Challenging simplistic and deficit perceptions of belonging amongst historically underrepresented students

Four self-reflective questions for policy makers and practitioners


  • David Gilani Middlesex University


As the topic of student belonging amongst minoritised student demographics becomes increasingly researched and theorised within higher education, there is a risk that practitioners and policy makers adopt approaches summarised from top-level findings, thus missing important nuance. This opinion piece poses four self-reflective questions to ensure that efforts to address belonging gaps for minoritised students are appropriate and successful. These questions prompt readers to: recognise the value of asset – over deficit – approaches; reflect on how definitions of minoritised students do not account for the difference between historical and current underrepresentation; question whether demographic binaries are useful and relevant; and consider how not all students want to belong and whether it is appropriate to challenge this position. Overall, this article provides a protocol so that practitioners and policy makers can have more confidence in embedding findings from belonging research into their local contexts.


Download data is not yet available.


Barnes, R., Kelly, A. F., & Mulrooney, H. M. (2021). Student belonging: the impact of disability status within and between academic institutions. New Directions in the Teaching of Physical Sciences, (16). https://10.29311/ndtps.v0i16.3607

Brodie, J., & Osowska, R. (2021). Supporting entrepreneurship students’ sense of belonging in online virtual spaces. Industry and Higher Education, 35(4), 353-359. https://10.1177/0950422221999264

Brown, B. (2010). The Gifts of Imperfection (1st ed.). Hazelden Publishing.

Burke, C. J. F., & Burke, W. M. (2005). Student-Ready Schools. Childhood Education, 81(5), 281-285. https://10.1080/00094056.2005.10521307

Carruthers Thomas, K. (2018). Rethinking Student Belonging in Higher Education. Routledge. https://10.4324/9780429458903

Cwik, S., & Singh, C. (2022). Students’ sense of belonging in introductory physics course for bioscience majors predicts their grade. Physical Review Physics Education Research, 18(1). https://10.1103/physrevphyseducres.18.010139

Dereli, B. (2021). Belonging through Higher Education: The Case of Syrian Youth in Turkey. Journal of Refugee Studies, 35(1), 195-219. https://10.1093/jrs/feab055

Erb, S., & Drysdale, M. T. B. (2017). Learning attributes, academic self-efficacy and sense of belonging amongst mature students at a Canadian university. Studies in the Education of Adults, 49(1), 62-74. https://10.1080/02660830.2017.1283754

Fernández, D. P., Ryan, M. K., & Begeny, C. T. (2023). Recognizing the diversity in how students define belonging: evidence of differing conceptualizations, including as a function of students’ gender and socioeconomic background. Social Psychology of Education, 26(3), 673-708. https://10.1007/s11218-023-09761-7

Freeman, P. K., & Houston, D. J. (2010). Belonging, Believing, Behaving. Administration & Society, 42(6), 694-719. https://10.1177/0095399710377981

Froehlich, L., Brokjøb, L. G., Nikitin, J., & Martiny, S. E. (2022). Integration or isolation: Social identity threat relates to immigrant students’ sense of belonging and social approach motivation in the academic context. Journal of Social Issues, 79(1), 264-290. https://10.1111/josi.12548

Goodenow, C. (1993). The psychological sense of school membership among adolescents: Scale development and educational correlates. Psychology in the Schools, 30(1), 79-90. https://10.1002/1520-6807(199301)30:1

Gopalan, M., Linden-Carmichael, A., & Lanza, S. (2022). College Students’ Sense of Belonging and Mental Health Amidst the COVID-19 Pandemic. Journal of Adolescent Health, 70(2), 228-233. https://10.1016/j.jadohealth.2021.10.010

Harrel-Hallmark, L., Castles, J., & Sasso, P. (2022). Sense of Belonging of New Members who are First-Generation College Students: A Single-Institution Qualitative Case Study’. The Research Journal of the Association of Fraternity/Sorority Advisors, 16(2). https://

Hunt, C., Collins, B., Wardrop, A., Hutchings, M., Heaslip, V., & Pritchard, C. (2017). First- and second-generation design and engineering students: experience, attainment and factors influencing them to attend university. Higher Education Research & Development, 37(1), 30-43. https://10.1080/07294360.2017.1342607

Johnson, D. R., Soldner, M., Leonard, J. B., Alvarez, P., Inkelas, K. K., Rowan-Kenyon, H., & Longerbeam, S. D. (2007). Examining Sense of Belonging Among First-Year Undergraduates From Different Racial/Ethnic Groups. Journal of College Student Development, 48(5), 525-542. https://10.1353/csd.2007.0054

Kahu, E. R., Ashley, N., & Picton, C. (2022). Exploring the Complexity of First-Year Student Belonging in Higher Education: Familiarity, Interpersonal, and Academic Belonging. Student Success, 13(2), 10-20. https://10.5204/ssj.2264

Kane, S., Chalcraft, D., & Volpe, G. (2014). Notions of belonging: First year, first semester higher education students enrolled on business or economics degree programmes. The International Journal of Management Education, 12(2), 193-201. https://10.1016/j.ijme.2014.04.001

Lewis, J. A., Mendenhall, R., Ojiemwen, A., Thomas, M., Riopelle, C., Harwood, S. A., & Browne Huntt, M. (2019). Racial Microaggressions and Sense of Belonging at a Historically White University. American Behavioral Scientist, 65(8), 1049-1071. https://10.1177/0002764219859613

Maramba, D. C., & Museus, S. D. (2013). Examining the Effects of Campus Climate, Ethnic Group Cohesion, and Cross-Cultural Interaction on Filipino American Students' Sense of Belonging in College. Journal of College Student Retention: Research, Theory & Practice, 14(4), 495-522. https://10.2190/cs.14.4.d

Maslow, A. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50(4), 370-396. https://10.1037/h0054346

McNair, T. B., Albertine, S., McDonald, N., Major, T., & Cooper, M. A. (2022). Becoming a student-ready college (Second edition ed.). Jossey-Bass.

O’Shea, S. (2020). “Kids from here don't go to uni”: Considering first in family students' belonging and entitlement within the field of higher education in Australia. European Journal of Education, 56(1), 65-77. https://10.1111/ejed.12434

Pedler, M. L., Willis, R., & Nieuwoudt, J. E. (2021). A sense of belonging at university: student retention, motivation and enjoyment. Journal of further and Higher Education, 46(3), 397-408. https://10.1080/0309877x.2021.1955844

Pesonen, H. V., Nieminen, J. H., Vincent, J., Waltz, M., Lahdelma, M., Syurina, E. V., & Fabri, M. (2020). A socio-political approach on autistic students’ sense of belonging in higher education. Teaching in Higher Education, , 1-19. https://10.1080/13562517.2020.1852205

Picton, C., Kahu, E., & Nelson, K. (2017). Friendship supported learning–the role of friendships in first-year students' university experiences. Paper presented at the Student Transitions Achievement Retention and Success

(STARS) Conference,

Rainey, K., Dancy, M., Mickelson, R., Stearns, E., & Moller, S. (2018). Race and gender differences in how sense of belonging influences decisions to major in STEM. International Journal of STEM Education, 5(1), 10. https://10.1186/s40594-018-0115-6

Renn, K. A. (2000). Patterns of Situational Identity Among Biracial and Multiracial College Students. The Review of Higher Education, 23(4), 399-420. https://10.1353/rhe.2000.0019

Shaheed, J., & Kiang, L. (2021). A need to belong: the impact of institutional diversity ideologies on university students’ belonging and interracial interactions. Social Psychology of Education, 24(4), 1025-1042. https://10.1007/s11218-021-09643-w

Smit, R. (2012). Towards a clearer understanding of student disadvantage in higher education: problematising deficit thinking. Higher Education Research and Development, 31(3), 369-380. https://10.1080/07294360.2011.634383

Strayhorn, T. L. (2008). Sentido de Pertenencia. Journal of Hispanic Higher Education, 7(4), 301-320. https://10.1177/1538192708320474

Strayhorn, T. L. (2018). College Students' Sense of Belonging. Routledge. https://10.4324/9781315297293

Thomas, L. (2002). Student retention in higher education: the role of institutional habitus. Journal of Education Policy, 17(4), 423-442. https://10.1080/02680930210140257

Veldman, J., Meeussen, L., & van Laar, C. (2023). Social background concealment among first-generation students: The role of social belonging and academic achievement concerns. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 26(3), 762-778. https://10.1177/13684302221089116

Wilkerson, I. (2020). Caste. Allen Lane, an imprint of Penguin Books.

Zhao, Y. (2016). From Deficiency to Strength: Shifting the Mindset about Education Inequality. Journal of Social Issues, 72(4), 720-739. https://10.1111/josi.12191

Zumbrunn, S., McKim, C., Buhs, E., & Hawley, L. R. (2014). Support, belonging, motivation, and engagement in the college classroom: a mixed method study. Instructional Science, 42(5), 661-684. https://10.1007/s11251-014-9310-0




How to Cite

Gilani, D. (2024). Challenging simplistic and deficit perceptions of belonging amongst historically underrepresented students: Four self-reflective questions for policy makers and practitioners. Student Engagement in Higher Education Journal, 5(3), 17–24. Retrieved from