Intellectual and social stimulation from the college setting can mix with the normal developmental patterns of becoming an adult in American society to produce profound changes in young people. Most parents expect their young adult children to change when they go to college, yet some parents are not prepared for the magnitude of those changes. To tell the truth, young adults themselves are not always ready for the changes that college can produce in them either.

These changes can be better understood when seen through a framework or theory of psychosocial development. One such theory was developed by Arthur Chickering in 1969 and described in his book Education and Identity. Although Chickering’s theory was based upon the experiences of college students in the 1960s, this theory has stood the test of time. As a matter of fact, it was adapted and expanded to include women and African-Americans by Marilu McEwen and colleagues in 1996.

The Seven Tasks of College Student Development

  • The first task or vector of college student development is developing competence. Although intellectual competence is of primary importance in college, this vector includes physical and interpersonal competence as well. The student who attends college seeking only credentials for entry into the work world is sometimes surprised to find that his or her intellectual interests and valued friendships change as a result of his or her personal development through the college years.
  • The second vector, managing emotions, is one of the most difficult to master. Moving from adolescence to adulthood means learning how to manage emotions like anger and sexual desire. The young person who attempts to control these emotions by “stuffing” them finds they can emerge with more force at a later time.
  • Becoming autonomous is the third vector. Being able to take care of oneself, both emotionally and practically, is critically important to growing up and becoming independent from one’s family of origin.
  • Chickering’s fourth vector, establishing identity, is central to his framework. The age-old question — who am I? — is asked and answered many times during a lifetime. Yet, that question has exquisite urgency and poignancy during the college years. This vector is especially problematic for women and ethnic minorities who may feel invisible in our society or have multiple roles to play in different situations, according to McEwen and colleagues.
  • The fifth vector is freeing interpersonal relationships. This process involves three steps.
    • First, one moves from valuing relationships based on need (dependence) to valuing individual differences in people.
    • Next, the person learns how to negotiate those differences in relationships.
    • Finally, the young person begins to understand the need for interdependence and seeks mutual benefit from relationships.
  • Both students and parents alike believe that one of the most critical change areas for a college student is found in the sixth vector — clarifying purposes. The young person identifies her or his career and life goals and, hopefully, makes appropriate choices to achieve those goals.
  • The last vector is developing integrity or wholeness. This level of maturity does not come easily. Once achieved, however, the young adult is able to live with those uncertainties that exist in the adult world. In addition, he or she adapts society’s rules so they become personally meaningful.

Most often, the young adult develops along each of these seven vectors simultaneously. For some individuals, certain tasks within the developmental framework assume higher priority and must be addressed in advance of other tasks. For example, a woman may need to free herself from dependent relationships before she can clarify her purpose, set personal and career goals, and establish her own identity.

More recently, McEwen and colleagues have suggested two additional vectors not part of Chickering’s original theory. These vectors are:

  • interacting with the dominant culture; and
  • developing spirituality.

Both of these tasks have become more significant in a young person’s development as our market-based culture threatens to turn us into mere consumers (“we are what we buy”). At the same time — and possibly in response to being defined by what we consume — we need to experience ourselves as spiritual beings, in touch with our spiritual centers and possessing inner peace.

Personal growth and interpersonal skills development are as much a part of the college experience as intellectual advancement and the mastery of work-related skills. By applying this framework to the student’s chosen pathway through the college years, both the student and his or her parents may be able to make more sense of this turbulent time in life and recognize it to be part of a process that will result in a consolidated sense of self with which to face the post-college period.


Chickering, A.W. (1969). Education and identity. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

McEwen, M.K., Roper, L.D., Bryant, D.R., & Langa, M.J. (1996). Incorporating the development of African-American students into psychosocial theories of student development. In F.K. Stage, A. Stage, D. Hossler, & G.L. Anaya (Eds.), College students: The evolving nature of research (pp. 217-226). Needham Heights, MA: Simon & Schuster.