Definition Of Student Development Theory

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College can be a very rewarding, intimidating, exciting, scary, happy experience to students. It represents a time in their lives where they are starting to be considered adults and cut ties from parents. This time in their lives is considered a transition. According to webster’s dictionary, a transition is passage from one state, stage, subject, or place to another. “Schlossberg’s Transition Theory is an adult development theory (Evans, Forney, & Guido-Dibrito, 1998) focused on the transitions that adults experience throughout life and the means by which they cope and adjust (Schlossberg et al., 1995). Schlossberg et al. define a transition as “any event or non-event that results in changed relationships, routines, assumptions, and roles” (p. 27). When a transition occurs, a process takes place as an individual integrates changes into his or her daily life” (Bailey -Taylor, 2009).

This Theory examines how different life events affect an individual in their lives. How the person perceives their transition is also pivotal to understanding how the person might be affected by this transition and how it might be affecting their lives. There are different types of transitions: anticipated transitions, such as students anticipating graduating high school and attending college; unanticipated transitions, which are those that are unpredictable like a car accident, the death of a family member; non-event transitions, such as things that are expected but do not happen like fear of not getting accepted into your dream school; event transitions are those that student is expecting to happen and do happen and chronic transitions are those that create changes in one’s roles and routines that occur due to an anticipated, unanticipated, event or non-event transition. How the person perceives the transition depends on how close it affects them, and where the transition happens. To know the effect, we must look at how much of the person’s daily life has been significantly changed.

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Schlossberg outlined the transition process with three phases of “moving in”, “moving through” and “moving out”. Methods for Coping with transition, whether positive or negative, come from assessing a person’s access to the resources in the four areas which Schlossberg termed as the 4 S’s – situation, self, support, and strategies.

The usage of Schlossberg’s transition theory is very important to different areas in student affairs. The admission office can help by providing Orientation to all upcoming students that helps them get acclimated to the new campus, make new friends, find out where all the school offices are located, get a head start in getting involved on campus, and establish a connection to the school . Administrations at different schools are also providing students with an intro to a college course that helps students with the transition to college from high school. This is a huge transition to students as for some students it might be the first time they are away from home and their parents, family, and friends. It might indicate the end of many relationships, moving to a new town, state, country. The financial aid office can use this theory to provide the resources to make sure both students and parents feel able to afford tuition. Most students and parents are going from a free tuition education environment to an environment where now tuition, housing, books, and other expenses need to be cover for the student. The knowledge and availability of a financial aid officer can make this transition less frightening and smoother. “Financial aid is just one dimension of the complicated process of college access” (Orfield, 1992)

The office of Academic Advising can utilize the Schlossberg transition theory to better understand the students and what they are experiencing. The pressure of not only being in a new environment but also having to know what is what you want to be for the rest of your life can put additional pressure and stressors on students. Easing some of that stress and helping them identify their likes and dislikes, goals in life, and what they are actually good at can give the student a sense of purpose and guidance that can help them transition through college and into the workforce easily.

Many students use their college years to identify with their true selves. For the first time, they feel they can be who they are without the intervention good or bad from their family and friends. However, this transition can be scary and very traumatic if the student does not feel loved and accepted by their environment. Creating different groups on campus that are diverse and promote inclusivity, the ability to create their own group, and having readily available counselors to guide them through this transition can help the students move forward with who they are, and mentor others through this transition.

The transition for minority and low-income students is usually more difficult. Coming from low socioeconomic background puts them at a disadvantage from their more affluent peers. “Low-income and racial/ethnic minority students have historically faced the greatest academic and financial barriers to acquiring access to higher education yet research rarely considers the supplementary resources and skills they need in order to effectively navigate the educational pipeline “ (Miller, 2006; Welton & Martinez,2013). In the article “Forgotten Students in a Transitional Summer: Low-Income Racial/Ethnic Minority Students Experience the Summer Melt” it is discussed how to better understand the transition these students face between high school graduation and successful college matriculation. To these students, this accomplishment is not only a major transition, but it also comes with the pressure of usually being the first ones in their families to attend college, parents that have limited knowledge of the college process and/ or experience, and the stress of not wanting to fail and let down their families and the need to succeed to have a better life for themselves and their kids. “Lower-income students are more susceptible to financial challenges of college matriculation than those students in families with greater incomes; limited finances pose

increased difficulty and even crisis during the transition” (Schlossberg, 1981).

The use of Schlossberg’s transition theory with adult students and their return to higher education is also very significant. Compared to traditional students, non-tradition students are usually at many different points in their life due to the various types of transitions they have experienced such as marriage, divorce, kids et. Resources developed using the 4 S’s can help adult students to understand the process that lies ahead, how it will benefit them and utilize their support system to help them through this transition instead of only seeing the difficulties that might have to overcome. In Schlossberg’s theory, the entire transition process of moving in, moving through, and moving out can be used as a guide in helping students learn, develop, and grow from their own individual experiences no matter where they are in terms of their own development.

Another group of students that can be very useful to use the Schlossberg transition theory is our returning veterans. The transition from being in the military, at war can lay the foundation for not only a hand transition to normal life but also adapting to be a student. The availability of counseling resources, mentors who have gone through the process, and financial assistantship can help make this transition easier for them

Another important thing to note really is the idea that often these events are either unexpected for a student or expected and then not realized. These occurrences of the unexpected are often what propel student growth or send it backwards. It is important that student affairs professionals work with them to understand that sometimes the unexpected is an opportunity for them even if it may not feel that way at the time.

Helping students transition to college is crucial to their success in the university environment. Many institutions have created various initiatives to contribute to student success. Institutions have also been responding by developing on-campus centers that provide support and resources targeted towards adults. Adults who initiate academic endeavors are unique from a traditional college student in that, typically, adults have been out of school for several years or even decades. Rather than transitioning straight from high school to college, adult transition from other life roles, and the transition to college could bring additional transition stressors that traditional students do not face.

In conclusion, Development theory is crucial to student affairs. Having staff and with an understanding of student development and student development theory and training on it will help them have a better understanding of what the students go through and prove a more meaningful interaction with students. Schlossberg’s theory, is easy to understand and easily applicable to every situation and it can help both faculty and staff in working with students. It is also important on understanding how all students differ in their coping mechanisms and provide the help needed to make sure no one falls through the cracks.


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  8. Raquel M. Rall. (2016). Forgotten Students in a Transitional Summer: Low-Income Racial/Ethnic Minority Students Experience the Summer Melt. The Journal of Negro Education, 85(4), 462-479. doi:10.7709/jnegroeducation.85.4.0462
  9. Schlossberg, N. K., Waters, E. B., & Goodman, J. (1995). Counseling adults in transition: Linking practice with theory (2nd ed.). New York: Spring
  10. Welton, A.D., & Martinez, M.A. (2013). Coloring the college pathway: A more culturally responsible approach to college readiness and access for students of color in secondary schools. 
  11. The Urban Review, 46, 197-223 


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