeling of social belonging, and, by extension, succeed.

“Students who feel like they belong use the resources that are available to them on campuses,” she explained, “where students who don’t feel like they belong are less likely to avail themselves of services that might actually help them get connected to the campus.”

Brady suggests universities keep students’ personalities in mind as they evaluate current programming designed to foster belonging among new students and as they consider new programming.

Looking ahead, Brady said she would like to follow students from their senior year in high school throughout their college career – and perhaps even beyond – to further understand the relationship between personality and belonging and to tease out what kinds of actions or programs on campus might be particularly helpful to which kinds of students.

“For a long time, I think schools have focused primarily on the academic outcomes of their students,” Brady said. “Those are still very clearly important, but more and more schools are moving towards a model in which they’re thinking about their students more holistically. Belonging is important to academics, but also to health and well-being.”

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