Overview and Background
For most high school graduates, attending a major four-year research university marks a major life transition. Many students move away from their home for the first time. They take classes that are larger and more difficult than what they are used to. And they do this while forming new social relationships and networks with the people around them. It can be one of the most exciting times of students’ lives, but it can also be stressful, lonely, and confusing. Humans are a social species, and it is difficult for students to thrive when they feel insecure and uncertain about their social connections.
In recognition of the social and academic challenges associated with transitioning to college, in 2015 Pitt joined the College Transition Collaborative, a consortium of more than two dozen colleges and universities around the country dedicated to studying and improving the experience of transitioning to college. It turns out that while the stress of attending college is felt by most, it is not felt equally by all. Students from historically marginalized and excluded populations tend to experience higher-than-average transitional stress and uncertainty. Researchers in the collaborative have shown that addressing and alleviating students’ belonging uncertainty during the transition to college can set all students up for long-term success, particularly students from historically marginalized and excluded populations.
Building on the insights of the collaborative, in 2019 Pitt launched the Pitt Transition Study to examine how to improve the high school-to-college transition for Pitt students. As part of the study, incoming first-year students are asked to complete a 30-minute activity that is designed to dispel common myths and misconceptions about the transition to Pitt. Through the activity, students come to learn that having doubts about the transition to college is very normal, so if they happen to have doubts, they are not alone. Moreover, students learn that the adversity they encounter during their transition – such as feeling homesick, anonymous, and alone - is likely to be temporary.
Following insights generated by the collaborative, the results of the Pitt Transition Study have been illuminating, and the reach of the project continues to expand. Over the past three years, the PTS has continued to expand, as depicted in the below figure.
In 2021, the PTS grew to develop an analogous activity for incoming graduate students. The transition to graduate school can also be very challenging for students, posing similar concerns about belonging and fit. However, many other factors, such students’ relationships with faculty and the social climate of different disciplines, are often magnified for the graduate student experience.
- Excited to come to Pitt
The results of the Pitt Transition Study support the argument that addressing belongingness concerns during the transition to college helps students thrive. Moreover, the benefits appear to be the greatest among student populations who, for social, political, and historical reasons, tend to shoulder disproportionate levels of belonging uncertainty. For example, after completing the 30-minute activity, students were asked about how excited they were to come to Pitt. Results showed that completing the activity made students more excited to come to Pitt, and this increase was especially large among students from underrepresented racial minority groups.
- Anticipated difficulty of the transition
While increasing students’ excitement about coming to Pitt, the online activity also appeared to prepare students for the challenge they were facing. That is, the activity did not lower the stakes by making students believe the transition would be easy. On the contrary, regardless of their demographic background, students who completed the activity reported that they anticipated more difficulty during the transition than students who completed the control activity. The combination of higher excitement and higher anticipated difficulty is noteworthy, as it suggests the belonging activity was more than just an emotional appeal to reassure students that Pitt is a warm and benign place. Students who received the activity thought the transition would be more difficult, and they were more excited to face this challenge.
- Effects on GPA
Finally, beyond encouraging the view that the transition to Pitt would be an exciting challenge, the benefits of completing the activity extended to students’ college performance. Analyses of the PTS data have found that students who complete the activity get better grades over their first year. Moreover, the benefits of the activity on students’ first year GPA were particularly pronounced among underrepresented racial minority groups.
These results have several important implications. First, they illustrate the efficacy of a brief, easy-to-implement belonging activity for helping all students thrive. But beyond demonstrating a useful tool, the results serve to reinforce the importance of addressing belongingness concerns, particularly for historically marginalized student groups. Investing in ways to foster belonging can help initiative and maintain a virtuous cycle, in which a student body who feels a sense of belonging may in turn make Pitt an authentically warmer and more inclusive university for all. Together with other Student Success efforts targeted around faculty, advisers, and administrators, the PTS forms part of a broader eco-system of aimed to help make Pitt a place where all students can realize their potential and forge their own path.