Learning Starts at the Application: Community & Belonging in Student Onboarding

Concurrent Session 7
Streamed Session Blended Community College/TAACCCT Research Equity and Inclusion

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Session Materials

Brief Abstract

Learn how Western Governors University is leveraging an AI-based community-building platform to create a deeper sense of belonging among prospective students.  Preliminary research findings concerning the impact that belonging has on enrollment will be shared.  Attendees will discuss the research implications, especially as applied to their own institution.


As a catalyst in forming WGU Labs in 2018, Jason was appointed executive director of WGU Labs based on his history of bold actions. He works to increase post-secondary student success utilizing research-based strategies, data analytics, and an innovative approach to online education. Jason has more than 15 years of experience in data analytics and business intelligence. Jason directed an initiative harnessing the affective domain to improve student success, which won an innovation award from the Online Learning Consortium in 2017. Before WGU Labs, Jason directed the institutional research efforts at WGU. Prior to WGU, Jason led the Office of Institutional Effectiveness at Kaplan University, responsible for data analytics, assessment, and institutional research. Jason was an early champion of modern data warehousing and leveraging business intelligence to advance higher education outcomes, and he welcomes new opportunities provided by advancements in technology. In his free time, Jason spends time with his family and enjoys Utah's famous snow.
Dr. Fotuhi is a social psychologist with a research focus on motivation and optimal performance. He is also a nationally recognized speaker, with over 15 years of experience in training students, athletes, and leaders to optimize their performance. Dr. Fotuhi earned his PhD in psychology from the University of Waterloo and completed a Postdoctoral Fellowship at Stanford University. He currently holds an affiliation with the University of Pittsburgh. With a deep understanding of psychological theory and research methodology, Dr. Fotuhi has devoted his career to translating key insights from research on performance optimization into actionable strategies that help to improve critical outcomes in the domains of academics, athletics, leadership, and personal growth.
Katy is an impact-driven CEO who has spent 20 years creating solutions that extend access to high-quality education for every student. She is the co-founder and CEO of InScribe, an innovative collaboration platform that helps improve student engagement and build community with a focus on supporting non-traditional and underserved student populations. Leveraging her experience and strategic abilities, Katy specializes in ed-tech innovations, student success, and communities of belonging.

Extended Abstract

Attendee learning objectives:

  • Understand the psychology of student belonging and the related consequences when that need for belonging is frustrated.

  • Explore community-building tools as applied to the student enrollment experience

  • Discover of practical measurements tools for prospective students (measuring sense of belonging and community along the enrollment funnel)

  • Explore quantitative and qualitative research methodologies used to evaluate impact

Western Governor University’s (WGU) sizeable student population is unique, with a broad demographic distribution and rich permutations of education and experience. Our large network of current and former students, combined with a 100%-online teaching model, provides us unmatched research access and insights into student outcomes.

As with other institutions, we also experience challenges converting prospective students from the application phase to matriculation. In analyzing our enrollment process, we found an opportunity to focus on the early stages of the enrollment process--often one of the first touch-points between the prospective student and the academic institution--where student engagement can be crucial. It is at this critical juncture when many feel uncertain about whether a postsecondary education is the right choice for them, their minds filled with doubts about whether they have the requisite competence to succeed, whether they will be valued, and whether they feel like they belong in this new environment. If a student experiences difficulty, lack of support, or confusion during these early stages, they are likely to conclude that the academic pursuit is not for them, and thus abandon their efforts to enroll. If, however, they are kept feeling engaged and supported--through responsive and efficient guidance--they will experience less frustration as they successfully complete their enrollment process and, in turn, begin to build the confidence that they can succeed in college and that they do belong at WGU. This early, and consistent, effort to promote a sense of belonging and community is one of the key psychological experiences that allows students to feel connected with their institution and more confident about their nascent academic journey. 

Nonetheless, building a sense of community remains challenging at the best of times for any institution. Oftentimes, many students must also contend with both internal challenges in their daily lives, such dealing with negative stereotypes, belonging uncertainty, and psychological scarcity; as well as external pressures of financial struggles, family demands, and absent or negative social support from their communities. These pressures are now further compounded as a result of the current COVID-19 pandemic, resulting in factors that create a sense of detachment from education for many potential students. 

To amend some of these pressures and foster a greater sense of community and belonging, WGU is using an advanced technology platform built around student interactions, moderator actions, and machine learning, in order to spark engagement early in the enrollment process. The platform provides prospective students with a support community to access pertinent information; share excitement and motivation; calm anxiety and uncertainty. With this timely, responsive, and supportive interaction platform in place during the enrollment phase, we explore the impact on enrollment to matriculation retention rates as well as student experiences throughout their academic experience. 

Table breakout discussion will be structured through questions from a recognized social psychologist with expertise in student sense of belonging, mindset, and equity.