Why is “Social Integration” Considered Important for College Persistence?


DPC Hallmark STU-5 and STU-6

By Jenn Ho

First posted June 2016, updated December 2019


Social integration in higher education has been defined as the students’ degree of social and psychological comfort with their campus environments, association with or acceptance by affinity groups, and a sense of belonging that provides the security to join with others in common causes, whether intellectual or social (Braxton, 2000). Sense of belonging, defined as a student’s subjective sense of “fitting in” (Spady, 1970; Hurtado & Carter, 1997) is one is one aspect of social integration that focuses on the psychological dimension of integration. Perceived sense of belonging within the university (STU-5), as well as within the research community (STU-6), are two of the student-focused hallmarks of the Diversity Program Consortium (DPC).


Several theories address why social integration is considered to be an essential component of college persistence, particularly among underrepresented groups (URG). In 1970, Spady asserted that dropping out of college can result from a lack of close interaction with others, holding values that are dissimilar to those of the general social collectivity, and lacking a sense of compatibility with the social system of the college. However, he suggested the link between social integration and dropping out is mitigated by a student’s satisfaction with college experiences and commitment to college. Spady contended that students’ interactions in social and academic systems are conceptually distinct from their own personal sense of integration.


In 1993, Vincent Tinto developed a theory of student departure that became a central framework for understanding in higher education. He suggested that alignment between a student’s motivation and academic ability, and an institution’s academic and social characteristics, influence students’ commitment to their educational goals as well as their commitment to remain within their institution. He distinguished between academic integration, (the extent to which students are doing reasonably well in their classes, perceive their classes to be relevant and of practical value, and are satisfied with their majors), and social integration, (comfort with the campus environment), as described above. Later, alternative hypotheses were developed surrounding the role social integration plays in college persistence. Tierney’s critique (1992) challenges Tinto’s suggestion that URG students must “break away” from their former communities and learn to behave consistently with a college’s dominant culture in order to achieve successful integration. In contrast, Tierney argues these transitions are intracultural and specific to social groups. He argued that Tinto’s theory places an undue burden on URG students to adapt, attributing little or no responsibility to institutions to modify their policies and practices (Braxton, 2000).


To address some of the limitations of Tinto’s model and re-incorporate the idea of a subjective sense of integration, Hurtado & Carter (1997) examined sense of belonging for Latino college students. Hurtado and Carter (1997) suggest that researchers in higher education have complicated the concept of social integration by developing an overwhelming variety of engagement measures in formal and informal social activities. Many of these measures capture information on students’ academic and social participation in college—constructs intended to be theoretically distinct from a psychological sense of integration (as suggested by Spady, 1971). That is, not all academic or social activities illicit the same level of sense of belonging particularly among URG students and, therefore, may not appropriately capture the complexity of interactions between students and institutions that affect persistence.


Research on STEM interventions is beginning to explore the extent to which students’ perceptions of belongingness impact persistence and other key outcomes of success. Going beyond Tinto’s model focused on academic and social integration as behaviors, a case study on a STEM enrichment program at a large public research university sought to examine practices designed to foster students’ sense of belonging. The study revealed how proactive care, holistic support, community building, providing praise, confidence-building practices, and undergraduate research opportunities supported retention and degree persistence for underrepresented students (Lane, 2016). Finally, social integration may matter more for some STEM majors more than others. For example, Dika & D’Amico (2016) found that social integration mattered more for other-STEM majors, who they defined as all other STEM fields except for physics, engineering, math, and computer science fields.


Building Infrastructure Leading to Diversity (BUILD) consists of a set of 10 linked awards granted to undergraduate institutions, each of which developed approaches intended to determine the most effective ways to engage students from diverse backgrounds in biomedical research, and to prepare students to become potential future contributors to the NIH-funded research enterprise. The data collected by BUILD institutions for evaluation purposes requires a measure of sense of belonging in college (currently on student surveys) that is critical in transition experiences for aspiring biomedical students (Hurtado, et al., 2007). Together, these measures should be a valuable extension of work contributing to understanding the many factors surrounding college persistence—especially for URG students.


The national BUILD evaluation (McCreath et al., 2017) aims to measure the relationship between institutional STEM education and training programs and social integration, particularly for underrepresented and disadvantaged groups in the biomedical disciplines. A better understanding of the extent to which social integration contributes to attaining biomedical career milestones, especially for these groups, can provide a blueprint to cultivate the persistence of college students with biomedical career aspirations at other colleges and universities.


Updated by Krystle Cobian, November 2019



Braxton, J. M. (Ed.). (2000). Reworking the student departure puzzle. Vanderbilt University Press.

Dika, S. L., & D'Amico, M. M. (2016). Early experiences and integration in the persistence of first‐generation college students in STEM and non‐STEM

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Hurtado, S., & Carter, D. F. (1997). Effects of college transition and perceptions of the campus racial climate on Latino college students' sense of belonging.

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Hurtado, S., Han, J. C., Sáenz, V. B., Espinosa, L. L., Cabrera, N. L., & Cerna, O. S. (2007). Predicting transition and adjustment to college: Biomedical and

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attainment of underrepresented students. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 15(3), ar39. https://doi.org/10.1187/cbe.16-01-0070

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Spady, W. G. (1971). Dropouts from higher education: Toward an empirical model. Interchange, 2(3), 38-62.

Tierney, W. G. (1992). An anthropological analysis of student participation in college. Journal of Higher Education, 63(6), 603-618.

Tinto, V. (1993). Leaving college: Rethinking the causes and cures of student attrition, 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


Suggested citation

Ho, Jennifer. (2016). Why is “Social Integration” Considered Important for College Persistence? Literature Brief. Los Angeles, CA: Diversity Program Consortium (DPC) Coordination and Evaluation Center at UCLA. https://www.diversityprogramconsortium.org/

The Diversity Program Consortium Coordination and Evaluation Center at UCLA is supported by Office of the Director of the National Institutes of Health / National Institutes of General Medical Sciences under award number U54GM119024.
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