Why Student Engagement Matters, and Why College Is WAY More Than Your Classes and Major

Heather V McCowen, PhD
College Consultant
College Inside Track
March 2024

What is Student Engagement? Why is it important? Student engagement is a multifaceted concept strongly associated with student learning, persistence, and attainment.

Research has shown that student engagement can positively impact student learning communities, influencing student grades and course completion rates. For example, a 2018 Gallup Study found that “Engaged students are 2.5 times more likely to say that they get excellent grades and do well in school, and they are 4.5 times more likely to be hopeful about the future than their actively disengaged peers” “Furthermore, cultivating a sense of belonging, building students’ learning identities, and making sense of their performance contribute to positive peer communities and engagement.”


Great! Research establishes that student engagement is essential. So, how do our college students do that?

Embrace the Dorm Life

The idea of sharing a room with a complete stranger can seem daunting. Especially if that wasn’t the case in the home you grew up in. But there are many benefits, and you have someone in the same boat as you. You don’t have to be best friends with your roommate, but having someone there is nice. Other benefits:

  • Company: Your roommate is new to college, too, so you can learn how to navigate campus life together.
  • Support: It’s nice to have someone who can help with studying, encourage your interests, or bring you soup when you’re sick.
  • New perspectives: Your roommate might introduce you to a different culture or new points of view.
  • Shared activities and interests: You may have a roommate who likes to do the same things you do.

Several years ago, I worked with a student who was adamant about getting a single room. He didn’t want to share his space, and he was attending a college with plenty of room, so it was easy to get one. He came home at the end of the semester, saying how lonely he was and how he hadn’t made any friends. He didn’t realize that the roommate experience made for a built-in entry to socializing. I know it can be awkward, but it can jumpstart your social scene and provide a network to help you thrive.

Go to the Student Org Fair

Okay, you and your roommate have heard about the Student Organization Fair and have decided to attend. Why, though?

A study published by the Association of College Unions International (ACUI) provided these insights: 

  • Involvement with a student organization provides students with something and someone to relate to, deepening their sense of community and connection to the college or university. Students remarked that they would not have persisted at the university if they had not gotten involved with at least one student organization. 
  • Students commented that involvement with student organizations allowed them to apply what they were learning academically to “real-world” settings.  Moreover, students shared that being involved with student organizations allowed them to develop skills that would prepare them for future success.   
  • For the students involved in this study, student organizations serve as a gateway to developing their leadership skills. A leadership role within a student organization provides opportunities for acquiring, developing, and practicing specific skills.  Students felt equipped to successfully manage their professional futures after handling various situations as leaders in a student organization.   
  • Students consistently shared the importance of feeling connected to a group of individuals or a student organization as the basis for joining. As research has stated, a sense of identity and belonging are directly influenced by experiences, relationships, and environment. Many of the students articulated the importance of perceived social support, of finding a place to “feel at home” while at the same time having the opportunity to grow and learn in a safe, inclusive, nonjudgmental environment through their involvement with a student organization. 
  • As heard from student participants, belonging is critical to making friends and finding a place to belong. 


So, go to the org fair and find a group of people you don’t know but who share the same interests. You may find your next best friend and/or sophomore-year roommate!

Join the Choir, the Band, or the Orchestra;  take a Dance class; learn how to take perfect pictures with your phone’s camera

It wouldn’t be an article from Heather McCowen if I didn’t mention the arts. One of the reasons that the arts are so vital to our society is the shared community they create. Singing in a choir, putting on a play, sharing your art with the community, nerding out on particular kinds of paint and reeds – these interactions feed our souls and make our hearts lighter. Consider these words from UPenn Administrator Maria Dietrich –

  • The University of Pennsylvania’s  Art & Culture Initiative is charged with better connecting students, faculty, and staff to on-campus arts organizations, academic programs, and the greater Philadelphia arts and culture community. Penn is home to a small number of arts majors/minors but a large volume of students enrolling in arts electives and/or participating in arts extra-curricular activities.  For example, about 30-40 declared Fine Arts majors*, but 700-800 seek to enroll in fine arts classes each semester.  These 700-800 students are undergraduate and graduate students from all schools.  
  • Campus Philly, a nonprofit organization “that fuels economic growth by encouraging college students to study, explore life, and work in the Greater Philadelphia tri-state region,” launched its Open Arts Philly program in 2014.  This program aims to eliminate barriers for college students accessing the Philadelphia arts and culture community by offering a comprehensive event listing, reviews, venue information, details on discounts, and Open Arts Membership, “providing individual students with exclusive access to free tickets and admission.” The University of Pennsylvania—through the initiative mentioned above—is an Open Arts Philly College Partner.

These visionary ideas and compelling models recognize the importance of engaging as many college students in the arts as possible, not just those pursuing the arts professionally.  For The University of Pennsylvania, it means supporting the whole student, not just a student’s academic life. 

Arts Engagement has also been shown to mitigate the effects of isolation in college students during the recent COVID-19 pandemic. A research article published in 2022 states, “Arts engagement appears to help students cope with mental health problems and those at risk. Policymakers should encourage college students to participate in art activities, especially in the context of social distancing.”

Stop and look around at the amazing place you’ve landed

Finally, the setting you’re about to be in is full of public art, just waiting for you to take a moment and engage with it. Universities are full of public artworks and could be your next place to stop and breathe and take it all in. You have been working hard all year for the last four years. Your university years are a time to stop and breathe and figure out who you want to be. Do that at the foot of a beautiful piece of art or moments after you sing your heart out, and the room still rings with the last chord. This, this is the point. You are in charge of who you are becoming. How you spend your time in and OUT of the classroom is critical to your happiness and success. And yes, it’s ok to have a lot of fun too. Or else why all the hard work?