Sense of community on collegiate campus and graduation expectations: an exploratory study


Researchers have identified several factors that influence the academic success of college students, including, for example, personality traits, high-school academic achievement, and social class before entering college. In this case study, we contribute to this growing body of literature by analyzing the influence of sense of community (SOC) on student success, measured by student expectations that they will successfully graduate from their university. After surveying a sample of students at a private college in Provo, UT, USA, we found a positive correlation between SOC and graduation expectations, although our results varied between class standings. While senior students had the lowest levels of SOC compared to freshmen, they also had the highest indication that they expect to graduate. Freshmen and junior students, on the other hand, had the highest SOC compared to senior students but the lowest indication that they expect to graduate. Due to the association between SOC and graduation expectations, we argue that universities can help first- and second-year students feel more confident that they will graduate through initiatives that strengthen their sense of community.


College campuses have long been a useful setting to study sense of community (SOC) because of the students’ “mental unity” and the shared traditions, goals, and values inherent in university life (e.g., Agnell 1928, p. 1). While ideally a university encourages a strong sense of community, the reality is that some students do not feel as connected to the community as others (Shouse 1996; Jacobs and Archie 2008; Jason et al. 2015; Lounsbury and DeNeui 1996; National Academies of Sciences 2017; Townley et al. 2013; Flaherty et al. 2014). Students involved in university events and activities, who feel included, and have direct career goals, generally have a higher sense of community (Derrico et al. 2015; Cheng 2004; Mendoza et al. 2016) than those who are lonely, excluded, or struggle with employment prospects as graduation dates approach (Cheng 2004; Mendoza et al. 2016; Roberts and Brown 1989). What is more, students with a high SOC tend to perform better academically, are less likely to drop out, are more involved in university activities, and have higher levels of psychosocial health than students with a low SOC (Elkins et al. 2011; Freeman et al. 2007; Jacobs and Archie 2008; Mendoza et al. 2016; Mounts 2004; National Academies of Sciences 2017; Wolf et al. 2017; Sorochty 1989; Walton and Cohen 2007).

Although the literature has explored the value of on-campus SOC, differences in perceived value by academic class standing and the correlated influence of SOC on graduation expectations remain poorly understood. Previous studies have found that while freshmanFootnote 1 students have generally higher SOC levels than students of other class standings (Bohus et al. 2005) and the levels correlate with successful degree completion (Harris 2006), they do not compare this relationship across class standing. Our study addresses this gap by measuring sense of community according to class standing and by exploring interaction effects of SOC on the relationship between class standing and graduation expectations. We anticipate that SOC has a stronger effect on improving graduation expectations for freshman students than it does for senior students because the campus community matters more to those in the early years of college than it does for final-year students (Bohus et al. 2005). Although past studies show that interventions that aim to build a stronger sense of community have consistent positive impacts on college performance (National Academies of Sciences 2017), the studies have not specified graduation expectations as an outcome of focus. This study, however, though not generalizable to other settings, can guide administrators and policymakers with their outreach and community-building efforts to increase a sense of community for all academic classes and lead to improved student confidence in graduation.

In the present study, we use data from an email questionnaire distributed at Brigham Young University (BYU), a private teaching and research institution in Provo, UT, USA. The survey, which included questions about our variables of interest, yielded 1,959 valid responses. Below, after a brief review of the literature, we examine the relationship between sense of community and class standing using multiple regression analysis. Following this, we use multiple regression analysis again to explore the relationship between SOC, class standing, and graduation expectations. Finally, we briefly discuss our findings and their implications for university administrators and policymakers.

Literature review

Sense of community

In the social science literature, “community” often refers to “when, and where community happens for people” (Cope et al. 2019, p. 2, see also Brown et al. 1989). A community consists of the characteristics, interactions, and goals of its members. Those belonging to a community often share certain characteristics, including traits or goals, which distinguish them from those outside the community (Cohen 2013). The “group cohesiveness” (McMillan and Chavis 1986) inherent in communities can bind individuals “toward a common cause or experience” (Lloyd-Jones 1989, p. 2) and create strong social ties and relationships (Beaumont and Brown 2018).

Sense of community, sense of belonging, and feelings of attachment describe the level of connectedness and integration that individuals experience with their communities (McMillan and Chavis 1986; Dawson 2006; Ostrove and Long 2007). The concept was originally introduced by Sarason in 1974, developed into a formal framework by McMillan and Chavis in 1986, and expanded by McMillan in 1996. Most of the literature about sense of community draws inspiration from the theoretical framework established by McMillan and Chavis, which says that for individuals to have a healthy sense of community, they must feel they are valued, included, accepted, cared about, feel at home, have shared values, group membership, and that their needs are fulfilled through community participation. McMillan (1996) later described four key characteristics that foster SOC: “a spirit of belonging together, a feeling that there is an authority structure that can be trusted, an awareness that trade and mutual benefit come from being together, and a spirit that comes from shared experiences” (15).

These four categories form the basis for the Sense of Community Index, a twelve-item measurement tool that, despite criticism (Chipuer and Pretty 1999; Peterson et al. 2006), has been used to examine SOC in numerous studies for 25 years. For example, scholars have analyzed its relationship to a plethora of other variables including social participation and well-being (Cicognani et al. 2008; Talò et al. 2014), place attitudes and social capital (Long and Perkins 2003), community identity (Puddifoot 1996) as well as loneliness and neighboring (Prezza et al. 2001). The scale has also been used in settings such as neighborhoods and workplaces (Chipuer and Pretty 1999), residential blocks (Perkins et al. 1990; Long and Perkins 2003), substance-abuse recovery housing (Stevens et al. 2011), individual investment in collective resources and facilities (Mak et al. 2009), and universities (Obst and White 2004). Across the above-mentioned studies, reported measures of internal consistency for a unidimensional sense of community index were found, on average, to be acceptable (mean reported alpha = 0.74, standard deviation = 0.07), with alphas scores ranging between 0.63 and 0.84.

Sense of community on campus

Because of campus-life traditions, the goals and experiences of college or university life, and the innate “mental unity” (Agnell 1928, p. 1) of university students—all of which foster a sense of community—(Lounsbury and DeNeui 1996; Elkins et al. 2011; Cheng 2004), many researchers see college campuses as model settings in which to evaluate and understand communities (Lounsbury and DeNeui 1996; Obst and White 2004; Cheng 2004; Cicognani et al. 2008; Jacobs and Archie 2008; Townley et al. 2013; Flaherty et al. 2014; Jason et al. 2015; Elkins et al. 2011). Building a community feeling is an important and enduring goal of higher education (Lloyd-Jones 1989), encouraging students to understand, believe in, and live the university’s mission and values, as well as familiarizing them with the history and traditions of the institution, all of which can improve community attitudes (Wiley 2002; Wolf 2000).

Although every campus aims to provide a strong community feeling, research shows that sense of community varies among both institutions and students (Shouse 1996; Jacobs and Archie 2008; Jason et al. 2015; Lounsbury and DeNeui 1996; National Academies of Sciences 2017; Townley et al. 2013; Flaherty et al. 2014). Smaller colleges—those with 9000 or fewer students—generally show greater levels of SOC than do larger colleges—those with more than 10,000 students (Lounsbury and DeNeui 1996). Individual university students who experience a greater sense of community tend to have higher grades, show academic efficacy, persist academically, express a stronger intention to graduate, learn effectively, assume leadership roles, and get involved in university events, activities, and on-campus groups (Berger 1997; Cheng 2004; Derrico et al. 2015; Elkins et al. 2011; Freeman et al. 2007; Jacobs and Archie 2008; Mendoza et al. 2016; National Academies of Sciences 2017; Rovai and Baker 2004; Wolf et al. 2017; Sorochty 1989; Walton and Cohen 2007). Those with a higher sense of community are also less likely to drop out, have lower levels of depression, and experience a positive sense of self-worth (Freeman et al. 2007; Mounts 2004; National Academies 2017; Pittman and Richmond 2008; Rovai and Baker 2004). In contrast, students who lack clear career paths, who struggle to acquire a job as they approach graduation, who feel that promises made by the university were not met (Mendoza et al. 2016), or who feel lonely or excluded (Cheng 2004; Roberts and Brown 1989) have an associated lower sense of community. Davis et al. (2019) show that measures of academic performance and social belonging are both strong—though independent—predictors of retention. They also show that belonging was surprisingly more important for student persistence to the second and third terms than other factors. Our research builds on this research by providing additional insights into how sense of community influences students according to class standing.

Sense of community and academic class standing

Most research into sense of community on university campuses limited its sampling to freshman students or excluded class standing as a key predictor. Such research finds that freshman college students who report a strong sense of belonging see their professors as caring and their peers as accepting (Freeman et al. 2007), have increased positive self-perceptions, higher perceptions of academic competence, higher grades (Pittman and Richmond 2008), find their coursework to be applicable, adjust well to academic challenges (Hurtado et al. 2007), feel their expectations of the university are met, and participate in recreational sports (Hackman 2008). While the above-mentioned studies sampled only freshman students, Bohus et al. (2005) found that compared to other classes, freshman students report a stronger sense of belonging than other class levels and are more likely to live in on-campus housing and seek help from university officials instead of outside sources. This, the authors say, strengthens the students’ sense of community.

Perhaps, previous studies focused on freshman students partly because retention efforts and inclusivity programs are usually directed at those students. These programs, intended to prevent the high attrition rates associated with the first year of college (Tinto 1987), often strengthens a sense of community among freshman students, but their effect diminishes as the students move through the academic years. A report by The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (2017) indicates that most students worry about community-belonging during their first year, with decreasing levels of concern over time. Indeed, two studies of freshman attrition rates found that programs designed to build a sense of community often focus exclusively on freshman students (Jacobs and Archie 2008; Wolf et al. 2017). Unfortunately, to our knowledge, researchers have not comprehensively investigated how a low SOC influences how students feel about the likelihood of success beyond their first year.

The few studies that have addressed the sense of community of upperclassmen have yielded significant findings, pointing to a need for further investigation. One study found that as students continue through their academic program, they experience a decline in SOC—seniors experienced more negative psychological states and were more likely to disengage from campus life than other students (Bohus et al. 2005; Cheng 2004). Lounsbury and DeNeui (1996) found that seniors had significantly lower SOC scores compared to students in other class standings, although freshmen, sophomores, and juniors did not significantly differ from each other. Thus, further research is needed to understand the role of SOC for sophomores, juniors, and seniors.

Sense of community and graduation

Scholars use several measures to quantify collegiate success, including but not limited to student retention, academic performance or GPA, intellectual, social, and psychological well-being. (Sparkman et al. 2012; Ash and Schreiner 2016). However, graduation might be one of the more holistic measures of collegiate success due to an implicit correspondence with other metrics such as progression through a course of study and demonstration of a minimal level of academic proficiency (Sparkman et al. 2012). Past research has frequently found SOC to be an important factor in students’ intentions to graduate and for their continued retention up to graduation (Berger 1997; Harris 2006; Jacobs and Archie 2008; Ash and Schreiner 2016; Mendoza et al. 2016; Wolf et al. 2017). For example, Harris (2006) found that 87.17% of adult students three weeks shy of graduation reported a sense of community as a significant factor in helping them to obtain a college degree. Ash and Schreiner (2016) suggest that a sense of belonging or “fitting in” directly relates to the student’s commitment to the school and, thus, strengthens the intention to graduate. Furthermore, many educational institutions are under pressure to increase their retention rates, thereby increasing their graduation rates (Jacobs and Archie 2008), leading many to be interested in the associations found between student success and sense of community.

For these reasons, many studies analyze retention or graduation intent in conjunction with sense of community. However, while a student may intend to graduate, their expectation (or their perceived likelihood) of actually graduating may capture different sentiments. Our review of the literature, however, finds little research overall that relates sense of community to graduation expectations or that relies on representative samples of campus populations. This calls for further investigation into their relationship.

Research questions

The present study contributes to the literature in two ways. First, while quite a few studies have analyzed sense of community as a predictor of success in college, and some look at graduation rates as their measure of success, very few are focused on expectations to graduate as a measure of success. For students still in school, further research is needed to assess the relationship between sense of community and graduation expectation rather than solely using post hoc measures after students have graduated. We consider the students’ expectation to graduate to have a slightly different connotation than intention to graduate and suggest that it may capture a slightly different relationship. Second, while previous research shows the importance of SOC on college campuses, including its influence on the likelihood of graduation, relatively little is known about how sense of community matters according to class standing. Most studies include only freshmen, while others fail to include class standing as a variable in their models. Taken together, our research addresses these gaps, by addressing the following questions:

  1. 1.

    Does a student’s sense of community vary by class standing?

  2. 2.

    Does a student’s sense of community influence graduation expectations?

  3. 3.

    Does a student’s class standing influence graduation expectations?

  4. 4.

    Does the relationship between sense of community and graduation expectations vary by class standing?

Below we detail the analytical methods we use to assess our research questions.



In order to address our research questions, we draw on a case study conducted at Brigham Young University (BYU), a large, private teaching and research institution located in Provo, UT, USA. The university is owned and operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (hereafter referred to as the Church, per request of church leadership: see Style Guide of the Church: BYU provides an ideal context to conduct a case study on the effects of sense of community on academic achievement, as it is comprised a largely homogenous population. This is a unique contribution to the research, which has traditionally analyzed effects of sense of community on more diverse campus populations. We argue that such a homogenous population will allow for more clarity in the relationships between sense of community and students’ graduation expectations.

The majority of students at BYU are members of the same religion (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) and all students are required to adhere to standards of behavioral conduct through rules set forth by BYU, leading to a strong sense of shared values, identities, and social expectations. Indeed, McMillan and Chavis (1986) emphasized the important role that shared values possess in building a stronger sense of community. Furthermore, BYU is located in a social area primarily including the states of Utah and Idaho which has been deemed unique in the nation, meriting the titles “Mormon corridor” or “Mormon cultural region” (Meinig 1965; Hunter and Toney 2005; Brehm and Eisenhauer 2006; Chinni and Gimpel 2010). These labels have been given to the area by researchers due to the large proportion of members of the Church (also known as MormonsFootnote 2). The dominant influence of one religion in a geographic area has been shown to have influenced the culture, opinions, and politics of the region (Hunter and Toney 2005; Brehm and Eisenhauer 2006; Chinni and Gimpel 2010). As a result, past research has found that there is a “strong regional self-identity” in this region (Brehm and Eisenhauer 2006, p. 394), which encompasses BYU. Due to these factors, we theorize that sense of community among the student population of BYU should naturally be stronger than that found in other populations. We further theorize that this allows for a less socially complex setting in which to more clearly isolate and examine the relationship between sense of community and students’ expectations to graduate, as to our knowledge, such a homogenous population has not been used before to analyze the relationship between these variables.

To conduct the study, we sent out a survey questionnaire via email using a randomized sample of 6000 currently enrolled students provided by the Director of BYU’s University Office of Institutional Assessment and Analysis. Data collection occurred during February of 2018. The link emailed to students contained a consent form requiring completion before the student could access the questionnaire. The email also informed students that by completing the survey, they would be entered into a drawing to win one of 30 online gift cards, each worth $20. In accordance with Dillman’s standard multi-wave approach (Dillman et al. 2014), we first sent out a pre-survey email to explain the purpose of the study and an invitation to complete it. This was followed by a second email containing a link to the survey questionnaire. A third email reminded potential respondents to complete the survey within 72 h following the email notification.

We received responses from 1959 students, making our response rate 32.65%, which exceeded our expectations. According to established methodology literature, an approximate response rate of 20%, or approximately 1200 responses, would yield a dataset large enough to generalize our findings to the student population at BYU. In addition, we found that our survey is largely representative of the student population of BYU (see Table 1) when compared to the demographic information regarding the student population provided to us by the University’s Office of Communications. Specifically, we note substantially similar patterns in regard to religion, race, socioeconomic class, and other demographics. The greater majority of students, 98.4%, identified as members of the Church; 80.04% identified as white; 53.3% identified as female; and the median reported a household income of students during high school was between $50,000 and $74,999. Despite the representativeness of the sample with the larger population, we acknowledge some discrepancies between the population and our sample statistics.

Table 1 Demographics: sample compared to BYU undergraduate population

There is a smaller multiracial representation in our sample than the population. We attribute this to the lack of an option in the survey to indicate more than one race outside of writing in “multiracial” in the provided space below “other.” The multiracial data we did gather was solely acquired by assigning those who marked “other” as their race affiliation and when prompted, responded “multiracial” or “mixed” race. Consequently, our sample reflected lower numbers of multiracial students than those recorded by the Brigham Young University Office of Communications (BYUOoC). Furthermore, a higher number of participants (n = 201) than indicated by the BYUOoC declined to provide racial or ethnic identification. Additionally, of those who identified as “other” (n = 43), 41 participants provided supplementary information in which they wrote in the following responses in the space provided: “Human,” “American,” “European American,” “none of your business,” “A Child of God,” and “I refuse to clarify.” Furthermore, the sample signifies a greater percentage of women than the population represents. This, however, is not abnormal. Research has shown that women tend to respond at greater rates than men, both through physical and online surveys (Lyness and Kropf 2007; Smith 2008; Singer et al. 2000; Underwood et al. 2000).

Additionally, the sample included fewer students of color than the population statistics would indicate. Sheldon et al. (2007) discuss several studies conducted in the U.S. that have shown that individuals identifying as Black or another racial minority participate less frequently in surveys. A potential cause for the decreased response rates among racial minorities, they suggest, could be due to increased negative perceptions of, or association with, the institution for which they are asked to provide feedback. Studies have shown that Black students and students of color attending predominantly white institutions endure more negative experiences at their university than their white counterparts through various microaggressions and even isolation during social events (Ash and Schreiner 2016; Harwood et al. 2012; Hinderlie and Kenny 2002). These harmful experiences would undoubtedly decrease the desire for Black students and students of color to complete surveys from their institutions, lowering their overall response rates.

In accordance with requests from the Office of Institutional Assessment and Analysis, and to obtain data to help the Office of General Education with its goal to understand student feelings about General Education Requirements, data collection was limited to February 2018. The survey asked BYU students about their experience of community at BYU, their perceptions of general education at the university, as well as general demographic questions. Prior to data collection, the survey questionnaire was pilot tested with 200 students. Pilot testing confirmed reliability of the survey instrument, criterion validity of established measures, and the adequacy of our sampling procedures. Specifically, reliability of the survey instrument was primarily determined in two ways: (1) through split-halve comparisons of the pilot sample, and (2) from a sub-set of students who both responded to the pilot test and volunteered to participate semi-structured discussions across three focus groups. Additionally, the focus group discussions allowed us to qualitatively access for consistent understanding of questions and instructions while also affording us an opportunity to gauge, again qualitatively, content validity of items included in the survey instrument. Moreover, for items previously validated by other researchers, criterion validity was assessed by subjecting pilot study responses to inter-item reliability tests and compared results with those reported in the literature. Last, the adequacy of our sampling procedures was determined by comparing the responses to general demographic questions with the known parameters of the BYU undergraduate student body population.


The dependent variables in our analysis are an index of sense of community questions and a measure of graduation expectation. We measure sense of community with an eleven-item index. These items are drawn from the scale proposed by McMillan and Chavis (1986) and have been used by a number of researchers (e.g., Mak et al. 2009; Steven et al. 2011). We note that the original SCI questions were minimally modified to better fit our study setting; respondents were asked about their “university” rather than their “community.” To wit, students were asked to indicate to what extent they agreed or disagreed with the following statements:

  1. 1.

    “I think [my university] is a good place for me to go to school,”

  2. 2.

    “People at [my university] do not share the same values,”

  3. 3.

    “My classmates and I want the same things from [the university],”

  4. 4.

    “I can recognize most of the people who go to school at [my university],”

  5. 5.

    “I feel at home at [my university],”

  6. 6.

    “Very few of the people at [my university] know me,”

  7. 7.

    “I care about what people at [my university] think of my actions,”

  8. 8.

    “I have almost no influence over what [my university] is like,”

  9. 9.

    “If there is a problem at [my university], the people here can get it solved,”

  10. 10.

    “It is very important to me to be a student at BYU”

  11. 11.

    “People at [my university] generally don’t get along with each other.”

Each item ranged from 1 to 5 where 1 = disagree and 5 = agree. In generating our variable, negatively worded items were reverse coded and the eleven items and combined into a composite calculated as the mean of the response scores from the 11 questions. The alpha reliability of the sense of community scale is acceptable at 0.764.Footnote 3 Insofar as our research expectations suggest that sense of community mediates graduation expectations, we also include the SOC index as a key independent variable in the models predicting graduation expectations.

Our second dependent variable, graduation expectations, was measured by prompting students to indicate how strongly they agreed or disagreed with the statement: “I expect to graduate from BYU.” This question was also measured on a 5-point Likert scale where higher numbers indicate a greater level of agreement.

To further identify the mechanisms that influence a student’s sense of community and feelings towards graduation, we include several individual-level independent variables. Independent variables were selected based on their use in previous literature assessing sense of community and collegiate success (Ash and Schreiner 2016; Rubin 2012; Ostrove and Long 2007; Sparkman et al. 2012). Academic class standing was measured as a series of dummies (yes = 1) for each class standing: freshman, sophomore, junior, and senior. Precollege household income—when the respondent was in high school—is treated as a continuous measure. Precollege household income was measured as (1) under $10,000, (2) $10,000–$19,999, (3) $20,000–$29,999, (4) $30,000–$39,999, (5) $40,000–$49,999, (6) $50,000–$74,999, (7) $75,000–$99,999, and (8) $1000,000 or more. Dummy variables were also included for sex (female = 1) and race (white = 1). Descriptive statistics for all variables used in the analysis are shown in Table 2.

Table 2 Descriptive statistics

Analytic strategy

To address our research questions, we specify ordinary least squares (OLS) regression models that predict sense of community and graduation expectations. Respondents with missing data were dropped from our analyses using listwise deletion. For the analyses presented in Table 3, freshmen were chosen as the comparison group as suggested by the literature showing that freshmen are more likely to feel a sense of community as a result of the university’s efforts to welcome first-year students and reduce attrition. Seniors were chosen as the comparison group for the analyses represented in Table 4. Theoretically, the seniors in our survey would feel more confident than students of other classes about graduating since they were close to graduating when they took the survey.

Table 3 OLS regression of sense of community on class level
Table 4 OLS regression of sense of community and class level on graduation expectations


OLS regression estimates predicting sense of community are reported in Table 3. Model 1 is effectively a bivariate model, equivalent to an analysis of variance, including only the dummy variables for class standing and measuring only the change in the mean level of sense of community across the different measures of class standing. We find that, compared to freshman students, the mean level of sense of community is significantly, although small in effect, lower for juniors and seniors. Model 2 analyzes the same relationship but includes control variables. We find the same pattern of lower mean levels of sense of community among juniors and seniors when compared to freshman students. However, in the presence of the control variables, this negative association also extends to sophomores. In addition, we find that female and white students have significantly, although small in effect, higher average levels of SOC, which is consistent with the findings from previous research (e.g., Ash and Schreiner 2016; Rubin 2012). Our analyses further find that students having higher precollege household income had higher mean levels of SOC.

OLS regression estimates predicting graduation expectations are reported in Table 4. Model 1, following a modeling strategy that parallels the approach taken in the previous table, shows that sense of community is positively correlated with graduation expectations. In Model 2, we add class standing into the analysis. Here, we confirm sense of community’s positive association with expectations of graduation and show that, compared to seniors, freshman students, sophomores, and juniors were all less confident in their expectation to graduate from BYU. Model 3 adds the remaining control variables. Controlling for race, precollege household income, and sex, sense of community continues to have a significant, but small, positive association with students’ expectations to graduate. Freshmen, sophomores, and juniors are still less confident than seniors in their expectation to graduate. We note that none of our control variables—race, precollege household income, and sex—had a significant influence on expectation to graduate.

In Model 4, we examine the interaction effects of sense of community and class standings on graduation expectations. The aim of the interaction terms is to establish whether the effects of sense of community on graduation expectations differ across the class standing categories. The interaction between SOC and freshman and the interaction between SOC and sophomore both show a significant, although small in effect, positive relationship with graduation expectations. This suggests that, in our data, while graduation expectations are initially lower during the first few years of attending the university, students with higher levels of sense of community early on in their college career are more likely to expect to graduate than those with lower SOC.


This study evaluates the impact of sense of community on the expectation of students to graduate and how that relationship varies by each academic class standing at Brigham Young University. Because graduation can be seen as a comprehensive marker for success in colleges and universities (Ash and Schreiner 2016), we sampled students’ expectation to graduate and used that as our measure of college success. Overall, we found that a student’s sense of community is positively correlated with their expectation to graduate, aligning with past research suggesting that a strong sense of community improves students’ ability to succeed, specifically when measured by graduation (Ash and Schreiner 2016; The National Academies of Sciences 2017; Mendoza et al. 2016; Jacobs and Archie 2008; Wolf et al. 2017; Tinto 2016; Davis et al. 2019). When comparing sense of community and expectation to graduate across class standing, we found that members of freshman and sophomore classes experience a higher sense of community than those in the junior and senior classes, while upperclassmen, primarily seniors, hold the highest expectations to graduate. We suspect that this apparent contradiction to our overall findings is due to the increased proximity of seniors to graduation compared to lowerclassmen, naturally leading them to feel more confident that they will graduate regardless of their sense of community. Additionally, previous research found that students have the highest attrition rates during their freshman year (Tinto 1987). Therefore, it is more likely that students who persist through those first years will expect to graduate.


We acknowledge several limitations of our study. The first is that our data are neither panel nor longitudinal and thus cannot explain how sense of community affects expectation to graduate over time at the university. In addition, our data cannot control for the likelihood that students who are unlikely to graduate will have dropped out of the university, thus potentially creating a confounding variable. Future studies should consider using a longitudinal study design to account for these limitations. Second, due to BYU’s unique affiliation with a religious denomination, and the high percentage of students who adhere to the tenants of this faith tradition, our findings cannot be generalized to other populations or students at other universities. While our data show that our survey captured a representation of the population of BYU, such a case study should not be generalized to other student populations. Despite the limitation of generalizability, this study site provides an ideal case study of the effects of sense of community on graduation as, to our knowledge, such a homogenous study site has not been used before to investigate this relationship. However, we recommend that additional studies analyze the relationship among sense of community, academic classes, and expectation to graduate, in order to determine if the same relationships exist at other universities. Since our sample comes from a relatively homogenous student body, we also suggest that future research should sample from populations with more students of diverse socioeconomic, racial, and religious backgrounds. Finally, our dependent variable measures student expectations to graduate—not actual graduation rates. While this measure does provide value to the literature as it evaluates the student’s current sense of how they feel about their success on the campus, other research should continue measuring the effect of sense of community on actual graduation rates to provide an additional perspective of student success.


Our findings indicate that a strong sense of community improves graduation expectations of freshmen and intermediate class standings, while it does not significantly affect the expectation to graduate of upperclassmen, primarily seniors. We also found that levels of sense of community are significantly higher for freshmen and sophomores when compared to juniors and seniors. These findings indicate a need for universities to encourage a greater focus on retention among freshmen and sophomores, who are less likely to expect to graduate than juniors and seniors. They should also put more effort into fostering a greater sense of community among students in higher class standings, primarily seniors, as they have the lowest sense of community overall. This is important for university administrators, policymakers, professors, and clubs or organizations because as they improve effort to address the social needs of their students, such as sense of belonging and community, they may see increased graduation rates and students’ overall satisfaction with their college experience.

Data availability

The datasets generated during and/or analyzed during the current study are available from the corresponding author on reasonable request.


  1. 1.

    The use of gender-neutral terms is gaining traction in colleges and universities. For example, “freshman” and “upperclassmen” are increasingly being replaced with more inclusive nomenclature such as “first-year” and “upper-level students.” We both acknowledge and celebrate this trend towards respecting diversity. However, in this paper, we have opted to use the older terminology. Our reasoning is twofold: (1) we feel that, whenever possible, social scientists should use terms and taxonomy that align with those used by their research participants and target population, and (2) when relying on survey data research reports should adhere to the terms and taxonomy introduced in the survey instrument. Accordingly, we use the term “freshman” throughout this paper.

  2. 2.

    Researchers often use the word “Mormon” in reference to various religious and cultural groups historically linked to the Latter Day Saint movement founded in the late 1820s in upstate New York by Joseph Smith Jr. However, the term has most frequently been used as slang moniker for members of largest sect: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which is currently headquartered in Salt Lake City, Utah, USA. While the original meaning of the term “Mormon” was descriptive for individuals who espoused belief in the Book of Mormon as a volume of scripture, the word has also historically also been used in a derogatory manner. Indeed, the Salt Lake-based denomination has experienced a complicated history with the term—oscillating between embracing and distancing—with the current attitude espoused by ecclesiastical leaders that the term is pejorative. For this reason, and a desire to use the preferred nomenclature of our target population, in this paper, we restrain from referring to members of the church, or the church itself, as “Mormon.”

  3. 3.

    Researchers have debated and proposed alternative versions of the SCI (e.g., Loomis and Wright 2018; Obst and White 2004; Stevens et al. 2011). For this study, ancillary analysis revealed that the unidimensional Sense of Community measure outlined above had a higher alpha score (0.7638) than other multidimensional versions of the SCI.


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The authors thank Curtis Child, Heidy Comish, and Jonathan Jarvis for their help during the data collection and curation phases of the project. The authors also thank Patti Freeman and Joseph Hanks for their support and input in developing the survey instrument.


This research was funded in part by a Grant from the Brigham Young University Office of General Education with additional support provided by a Brigham Young University Mentoring Environment Grant.

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Correspondence to Michael R. Cope.

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Cope, M.R., Jackson, J.E., Muirbrook, K.M. et al. Sense of community on collegiate campus and graduation expectations: an exploratory study. SN Soc Sci 1, 57 (2021).

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  • Student success
  • Graduation
  • Retention
  • Sense of community
  • University experience