8 minute read

Adjustment To College

Types of Adjustment, Services Available to Assist with Adjustment

Pursuing a college education requires adjustment on the part of all students, though the type and degree of adjustment experienced by each student will vary depending on background, experience, and prior schooling. Adjustment to college will also vary depending on the size, mission (e.g., research intensive versus teaching intensive), affiliation (e.g., religiously affiliated institutions), and control (e.g., public versus private) of the institution in question. Arthur Chickering and Nancy Schlossberg (1995) point out that students who are leaving high school, attending college full-time, and living on campus tend to experience the most dramatic adjustment. Younger commuter students who are still living at home and maintaining high school friendships will experience slightly less change, and adult students who are attending part-time and are balancing school, work, and family may require the least adjustment.

Types of Adjustment

Ernest Pascarella and Patrick Terenzini (1991) assert that adjusting to college entails the complementary processes of desocialization and socialization. Desocialization is the changing or discarding of selected values, beliefs, and traits one brings to college in response to the college experience. Socialization is the process of being exposed to and taking on some of the new values, attitudes, beliefs, and perspectives to which one is exposed at college. It is also the process of learning and internalizing the character, culture, and behavioral norms of the institution one is attending. Pascarella and Terenzini describe the transition from high school as a "culture shock involving significant social and psychological relearning in the face of encounters with new ideas, new teachers and friends with quite varied values and beliefs, new freedoms and opportunities, and new academic, personal and social demands" (pp. 58–59). This culture shock is especially acute for those students who do not have siblings or parents who attended college.

Specific types of collegiate adjustment involve changes in roles, relationships, academic demands, and social demands. In addition, some subpopulations of students will face specific adjustment issues depending on the institution in question.

Roles. Taking on the new role of college student often brings new challenges and forces adjustment in existing roles, such as those of son/daughter, friend, partner, spouse, and parent. This is especially the case for part-time adult students with full-time jobs and families. Adjustment also involves disengaging from old roles that no longer exist for the student in the collegiate environment, such as athlete (for those not participating in college athletics), or social leader (a role often lost for students moving from small high schools to large colleges).

Relationships. New college students need to adjust to changes in their relationships. Students make new friends and develop new peer groups in college. In fact, students who remain preoccupied with friends from home tend not to adjust well to college. Students often need to renegotiate existing relationships, especially with their parents and family. However, while remaining preoccupied with friends from home detracts from adjustment, students who maintain compatible relationships with their families are more likely to experience success in college. College is often a place where one is more likely to meet people who are different from oneself in terms of ethnicity, race, and socioeconomic status.

Establishing relationships may be a struggle for students who do not fit the institution's norms, such as students of color (at predominantly white institutions), international students, students with disabilities, adult students, and gay, lesbian, and bisexual students. For these students this situation often results in initial feelings of marginalization and isolation. In college (depending on the particular type of institution), there also are often different types of relationships with faculty than students may have experienced in previous educational settings. On the one hand, students are expected to be independent learners, yet there also exists the possibility of developing intellectual, collaborative, and social relationships with faculty.

Academic demands. For most college students, the transition to the college classroom requires an adjustment of academic habits and expectations. They often must study harder, improve their study habits, and take school more seriously. Classes are larger, instructors have differing teaching styles, the pace is faster, written work is more frequent, reading assignments are lengthier, standards are higher, and the competition is more acute. Students need to learn to set and balance priorities, and for commuter and adult students this includes balancing work, home, and school.

Social demands. The social environment of college requires adjustment on the part of new college students. Students must learn to balance the many social choices they have with their academic responsibilities. Developing new relationships represents an important element of social adjustment. Other social issues that require adjustment include negotiating dating in an era of sexually transmitted diseases, homesickness, shifts in daily routines, and the lack of externally imposed structure on their lives.

Student subpopulations. There are specific adjustment issues for students of color; women students; gay, lesbian, and bisexual students; students with disabilities; and adult students–and especially for students who are members of more than one of these groups. For example, at predominantly white institutions, students of color (especially those from homogenous living environments) will face attitudes, belief systems, and power structures that often work against people of color. In classes, students of color may be asked to speak for their entire ethnic group on matters of race. Especially acute social adjustment issues for students of color include dealing with depression and stress, managing cross-cultural relationships, and adjusting to the campus racial/cultural climate. Some classroom environments will be experienced by women students as "chilly"; that is, women students may be addressed inappropriately and treated as less competent than male students.

College is the time when many gay, lesbian, and bisexual students choose to come out publicly for the first time. The homophobia and heterosexism they experience will require an enhancement of coping skills. Students with disabilities, depending on the type and severity of their disability, will also face a host of adjustment issues, including perhaps being independent for the first time and finding and establishing support services. Finally, older students may face issues of low confidence, low self-esteem, identity adjustment, and role stress to a more severe degree than traditional-age students.

Services Available to Assist with Adjustment

American colleges and universities have taken on the responsibility of assisting students with their adjustment to college in multiple ways. Many standard services contribute to the positive adjustment of students, including academic support programs, counseling services, academic and career advising, living-learning centers, residence halls, campus activities, and health and wellness programs. In addition, there are also services specifically designed to aid in adjustment to college, including new student orientation programs, University 101 courses, freshman interest groups and learning communities, developmental/remedial courses, and early warning systems.

New student orientation programs. The primary purpose of new student orientation programs is to help students successfully adjust to college. The programs do this by connecting students to the institution, helping them to set and reach goals, and making them successful in the classroom. While new student orientation programs vary in length, scope, purpose, timing, and content, most aim to give students information about facilities, programs, and services and to give them a chance to meet and make connections with faculty, staff, and students.

University 101. Freshmen orientation seminars, or University 101, proliferated on college campuses in the 1980s and 1990s. These are often weekly seminars co-instructed by faculty and students. They serve to extend new student orientation activities throughout the first semester or first year.

Freshmen interest groups. Freshman interest groups (FIGs) are a form of learning community through which students take a series of linked courses as a cohort group (typically between twenty and thirty students). The courses that make up a FIG are chosen to reflect a general theme and frequently include some type of composition or writing course. There is often a common discussion section for these students led by another student or by one or more of the faculty teaching the courses in the FIG. The faculty work together to coordinate assignments and link and connect specific course subjects across classes. The emphasis in a FIG is on active and collaborative learning. The purpose of the program is to assist students' academic adjustment by providing a "small college experience" (i.e., the small cohort) while taking courses that often have hundreds of other students.

Remedial/developmental courses. These courses are designed to help students who are not fully prepared for the college academic experience. They seek to help students gain the skills they need in order to succeed, and are typically focused in the areas of mathematics, English, and writing.

Early warning systems. These systems are designed to identify students who are having difficulty adjusting to the academic and behavioral expectations of college. It is important to identify such adjustment problems early enough in the student's first semester in order to have some chance for a successful intervention. Examples include providing midterm grade reports early in the semester and having advisers or other staff follow up with all students who fall below a certain cutoff point in grade point average. Early warning systems can be incorporated into FIGs or academic advising relationships.


CHICKERING, ARTHUR W., and SCHLOSSBERG, NANCY K. 1995. Getting the Most out of College. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn and Bacon.

ERICKSON, BETTE L., and STROMMER, DIANE W. 1991. Teaching College Freshmen. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

EVANS, NANCY J., and D'AUGELLI, ANTHONY R. 1996. "Lesbians, Gay Men, and Bisexual People in College." In The Lives of Lesbians, Gays, and Bisexuals: Children to Adults, ed. Ritch C. Savin-Williams and Kenneth M. Cohen. Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace.

LEVEY, MARC; BLANCO, MICHAEL; and JONES, W. TERRELL. 1998. How to Succeed on a Majority Campus: A Guide for Minority Students. Bel-mont, CA: Wadsworth.

LOVE, PATRICK G., and GOODSELL LOVE, ANNE. 1995. Enhancing Student Learning: Intellectual, Social, and Emotional Integration. ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report Series 4. Washington, DC: George Washington University, Graduate School of Education and Human Development.

PASCARELLA, ERNEST T., and TERENZINI, PATRICK T. 1991. How College Affects Students. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

PAUL, ELIZABETH L., and BRIER, SIGAL. 2001. "Friendsickness in the Transition to College: Precollege Predictors and College Adjustment Correlations." Journal of Counseling and Development 79:77–89.

SANDLER, BERNICE R. 1996. "The Chilly Classroom Climate: A Guide to Improve the Education of Women." AWIS Magazine 25 (5):10–11.

SCHWITZER, ALAN M.; GRIFFIN, ORIS T.; ANCIS, JULIE R.; and THOMAS, CELESTE R. 1999. "Social Adjustment Experiences of African American College Students." Journal of Counseling and Development 77 (2):89–197.

TINTO, VINCENT. 1993. Leaving College: Rethinking the Causes and Cures of Student Attrition, 2nd edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

UPCRAFT, M. LEE, ed. 1984. Orienting Students to College. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

UPCRAFT, M. LEE, and GARDNER, JOHN, N. 1989. The Freshman Year Experience: Helping Students Survive and Succeed in College. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.


Additional topics

Education - Free Encyclopedia Search EngineEducation Encyclopedia: AACSB International - Program to Septima Poinsette Clark (1898–1987)