The Role of Higher Education in Students' Adult Identity Formation

  • The present work investigates the role of higher education experience in the process of students’ adult identity formation. In the broadest sense, adult identity is “seeing oneself as an adult” (Macmillan, 2007: 20), and it lays in the core of intensive processes of personal identity formation in the years following adolescence, which are for an increasing number of youth over the past decades spent in higher education. Approaches to adulthood in prior studies reveal ongoing discussions and attempts at re-conceptualisation against changing conditions and regimes of transition to adulthood. Traditionally, the so-called “objective markers” of adulthood have dominated the discourses for a long time, emphasising role transitions and demographic features as criteria for adulthood. The new research venues adding biographical approaches and subjective experiences reveal significance of inner, psychological processes of becoming an adult. However, the problem of the role of higher education in the process of students’ adult identity has not been fully illuminated thus far. The reason for this might be sought within the domain of disciplinary orientation of the field of higher education and Educational Sciences. Higher education research focuses on the overall, “grand” effects of education, while traditional Educational Sciences have not been showing much interest in higher education topics. Substantial work has been produced from developmental sciences, psychology in particular, which has revealed an intricate forest of today’s adulthood and conditions for its attainment, leaving open a whole set of educational, social, economic, cultural antecedents, correlates and experiences affecting transition to adulthood. Besides, as analyses presented in Chapter 2 show, students’ position in dominant discourses marked by political and economic imperatives is marginal. Their experiences and voices are in a sense excluded, making it almost impossible to infer on actual students’ personal benefits of the higher education process. The theoretical framework for this research consists of Erikson’s (Erikson, 1959; 1963; 1968) positions on human development in post-adolescent years, and McAdams’s model of narrative identity (1988; 2011; 2018), which also arose from Eriksonian tradition. Psychosocial theory (Erikson, 1959; 1963; 1968) assumes that social institutions provide structure and guidance to personal development, whereby they create a niche for psychosocial moratorium enabling youth a period of “identity work” before taking on long-term adult commitments. Research over recent decades reporting that higher education provides opportunities for students’ self-growth, exploration and resolving key identity questions in a variety of fields (e.g., Adams and Fitch, 1983; Arnett, 2004a; Berman, Kennerley, Kennerley, 2008; Mayhew, Rockenbach, Bowman, Seifert, Wolniak, Pascarella, Terenzin, 2016) supports such theoretical stances. The present research intends to extend existing knowledge raising the central question: What role of higher education experience students perceive in their adult identity formation? The empirical part reports on biographical research into senior year students’ lived experiences of their developmental path and their meaning to the higher education process. Students’ experiences are approached using the qualitative technique of problem-centred interviewing (PCI), which helps focus participants’ narration on the researcher’s interest and subsequent in-depth analysis of collected experiences. In total, 40 senior year students coming from diverse backgrounds were interviewed. Data were analysed in Atlas.ti software, which enabled the coding system’s better organization and browsing through transcripts. The qualitative analysis process consisted of both inductive and deductive approaches, wherein open and thematic coding techniques were performed interchangeably. Research findings indicate that in certain groups of students – but not in all – higher education experience facilitates and enriches the process of adult identity formation granting orientation and guidelines. Students identify experiences with the highest adult identity formational potential organised in the four broad categories: relationships with teachers and peers, respectively, teaching approach and study material, and extra-curricular activities. Based on the obtained findings, four patterns of thinking about the role of higher education in students’ adult identity formation have been identified: generator of adult identity formation, a safe-zone for exploration processes, interim phase leading to adulthood, and higher education suspending adult identity formation. This formed the basis for constructing the four student types; proactive, explorer, comfort-zone and atypical student. Research findings give the rationale for rethinking the educative potential of higher education in terms of its relevance for diverse students personally – for their self-growth and forming their personal identities, in addition to the professional ones.

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Author:Amina Isanović HadžiomerovićORCiD
URN (permanent link):urn:nbn:de:hbz:386-kluedo-63783
Advisor:Rolf Arnold, Ekkehard Nuissl
Document Type:Doctoral Thesis
Language of publication:English
Publication Date:2021/05/24
Date of first Publication:2021/05/31
Publishing Institute:Technische Universität Kaiserslautern
Granting Institute:Technische Universität Kaiserslautern
Acceptance Date of the Thesis:2021/05/31
Date of the Publication (Server):2021/06/01
Tag:Adult identity; Higher education; Psychosocial theory; Student types; Thematic analysis; Type building
GND-Keyword:adulthood; higher education; identity; students
Number of page:338
Faculties / Organisational entities:Fachbereich Sozialwissenschaften
DDC-Cassification:3 Sozialwissenschaften / 370 Erziehung, Schul- und Bildungswesen
Licence (German):Creative Commons 4.0 - Namensnennung (CC BY 4.0)