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Growth and Change Through the College Years

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.
Growth and Change Through the College Years

Rita Landino

Dr. Rita Landino is a retired faculty member and former counselor at Southern State Connecticut State University (SCSU). She has advanced degrees in English and counseling and now lives in North Haven, CT.

APA Reference
Landino, D. (2020). Growth and Change Through the College Years. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 23, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 14 Jan 2020 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 14 Jan 2020
Published on Psych All rights reserved.