Gaps in the Quality of the Student Experience & Students’ Sense of Belonging
Institutions reluctant to embrace diversity and promote inclusion often cite concerns about diminished quality standards for all students (and their standards in international university rankings) as a reason not to widen access to their classrooms. Institutional leadership has also often been lacking to engage students and staff in ensuring that campuses embrace diversity. Too often, access to higher education – preparation, enrollment and attainment – for students from visible minority and indigenous populations, low-income families, poor neighborhoods and developing countries has come at the expense of a high quality education and a strong student experience.
Research shows that too many students are still underperforming and even failing in higher education, because they do not feel addressed by the organization, implementation and content of education and develop little or no sense of belonging. This has great impact on the social and/or academic commitment of these students and ultimately their retention rates. Diversity among students relates to all (dominant and non-dominant) identifications and positions of students (including on the basis of class, ethnicity, gender, religion and physical and/or mental disabilities). It is widely recognized that the quality of the first year experience establishes how well students adjust academically, socially and emotionally to the post-secondary environment which in turn affects their academic performance and retention (Tinto 1987; Tinto 1993; Krause et al., 2005; de Beer, Smith & Jansen 2009). Tinto (1993) suggests that students entering university need to adjust to a new ‘cultural’ environment of study and their ability to acculturate to the academic culture is a significant factor in their sense of belonging. This sense of connectedness can be fostered by positive relationships between students and staff, students and their peers in the new culture as well as institutional support.
Many students find the transition to university study so difficult that they decide to leave. One study in Australia found at least 10% of first year students withdraw from their program and another 25 % consider it (DEST 2005). Students who leave university early cite a range of factors that contribute to the termination of their study program including those associated with their inability to integrate socially and academically (Tinto 1987; Tinto 1993; DEST 2005). Students who perceive a negative hostile climate on a campus often express more difficulty adjusting academically, socially and emotionally (Hurtado & Ponjan 2005).
But the notions of inclusion and excellence are not mutually exclusive and more institutions are embracing the idea that a community or institution’s success is dependent on how well it values, engages and includes the rich diversity of students, staff, faculty, administrators, and alumni constituents within the institution.
Frameworks advanced for what is now termed as ‘inclusive excellence’ address broad elements of inclusion. As defined by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU), these include:
- A focus on student intellectual and social development. Academically, it means offering the best possible course of study for the context in which the program of study is offered.
- Purposeful development and utilization of organizational resources to enhance student learning. Organizationally, it means establishing an environment that challenges each student to achieve academically at high levels and each member of the campus to contribute to learning and knowledge development.
- Attention to the cultural differences that learners bring to the educational experience and that enhance the enterprise. A welcoming community that engages all of its diversity in the service of student and organizational learning.
 Severiens et al. 2006