The impact of social belonging on the academic performance of first-generation students at Montana State University

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Montana State University - Bozeman, College of Education, Health & Human Development


In the United States, first-generation college students are significantly less likely to persist in college and complete a four-year college degree than continuing-generation students (Cataldi, Bennett, & Chen, 2018; DeAngelo & Franke, 2016; Engle & Tinto, 2008; Pascarella, Pierson, Wolniak, & Terenzini, 2004). The same is true at Montana State University (MSU), where only thirty-one percent of first-generation students graduate within six years (Montana State University, 2018c). It was hypothesized that generational status would predict academic performance at MSU, and that sense of belonging, along with peer and faculty involvement, would mediate the relationship. In addition, a conditional effect was hypothesized, so that there would be an interaction between generational status and belonging, with belonging being a stronger predictor of college grades for first-generation students than for continuing-generation students. A self-report online survey was utilized to assess peer and faculty involvement and sense of belonging. The sample consisted of 184 first-year, first-time, part-time and full-time students at MSU. Factor analysis was used to better delineate between peer involvement and belonging scales. Logistic regression and linear regression were utilized to determine the relationships between independent and dependent variables. First-generation college students had significantly lower levels of influential positive peer involvement when compared to continuing-generation students. Specifically, they had lower levels of agreement that peers would help or listen if they had a problem, and that it was easy to make friends at MSU. Peer involvement and faculty involvement significantly predicted higher sense of belonging for all students. Peer involvement had a negative impact upon college grades for all students, which approached significance. Faculty involvement had a positive impact on college grades for all students. Stigma/stereotype threat variables had an impact on college grades. Sense of belonging did not significantly impact college GPA. Finally, a conditional effect emerged for generational status and peer involvement upon college GPA, which approached statistical significance. Policies, programs, and services must be changed at institutions of higher education to help first-generation college students feel more supported by their peers and welcomed to campus, along with balancing social vs. academic priorities during college.




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