First Advisor

Sybil S. Kelley

Term of Graduation

Spring 2020

Date of Publication


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Education (Ed.D.) in Educational Leadership: Postsecondary Education


Educational Leadership




Distance education students, Belonging (Social psychology), Academic achievement, Distance education, College dropouts -- Prevention



Physical Description

1 online resource (viii, 170 pages)


The availability and ease of access to online bachelor's degree programs has led to a dynamic shift in the world of higher education. While overall, there has been a decrease in student enrollments, distance student enrollment has been growing. According to a report by the Babson Survey Research Group, between the fall of 2012 and the fall of 2016 students pursuing higher education at all levels across degree-granting institutions fell by 3.8%. During the same four-year period, the percentage of those students choosing to take all or some of their courses at a distance increased from 25.9% to 29.7%. Among all students taking courses at a distance, approximately half are exclusively taking online courses. In light of this national student data, some argue that distance education is in fact shifting into the mainstream of higher education, rather than being marginal or unconventional.

While growing online enrollments may breed optimism, online students are more likely to experience feelings of isolation and lack of motivation and self-direction, often contributing to high attrition rates and low completion rates compared to their on-campus counterparts. Institutions struggle to find ways to best support online learners and address common challenges that most students face who enroll exclusively in online degree programs. Studies have demonstrated that sense of belonging is a critical component to the retention of students enrolling in traditional campus courses, but a substantial gap exists in the literature on sense of belonging in online learners. This study filled a gap in the research by focusing on distance learners and sense of belonging, specifically if they experience it, if it matters to their satisfaction, persistence and academic success, and how the institution fosters a sense of belonging among them. This mixed methods study sought to fill a gap in the research by asking (a) To what extent do distance students report a sense of belonging to the institution? (b) Does a sense of belonging play a central role in distance students' satisfaction, persistence, and success at the institution? and (c) What can the institution do to promote a sense of belonging in distance students?

Through the use of an online survey, this study found that distance students experience a sense of belonging to the institution, measured by the University Belonging Questionnaire (UBQ), and that belonging was strongly correlated with their satisfaction and intent to persist. Additionally, both quantitative and qualitative data indicated that faculty and staff play a critical role in facilitating distance students' belonging. Participants reported that attending university events, either in their area or on campus, specifically made them feel most connected to the institution. Finally, data analysis indicated that White students experienced stronger sense of belonging to the institution than students identifying as other race/ethnicity groups. Implications for practice and recommendations for universities managing online programs are discussed.


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