College with Conviction: Formerly Incarcerated Students’ Sense of Belonging in Higher Education

Date of Award


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


Educational Leadership, Research and Technology

First Advisor

Dr. Louann Bierlein Palmer

Second Advisor

Dr. Ramona Lewis

Third Advisor

Dr. Carol Hustoles


Formerly incarcerated students, sense of belonging, higher education


Sense of belonging is a psychological human need for people to feel connected, to be accepted and valued in their social groups (Baumeister & Leary, 1995), and previous research reveals that having a sense of belonging contributes to college students’ success. Yet, more research is needed to understand what contributes to sense of belonging for different groups on campus, especially for groups of students who have been historically marginalized in higher education to help inform institutional and instructional practice.

One such group is formerly incarcerated students. The purpose of this basic qualitative study, therefore, was to explore how formerly incarcerated students experience a sense of belonging while attending a four-year institution of higher education. This study explored participants’ sense of belonging and the role such sense of belonging played in their experiences in higher education.

This study used a semi-structured, open-ended protocol to interview 11 formerly incarcerated students who were currently enrolled in or have graduated from a four-year college or university. An emergent strategy was used to analyze the data and allowed themes and categories to develop. This analysis revealed 21 themes as organized by the four main categories in my conceptual framework: (a) Schlossberg’s (1984) Transition Theory; (b) Tinto’s (1993) Theory of Student Departure; (c) the role of a variety of institutional entities, including faculty, students, staff and units; and (d) the elements of sense of belonging, such as mentorship, connectedness, feeling accepted, valued and respected, and feeling an affinity to the institution.

Participants in this study revealed that they experienced a sense of belonging to some degree at their four-year institution of higher education. Some of the major contributing factors to participants’ sense of belonging include engaging in pre-release preparations for post-incarceration college; having positive relationships with faculty and administrations; having the freedom to be authentic; leveraging their strengths and personal characteristics to be successful; and participating in support programs specifically designed for formerly incarcerated or non-traditional students. Participants in this study also reported having to make the decision to disclose their incarceration history, which was often to their benefit and contributed to their sense of belonging. Incarceration history influenced participants’ college experiences, such as their choice of major and their transition to the academic environment. Participants believe having a sense of belonging is important to their success in higher education, and a few expressed surprise at their academic success. Additionally, participants strive to create belonging for others and advocate for and support other formerly incarcerated students’ goals of pursing higher education.

The results of this study show that incarceration history plays a role in how these participants experienced a sense of belonging, but it is not the defining factor. This study adds to the literature on sense of belonging in higher education and gives voice to a historically marginalized population.

Access Setting

Dissertation-Abstract Only

Restricted to Campus until


This document is currently not available here.