Improving the Student Experience at Urban Universities

By: Samantha Levine, Associate Director, Coalition of Urban Serving Universities (USU)


How can institutions of higher education attend to students’ sense of belonging to improve their experiences and outcomes in college? Since 2018, the Coalition of Urban Serving Universities has been exploring this question as part of the Student Experience Project (SEP), a collaborative network of research universities and national organizations working to improve student academic outcomes by transforming the college student experience and creating equitable learning environments. This work has been informed by decades of social psychology research which demonstrates that learning environments designed with students’ psychological experiences in mind can lead to increases in students’ academic engagement, improved well-being, and more equitable outcomes. Supportive learning environments are particularly important for structurally disadvantaged students—such as Black, Latinx, and Native American students, first-generation college students, and students from low-income backgrounds—who are more likely to face obstacles to their education and who are actively seeking cues from their institution that they belong and can succeed there. For urban serving universities looking to enroll and graduate diverse populations of students, leveraging this research to create more inclusive learning environments can ultimately improve equity in student success.


A new report from the project outlines key findings from the 2020 – 2021 academic year, when 188 instructors across six institutions implemented evidence-based classroom practices to create more supportive and equitable learning environments. These efforts resulted in improved experiences for students across all demographic groups, with the largest gains among Black, Latina, and Native American women experiencing financial stress. Most importantly, improving the student experience is strongly associated with improvement in academic outcomes; as students’ experiences became more positive over the term, their likelihood of earning an A or B in the course increased, and their likelihood of earning a D, F, or W (formally withdrawing from the course) decreased. For institutions looking to close equity gaps, the SEP affirms that changing learning environments to better support students’ experiences can be a key contributor to moving the needle on student outcomes.


The project had positive impacts on instructors as well – across the participating institutions, faculty reported that their own sense of belonging at their institution improved over the course of the project. With faculty teaching remotely due to COVID-19, many instructors were isolated from their peers and support networks. The SEP provided the opportunity for faculty to participate in communities of practice to develop their teaching expertise and connect with other instructors across different fields and disciplines. At a recent webinar, leaders from SEP institutions elaborated on the positive experiences of instructors, noting that the SEP process made faculty more cognizant of students’ differential experiences in the classroom, and that faculty were thus motivated and eager to continually try out new practices in response to student feedback. With growing numbers of faculty leaving academia, this project demonstrates that supporting student and faculty well-being can go hand in hand.


The SEP has developed a number of free resources to support institutions in improving student experience, which are now publicly available as part of a Resource Hub on the project’s website. These tools have been field-tested by the institutions in the Student Experience Project and are informed by social psychology research.


To learn more about the Student Experience Project, visit studentexperienceproject.org, or browse the links below for more perspectives on the SEP’s new report.