Elevating Native American College Students’ Sense of Belonging in Higher Education

Native American students are an underrepresented minority group in higher education, representing less than 1% of all college-going students in the United States (Ginder & Kelly-Reid, 2013).  Although they represent a small proportion of the college student population in the United States, it is important to research Native American students’ experiences in higher education.  For decades, scholars have documented the persistent challenges encountered by Native American college students, which can include lack of role models, feelings of isolation, racial discrimination, and a cultural mismatch in higher education (Garrod & Larimore, 1997; Larimore & McClellan, 2005).  These barriers are coupled by the challenges of being a non-traditional student, with many studies showing that the majority of Native American students are the first in their families to attend higher education, are employed while in college, have dependents, and live in poverty (American Indian College Fund Data, 2011).  The confluence of these factors contributes to higher dropout rates among Native American students: only 39% of Native American first-time, full-time students who started college in 2005 graduated within four years, compared to 60% of White students (Knapp, Kelly-Reid, & Ginder, 2012).

There is a significant lack of research about Native American students in higher education.  The majority of studies exploring factors associated with Native American students’ success in higher education feature qualitative designs, have smaller sample sizes, or are derived from single-institution samples (Jackson, Smith, and Hill, 2003; Larimore & McClellan, 2005; Okagaki, Helling, & Bingham, 2009).  Jackson et al. (2003) discovered family support, structured social support, the warmth of faculty and staff, and reliance upon spiritual resources contributed to Native American undergraduates’ retention.  The purpose of the present research study was to expand upon prior research by examining factors associated with Native American college students’ sense of belonging in higher education.  To expand upon prior research, we utilized a large sample size of Native American students within a quantitative, multi-institutional analysis.

This research is unique in that the primary dependent variable in this analysis was students’ sense of belonging, a concept that Hausmann, Schofield, and Woods (2006) connected to students’ retention.  Yet, we approach sense of belonging cautiously when considering the unique experiences of Native American college students.  Native American students experience a great degree of stress in higher education because many feel forced to choose between assimilating into the dominate culture as a means of achieving academic success and maintaining ties to their traditional culture by resisting dominant assimilation (Larimore & McClellan, 2005).  For many Native American students, these choices can mean breaking away from family and home communities or dropping out of higher education.  Some researchers have suggested Native American students who are able to connect with their cultural identity and also adapt to the demands of campus life are more likely to succeed in meeting their educational goals (Huffman, 2001).


The Student Experience in the Research University (SERU) survey is administered annually within a consortium of large, public research universities that are members of the Association of American Universities.  All sets of items used in the present study were derived from the SERU survey or provided by the institutional research offices at participating campuses.  The SERU survey contains over 600 items, and the purpose of the instrument is to gather data on students’ satisfaction, academic engagement, use of time, perceptions of campus climate, research experiences, and civic/community engagement, among other areas (Douglass, Thomson, & Zhao, 2012; Soria & Thomas-Card, 2014).  Researchers have provided evidence for the internal consistency of students’ responses over several administrations of the survey (Chatman, 2011).

In spring 2013, the SERU survey was administered to eligible undergraduate students enrolled at 13 institutions.  Institutional representatives sent emails to 356,699 enrolled undergraduates asking them to respond to the web-based questionnaire.  The institutional level completion response rate for the SERU survey was 35.50% (n = 126,622).  We utilized survey responses from Native American undergraduate students enrolled in 13 large, public research-intensive universities (n = 863).  The majority of Native American students identified as female (60.7%), non-transfer (76.0%), and non-first-generation (59.9%).  The average age of participants was 21.68 (SD = 4.93).


Dependent Variable

Four survey items were utilized to measure students’ sense of belonging.  Two items asked students to indicate their level of satisfaction with the social and academic aspects of their educational experiences and were scaled 1 (very dissatisfied) to 6 (very satisfied).  Two additional items asked students to rate their sense of belonging on campus and asked whether they would choose to reenroll on campus.  These items were scaled 1 (strongly disagree) to 6 (strongly agree).

Independent Variables

Several measures were utilized in the analysis that were either provided by students in the SERU or provided by institutional research offices at the respective institutions.  Institutions provided students’ sex, transfer status, and academic level (as defined by the number of credits earned).  Students provided information regarding their parents’ highest level of education achieved, from which we derived their status as first-generation students (defined as parents not earning a bachelor’s degree or higher).  Students also answered questions regarding their current residence and social class.  Prior researchers provided evidence for the validity of students’ self-reported social class (Soria & Barratt, 2012).

The SERU was administered at 13 different universities; therefore, to get a sense of whether the location of the institution had any bearing on student outcomes—and to preserve anonymity of participating institutions—we coded institutions into three categories based on their general geographic region in the United States with the remaining two schools (which were generally located on the West coast) as the referent schools.  The focal categories included four schools located in Southern regions, five schools located in the Midwest region, and two schools located in the upper-Eastern region of the United States.

Variables were used to assess students’ perceptions of campus climate for diversity and socioeconomic class, level of academic engagement, frequency of faculty interactions, and frequency of classmate interactions, which prior research has discovered are associated with students’ sense of belonging and retention (Soria & Stebleton, 2012, 2013).  We also utilized items which asked students to indicate the frequency with which they engaged in a variety of activities per week, including paid employment, community service, recreational activities, spiritual or religious activities, socializing with friends, and spending time with family.  These items were scaled from 1 hour to more than 30 hours.

Data Analyses

All data analyses were conducted using SPSS 21.0 and first utilized a factor analysis for the purpose of data reduction, to explain a larger set of measured variables with a smaller set of latent constructs.  To develop the dependent and independent measures used in this study, a factor analysis was conducted on 27 items with oblique rotation and used Velicer’s (1976) minimum average partial (MAP) method to estimate the factors (Courtney, 2013).  We utilized the procedures outlined by Courtney (2013) to analyze the data using SPSS R-Menu v2.0 (Basto & Pereira, 2012), and Velicer’s MAP values suggested a distinct fifth step minimum squared average partial correlation suggesting five factors.  Due to this evidence, five factors emerged: campus climate, academic engagement, sense of belonging, faculty interactions, and classmate interactions.  We computed the factor scores using the regression method and saved them as standardized scores with a mean of zero and a standard deviation of one.  Each of these factors had good reliability: campus climate (α = .868), academic engagement (α = .891), sense of belonging (α = .857), faculty interactions (α = .804), and classmate interactions (α = .823).

After conducting the factor analysis, hierarchical least squares regression analyses were conducted regressing students’ sense of belonging on the independent and control variables.  The model was guided by predominant theoretical frameworks suggesting students’ demographic characteristics and institutional contexts might covary with collegiate experiences, thereby potentially confounding the effects of those collegiate experiences (Astin, 1993; Pascarella & Terenzini, 2005).  To that end, we entered data into three blocks to assess the variance specific collegiate experience items explained above and beyond the variance accounted for by control measures (Petrocelli, 2003): 1) precollege characteristics; 2) institutional region, and; 3) collegiate experiences.


The results of the hierarchical linear regression analysis suggest Native American students’ collegiate experiences explained a significant among of unique variance in students’ sense of belonging above and beyond the variance accounted for by previously entered variables (R = .545, R2 =.297, F(14, 849) = 16.886, p < .001; R2 Change = .251, p < .001).  In other words, students’ collegiate experiences are significantly associated with their sense of belonging and help to predict their sense of belonging above precollege characteristics and institutional region.

Native American students’ perception of the campus climate for race and class, in addition to the frequency of their interactions with classmates, were significantly and positively associated with their sense of belonging (Table 1).  The frequency with which students participated in student clubs or organizations, engaged in recreational or creative interests, and socialized with friends was also positively associated with their sense of belonging.  The frequency with which students spent time with family was significantly and negatively associated with their sense of belonging, meaning that Native American students who spent more time with their families were less likely to feel a sense of belonging on campus (β = -.081).  None of the other collegiate variables were significant in this model, although we also found that students attending colleges in the Eastern region of the U.S. had significantly lower sense of belonging (β = -.084) compared to the students who attended colleges in other regions.

Table 1


The results of this study suggest there are elements of Native American students’ experiences on campus that can positively support their sense of belonging, in addition to factors that may detract from students’ sense of belonging.  In particular, we found that students’ engagement with their peers in academic and social contexts was particularly influential in promoting their sense of belonging, a finding congruent with prior scholarship (Larimore & McClellan, 2005).  Prior research suggested the importance of student-faculty interactions and family in Native American students’ belongingness (Jackson & Smith, 2001; Larimore & McClellan, 2005); however, in our study, we only measured the length of time students spent with faculty and family, not the quality of these relationships.  The time students spent with family may be attributed to living off campus with family, a factor that may compromise students’ ability to interact with peers on campus.  Based on these findings, it is recommended that researchers continue to explore the many ways in which students’ interactions with faculty and family can influence their collegiate experiences and deduce the ways in which these interactions may be crafted to support Native American students’ success.

Concomitant with the results of this study, there are several recommendations for student affairs practitioners to support Native American college students’ sense of belonging in higher education.  Given the connections between campus climate and sense of belonging, practitioners are encouraged to develop a warm and welcoming campus climate for students of color and students from lower social class backgrounds (Soria, 2012).  This study suggests that Native American students’ interactions with classmates in academic settings is positively associated with their sense of belonging, and practitioners need to provide adequate study spaces to students at hours convenient to their busy schedules.  Given the positive associations between Native American students’ time spent in student clubs and organizations, socializing with friends, and students’ sense of belonging, it is recommended that practitioners seek to integrate the curricular and co-curricular domains for students; for example, a Native American cultural group could have a space reserved for study time with peers in which hospitality is provided.  Opportunities for Native American students to explore recreational or creative interests alongside their peers may further support students’ integration in the university, while helping them to remain connected or develop new connections with their cultural traditions.

Discussion Questions

  1. How can Native American student services on your campus support students’ academic interactions with classmates, recreational or creative interests, and time spent socializing with friends?
  2. What steps has your campus taken to facilitate a welcoming campus climate for Native American students in particular?
  3. What spaces to Native American students occupy on your campus?  How can these actions and spaces be expanded to support Native American students’ sense of belonging and success?


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About the Authors

Krista Soria is an analyst with the Office of Institutional Research at the University of Minnesota.  Her research interests focus on understanding the experiences of underrepresented students on college campuses, developing high-impact practices to support students’ success, and leveraging opportunities to facilitate students’ leadership development.  Krista is also an adjunct faculty with the leadership minor at the University of Minnesota.

Please e-mail inquiries to Krista Soria.

Brandon Alkire is an undergraduate student at the University of Minnesota.  He is majoring in Sociology and Law/Crime/Deviance and minoring in Political Science.  He is a Dakota citizen of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, which straddles the North/South Dakota boarder.  He is avidly involved in many activities at the University of Minnesota, including a general board member of the American Indian Student Cultural Center, member of the Native Student Awareness Committee, Student Parent Help Center, Circle of Indigenous Nations, and American Indian Studies Work Shop.

Please e-mail inquiries to Brandon Alkire.


The ideas expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Developments editorial board or those of ACPA members or the ACPA Governing Board, Leadership, or International Office Staff.

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