Belonging, Gains, and Losses in College: A Lifespan Perspective

A student donning a “First Generation” stole. Arkansas Tech University has a First Generation Student Programming and institute under way since 2018. Photo Credit to Liz Chrisman, a fantastic photographer (

Many aspects of life hinge upon gains and losses. There is a phrase, however, I have used with my developmental psychology classes, and as I give it to my students, I hear them turning it over in their minds:

“There is no gain without a loss, and no loss without a gain.”

This simplistic idea comes from the work of developmental psychologist and big-thinker Paul Baltes (1939-2006) who had a “theory of theories” paper on what he called Selective Optimization Compensation. The theory states that development is lifelong and distinctly changing at different periods of time. Opposed to earlier views of development at the time (Freud and Piaget for example), Baltes proposed that all stages of development are worthy of attention, not just infancy, and not just the period of “internalizing” in childhood. The field has made great strides because of this theory, and we have some new concepts such as “emerging adulthood”.

The reason for my post on this quote is not to make an analysis of it, but a stipulation must be made. I called it simplistic, because it is dangerous to interpret it as having acceptable validity, and therefore truer than other claims. It is, in fact, more a truism than a truth. I want to point out that my students often are sensitive to its meaning, because they are going through some distinct gains and losses themselves. Many of them are losing friendships, losing tight structures of reward and punishment at home, and maybe losing a sense of perfect clarity with their destiny.

At this juncture, my students will reach out to their future or current college institution to gain something from it. They will likely attempt to belong.

Belongingness is defined by researchers as having a strong tie to a community, finding a fit between the self and the institution, and at a minimum, feeling respected by the members of a group associated with the place the person seeks to belong to. As Carol Goodenow, belongingness pioneer puts it,

“Psychological membership is […] neither a purely personal intrapsychic phenomenon nor as entirely the function of the school environment, but rather as arising from the person within a particular school environment.” (Goodenow, 1993, p. 87)

Why is belongingness more valuable at the point in time of college than others? Why is belongingness more important than other aspects of student life?

To answer the first question: It’s not that it is more important, it’s that it is a necessary pre-requiste to learning and participating academically. To answer the second question, it is a nebulous experience that predicts a pretty certain set of adult outcomes. Low levels of belongingness, particularly belonging to family as the student leaves for college, can predict a significant increase in reported suicide intentions (Plosonka et al., 2015, Journal of American College Health). Major reviews of the literature also point to this conclusion: Low belongingness predicts lowered functioning, not just academics, but lowered health in lifestyle. The emerging adult now has the choice between drawing toward or withdrawing from society, and the consequences could be that no one goes looking to where they disappear.

Now, I hear you saying “Well, that’s probably because some people just don’t want to fit in.” And you’d be right: There are a number of adults entering the next phase with a tendency to avoid belonging experiences (e.g., personality, limits with physical ability). However, it is likely that a major driver of the effect of belonging on behavioral intentions and good choices is the fit between the person and the institution. Most students are not looking for a “place to belong”, but they are looking for people like them. Most students are not searching for “an intrapsychic phenomenon”, but are looking for signals, purposivelly and inadvertently, that tell them, “this must be the place” (Talking Heads, anyone?). They are looking to gain friendships and experiences they have lost by leaving something else behind.

Many students including first-generation college students are at a greater risk of experiencing loss, because they do not yet know how to gain in terms of college transactions. Many first-generation students, such as the ones I teach, stay at home. Many first-gens do not know who are the others like them, because first-gen-ness is not something you can wear outwardly. This is why the first year counts. As an anecdote, I was a non-first gen (my dad had a college degree, but my mom did not), and I decided to stay home, be around family and friends. It turned out to be a great boost to my college GPA. When many of my peers were dropping out, I was gaining new experiences, and a spark came on that I had not felt in high school. I now have some research (in review) examining belongingness in first generation students. Our work currently shows that at a small college with over half of the student body being first-gen (ATU), the level of belonging and intrinsic motivation for learning in first-generation students is not statistically different from non-first gens.

My co-authors and I are examining factors at large (i.e., meta-analyses) that may add some predictive value to the question of belongingness in first-gens. It turns out that much research is missing, and where it is there, it’s typically case study or exploratory-style methods.

To return to my aphoristic quote, I think it will become increasingly important to examine gains and losses in first-gens, because Baltes’ conceptualization of development was that the person should experience “relatively greater gains than losses”. Currently, we are experiencing enrollment losses. While the trends are generally down across the country, we need to examine these questions to determine whether students are looking at college as a major loss, and will go looking for opportunity elsewhere. Dare I say, we may need to completely revamp college to cause students to feel they are around their people and they are in the right place?

Baltes could offer some insight into this problem, perhaps first academically, but also practically. It is practical to think about belonging in college as a transformative experience in adulthood. It could cause us to reconceptualize what college means, and perhaps take a “theory of theories” approach to redefining the college experience.

Author: Jordan Thibodeaux

Assistant Professor of Psychology

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