Student in bedroom off campus

Undeniably, one of the most impactful parts of the “traditional” college experience is the culture students discover while living on campus and being immersed in the school’s spirit. That — often more than the classes we attend or the degrees we acquire — is what keeps us tied to our alma maters. That sense of community, belonging and connection is also vital to student engagement and success. (It’s well documented that students who feel a sense of belonging ultimately perform better.)

How important community is to students became glaringly clear when campuses went quiet last year. The problem of student disconnect (and the toll it took on mental health and academic progress and success) was the topic of countless articles and professional hand wringing. 

But a pandemic isn’t the only reason a student may feel disconnected. Remote learners, part-time students, non-traditional students and students across satellite campuses often report having difficulty making connections, accessing resources and building a sense of belonging. This challenge will persist well past the pandemic. In Fall 2019 (pre-pandemic), 36% of undergrads were enrolled in some type of distance learning, according to the National Center of Education Statistics (NCES). Nearly 15% were exclusively remote students. The NCES also predicts that part-time enrollment will increase to 8 million students by 2028. Creating a sense of culture with these students has always been a challenge, but they don’t deserve to be ignored.

The Desire for Community

Whether students are on campus or off, they crave connection. More than 70% of students value being part of a learning community, according to the Salesforce 2021 Connected Student Report.

Peer-to-peer connections — and the power they provide — are a growing part of life for the highly empathetic generation Z. In an academic setting, peer groups serve several purposes, according to the Christensen Institute’s Peer Connections Reimagined report:

  • Social support to foster belonging, identity formation, and social and emotional skills
  • Academic support to drive learning outcomes and keep each other on track 
  • Guidance support to expand options and ease transitions 
  • Mental health support to promote wellbeing and reduce loneliness

The report calls out peer networking as a major missed opportunity for many schools.

“Peer networks are an immense, but still latent, resource in the student success equation. With the right tools and models, however, schools could start to leverage peer-to-peer connections as part of a robust, and far more networked, strategy to support learners toward successful futures that they define for themselves.”

There’s one more cohort many higher ed institutions forget when creating a networked community and fostering school culture: alumni. The Salesforce report found that 36% of students don’t know how to connect with their institution’s alumni and 34% say their school doesn’t have an online community to connect with alumni. 

When considering all the ways students can connect and who they might want to connect with, it becomes clear that a school’s community and culture should be so much more than what happens on campus.

One of the easiest ways to build a culture that expands beyond campus is to support a robust online community. Digital relationships are now common and connecting with people online is comfortable for college students. Nearly 40% of Americans have friends that they only know and interact with online. 

Taking “Campus Culture” Digital

Generation Z in particular uses the digital world to connect and engage with the people in their lives. Spending an average of 4.5 hours a day on social media, Gen Z use social platforms to keep up with friends’ and family’s lives (56%) and find like-minded people and groups (36%). 

Smart institutions take advantage of the fact that their students are already online by offering digital engagement platforms to foster more wide-reaching community connections. Creating a digital home for the school’s community and culture ensures it’s accessible to just about everyone involved with the school, not just those with the ability to invest heavily in campus life. Offering features like online interest-based groups, chats and direct messaging lets students connect with peers and alumni they might not otherwise encounter. This approach is critical to including part-time students, distance learners and satellite campuses into the institution’s overall community.

“A digital platform provides another reason to engage and stay engaged–not only just to find resources or to have sort of a link farm to get to resources. We needed a platform where students could engage with one another outside of the classroom and outside of their interpersonal relationships.”

Paul Nast, Chief Information Officer at John Brown University

Campus doesn’t equal culture. Higher ed institutions must reach further and create an institution-wide community and culture that connects all their constituents — on and off campus. Digital solutions give institutions that power.