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What Is Student Development Theory? Understanding How College Affects Students

May 1, 2020

A variety of undergraduates attend a lecture in a large classroom.

Students entering their freshman year of college face real challenges. An onslaught of change in almost every aspect of their lives leaves many struggling to make it through their first year, let alone graduate. Approximately 1 in 4 college students do not return to their universities after freshman year, according to National Student Clearinghouse research. Almost 40% will fail to graduate within six years, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Various factors play into these startling numbers, everything from financial to social concerns.

It is clear that adjusting to more rigorous coursework, living away from home for the first time, adapting to a new social scene, and dealing with increased personal responsibility are a lot to absorb for young people who only recently needed a hall pass to visit the bathroom. Why do some students find ways to navigate these challenges, while others are overwhelmed? Higher education institutions must find the answers to that question, and student development theory can help. What is student development theory? The theory, which suggests that college students’ developmental stage affects how they think about and experience the world, can shed light on their needs and help higher education administrators to improve their ability to support students through their college journeys.


Welcome to College

Most students enter their freshman year full of excitement, ready to embark on a new stage of their lives that has required a significant amount of effort to reach. However, many find themselves hours from anywhere or anyone familiar. They likely have to share a cramped dorm room with a stranger and attend lecture hall classes with hundreds of other students. They may feel pressured to choose a major and uncertain about which classes to enroll in.

While some students adjust to the different schedules, teaching styles, and learning forums and manage to make new social connections, others do not successfully manage the transition. In the past, postsecondary institutions took little interest in how this huge life change impacted students: Students were solely responsible for handling the transition and succeeding in college. However, when the federal government began tracking graduation rates in the 1990s, and the data showed that despite dramatic hikes in student debt and college tuition, only slightly more than half of students graduated, universities faced greater scrutiny about their obligation to actively support student success.

Today’s universities take a much greater responsibility for helping students to transition into college, especially during their freshman year. They invest in programs designed to help students to find social networks, connect with their professors, and structure their academic paths, all to improve retention and graduation rates.


Understanding What Student Development Theory Is

Student development theories provide frameworks that give educators different ways to look at and understand college students’ growth and development. These theories fall into one of five different areas:

  • Psychosocial. Psychosocial theories focus on student self-reflection and considers how students’ views of their identities develop when they go through conflicts and difficulties. Higher education administrators may use psychosocial theories when helping students to resolve conflicts with one another or when framing discussions about race, gender, and sexual orientation with students.
  • Cognitive-structural. Cognitive-structural theories explore how students interpret and bring meaning to their experiences. They can help higher education administrators to create learning experiences that challenge student beliefs and encourage students to reflect and reconsider their views.
  • Person-environment. Person-environment theories consider how the college environment impacts a student’s growth and behavior. Higher education professionals use them to plan activities and programs that foster a sense of community among students and to help students transition to college life academically and socially.
  • Humanistic existential. Humanistic existential theories explore the relationships students have with others and society, focusing on the conditions needed for growth. Higher education administrators use these theories to counsel and advise students, as well as design programs that promote healthy living.
  • Student developmental process models. Student developmental process models provide an order of steps or decisions that should be taken to complete a task. Student development process models outline steps to help guide the use of the theories that support student development.

Two of the most commonly implemented student development theories are Arthur W. Chickering’s theory of identity development and William Perry’s cognitive theory of student development:

  • Chickering’s theory falls in the psychosocial category. His theory considers the significance of college in the development of a student’s identity. According to Chickering, students pass through seven developmental stages during their college years. They start with “developing confidence” as they acquire new knowledge and skills and gain control over their own expressions. When they reach the final stage, “developing integrity,” students have matured from using black-and-white thinking about complex issues to recognizing and appreciating different views. Understanding the different stages can enable educators to guide students as they shape their sense of autonomy, opinions, ethics, and talents.
  • Colleges also commonly accept and apply Perry’s theory, which falls in the cognitive-structural category. This theory explains how students organize and make sense of information. It outlines different sequential developmental stages, describing the “relativistic” stage as most prevalent among college students. During this stage, students commit to an ideology and use its value system to inform their worldview. Perry’s theory can help guide higher education administrators in their development of freshman experience programs and in their efforts to improve college teaching practices.

Explore Student Development Theory at LSU Online

Student development theory provides higher education administrators with invaluable insights about college students and improves their ability to support those struggling to transition into college life, academically and socially. With a comprehensive curriculum including coursework directly addressing the various student development theories and their application, LSU Online gives students the tools they will need to thrive as higher education administrators. Explore LSU Online’s Master of Education with a specialization in Higher Education Administration to learn how to become a more effective educator and to help students to overcome obstacles and emerge empowered and ready to learn.

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