The relationship between the living arrangements of university students and their identity development

The relationship between the living arrangements of university students and their identity development

Marsha Jordyn

It has been established that a major developmental task of late adolescence/young adulthood is the formation of a unique adult identity (Erikson, 1968, 1982; Marcia, 1980). One part of this process is leaving the family home and establishing a residence of one’s own (Astin, 1973; Herndon, 1984). This is considered a crucial step because it is an overt manifestation of adulthood (Chickering, 1974).

Research has suggested that establishing an independent residence is also associated with other indicators of adult development. It has been found that young adults who have left the family home, compared with those who remain with their parents, demonstrate higher levels of academic success (Pascarella, Bohr, Nora, Zusman, Inman, & Desler, 1993), higher levels of personality development (Valliant & Scanlan, 1996), better relations with their parents (Flanagan, Schulenberg, & Fuligni, 1993), and greater feelings of social success and achievement (Baird, 1969).

It is generally thought that individuals who live away from home achieve greater levels of adult identity because they gain experience in dealing with the challenges of adult life, such as managing their finances and maintaining their household (Goldscheider & Goldscheider, 1999). Presumably such experiences allow individuals to gain the perspective needed to become better managers of their time and resources, which is important for academic success and for coping with the pressures of life.

It should be noted, however, that the effects of living arrangements upon university students are not at all clear-cut. Some studies have not found any relationship between living arrangements and factors such as scholastic ability and self-esteem (Baird, 1969). Moreover, Baird (1969), Goldscheider and Goldscheider (1999), and Holdsworth (2000) acknowledge that the effects of living arrangements on university students may be complex, and suggest that socioeconomic status, parental level of education, cultural context, expectations of both children and parents, and other factors must be taken into account in order to gain a true understanding of the issue.

Unfortunately, most studies of the effects of living arrangements on university students have ignored the state of the students’ identity development. Presumably, for individuals who live away from their parents, those who have a fully formed adult identity experience independent living quite differently from those who have a less-mature identity. That is, those in different stages of identity development will have different concerns and problems (Erikson, 1968). Accordingly, this study sought to examine the relationship between university students’ level of identity development, their living arrangements, the degree of life difficulties experienced, and the manner in which they coped with their difficulties.

METHOD

Participants

The participants in this study were young adult university students: 113 lived at home with at least one of their parents, 92 lived in a university residence hall, and 73 lived on their own in private accommodations in the local community. The mean ages of the three groups were 19.8 years, 19.3 years, and 20.4 years, respectively. There were no significant age differences between any of these groups. Using a measure designed to assess the socioeconomic status (SES) of New Zealanders (Elley & Irving, 1976), it was found that the mean SES levels for the three groups were 3.2, 3.0, and 3.1, respectively. Differences in SES were not significant.

Procedure and Materials

All participants were asked to fill out a questionnaire designed to determine not only the status of their identity development but also their recent life experiences, their state of well-being, and their problem-solving strategies. Specifically, the following tests were used in this study.

Objective Measure of Ego Identity Status. This measure, developed by Adams, Bennion, and Huh (1989), was designed to assess (via questionnaire rather than structured interview) each of the four identity statuses described by Marcia (1980). These four are: (1) identity diffused-one who has not yet begun to develop an adult identity; (2) foreclosed identity–an individual who has assumed the identity given to him or her by an authority figure (usually parents); (3) moratorium identity–one who is struggling to construct an adult identity; and (4) identity achieved–one who has made a commitment to an adult identity.

College Students” Recent Life Experiences Scale. This inventory was developed to measure the amount of difficulties experienced by university students in various domains of life (Kohn, Lafreniere, & Gurevich, 1990). These areas of life difficulties include academic alienation (or dissatisfaction with university), romantic problems (e.g., conflict with partner or indecision about a relationship), social mistreatment (social isolation or rejection), time pressure (or time management difficulties), problems with friends, and developmental challenges (e.g., indecision about career, dissatisfaction with physical appearance, or dissatisfaction with academic abilities).

University Students’ Well-Being Scale. Developed by Fagan (1994), this scale measures university students’ perceptions of their physical and mental health. In addition to assessing both general health and general well-being, this scale also measures students’ perceptions of their levels of anxiety, depression, vitality (or energy level), and self-control.

Coping Strategies Scale. This scale, adapted from the Family Coping Strategies Scale developed by McCubbin, Olson, and Larsen (1981), measures the means by which individuals typically attempt to deal with their problems. Although this instrument was originally designed to measure individuals within the context of their fAmilies, it was used in the present study to determine how an individual’s coping strategies (e.g., reliance on her or his family) differed as a function of living arrangements. Moreover, it was thought that the use of a family coping measure would offer a contrast to the measure of self-control included in the well-being scale. That is, it was believed that reliance on one’s family would lessen, and reliance on others would increase, when the individual lived away from home. The measure contains various subscales that assess individuals’ use of such coping strategies as acquiring social support (i.e., making an effort to gain support from friends or neighbors to help with the problem), reframing the problem to see things in the best light, seeking spiritual support, mobilizing one’s family to gain support, and passive acceptance of, or learning to live with, the problem.

It was thought that, taken together, these measures would allow an assessment not only of the difficulties typically encountered by young adult university students in various types of living arrangements, but also the manner in which individuals in different stages of identity development cope with these problems.

RESULTS

The participants’ mean scores on the measures of recent life experiences, well-being, and coping strategies are presented in Tables 1, 2, and 3, respectively. Data from each subscale were analyzed with a between-factors (identity development status and living arrangement) analysis of variance. Post hoc testing was conducted using Tukey’s method (p < .05).

Analysis of the subscales of the measure of recent life experiences (presented in Table 1) revealed significant main effects of identity development status on developmental challenges, F(3, 267) = 2.78, p < .05, academic alienation, F(3, 267) = 2.91, p < .05, romantic problems, F(3, 267) = 3.69, p < .05, and social mistreatment, F(3, 267) = 3.85, p < .05. Post hoc testing showed that those with a moratorium identity had higher levels of perceived developmental challenges than did either those with a foreclosed identity or those who were identity achieved. Further, those with a moratorium identity had higher levels of academic alienation than did those who were identity achieved. In addition, those who had achieved an adult identity had more romantic problems than did participants from the other identity status groups. Lastly, those with a moratorium identity perceived themselves as experiencing higher levels of social mistreatment than did those with diffused or foreclosed identities. Analyses of the data from the measure of recent life experiences also showed significant main effects for living arrangements, specifically in regard to time pressure, F(2, 267) = 5.72, p < .01, and assorted annoyances, F(2, 267) = 10.29, p < .05. Post hoc testing showed that those who lived on their own in private accommodations felt they were under more time pressure and subject to more annoyances than did those in the other living arrangements. No other significant main effects or interactions were found for the measure of recent life experiences.

Analyses of the subscales of the well-being measure (presented in Table 2) showed significant main effects of identity development status on self-control, F(3, 267) = 12.47, p < .01, vitality, F(3, 267) = 23.09, p < .01, depression, F(3, 267) = 44.82, p < .01, and anxiety, F(3, 267) = 39.20, p < .01. Post hoc testing showed that those who were identity achieved had higher levels of perceived self-control than did those in the other identity status groups. Moreover, those with a moratorium identity reported lower levels of vitality and higher levels of anxiety and depression than did members of the other groups. There were no other significant main effects or interactions for the well-being measure.

Analyses of the data from the coping measure (presented in Table 3) showed significant main effects for living arrangements, specifically in regard to acquiring social support, F(2, 267) = 43.01, p < .01, and reframing, F(2, 267) = 35.88,p < .01. There were also significant main effects of identity development status on acquiring social support, F(3, 267) = 12.26, p < .01, mobilizing family, F(3, 267) = 7.41, p < .01, passive acceptance, F(3, 267) = 17.15, p < .01, and refraining, F(3, 267) = 28.19, p < .01. Additionally, there were significant interactions between living arrangements and identity development status for three coping strategies: acquiring social support, F(6, 267) = 29.64, p < .01, mobilizing family, F(6, 267) = 16.32, p < .01, and refraining, F(6, 267) = 9.18,p < .01. Post hoc testing of these interactions revealed that those with a moratorium identity made significantly less use of two coping strategies–acquiring social support and mobilizing family-when they lived on their own in private accommodations. Moreover, those with a foreclosed identity were more likely to use refraining when living on their own in private accommodations. No other significant main effects or interactions were found for the measure of coping strategies.

DISCUSSION

The results of this study clearly show that the living arrangements of university students and their level of identity development are associated. Further, the manner in which these two factors are associated varies as a function of degree of life difficulties experienced and well-being.

Regardless of living arrangement, moratorium individuals generally thought of themselves as having experienced greater levels of developmental challenges, academic alienation, and social mistreatment, and as having higher levels of anxiety and depression and lower levels of vitality (energy). Analyses of the measure of coping strategies showed that those with a moratorium identity were less likely to make use of such methods as acquiring social support and mobilizing family when living on their own in private accommodations. Taken together, these results seem to indicate that those with a moratorium identity display some symptoms of clinical depression but, when living away from home, do not strive to get help to deal with their difficulties. This lack of effort to obtain assistance when experiencing problems might occur because those who are depressed may also lack energy as part of their symptomatology (American Psychiatric Association, 2000). This possibility requires further study.

Those who were identity achieved also tended to report lower levels of mobilizing the family but perceived themselves as having higher levels of self-control. These findings could indicate that because identity-achieved individuals thought of themselves as being in control of their lives, they felt little need to make use of their family for support and preferred to deal with their problems themselves. This point, however, remains untested and should be the subject of future research.

Those with a foreclosed identity were more likely to use reframing as a coping strategy, while those with a diffuse identity tended to make use of both acquiring social support and mobilizing family, in all types of living arrangements. These findings seem to indicate that foreclosed or diffuse individuals were coping with life’s difficulties by using strategies that were consistent with their identity status. For example, those with a diffuse identity may be more likely to rely on parents and others in their immediate environment because individuals who have not developed an adult identity of their own are thought to monitor other people in order to determine the proper course of action in a given situation.

The results of this study also provide support for the position of Grotevant (1987), who emphasized the importance of adolescents’ environmental context, particularly family, in providing a framework that either facilitates or hinders the development of an adult identity. Further, other researchers (Goldscheider & Goldscheider, 1999; Tang, 1997) have noted that some adolescents/young adults may elect to move away from home before circumstances are right for them to do so. This, taken together with the present findings, suggests that the normal desire to leave home as part of adult identity development may not be the best possible decision for all individuals. That is, individuals’ identity development status may make it impossible for them to cope with the challenges of independent living. A setback in the progression to adulthood might result when they realize that they do not have the coping skills necessary to make a successful separation from family. Conversely, developmental progress may be thwarted if they are mature enough to cope with independent living but circumstances dictate that living at home is the only available choice.

It should be noted that the nature of this study makes it impossible to determine causality. Presumably, the relationship between identity status and living arrangements is an interactive one, with identity status influencing how one reacts to the various challenges of independent living and, in turn, success (or failure) in dealing with such challenges affecting one’s identity development. A longitudinal study of young adults as they embark upon independent living might offer insights into both the causal nature of this relationship and possible ways of mitigating the difficulties of independent living.

Previous studies have shown that living arrangements can affect such diverse factors as young adults’ alcohol consumption, self-esteem, and use of their cognitive abilities (Pascarella, Bohr, Nora, Zusman, Inman, & Desler, 1993; Valliant & Scanlan, 1996). Presumably, the achievement of an adult identity also requires a mastery not only of those skills that are necessary for living on one’s own, but also those skills needed to obtain a university degree. Again, future studies should concentrate on how individuals learn the skills necessary for coping with the challenges of adult life, and how this learning process is mitigated by the state of their identity development.

Moreover, the results of this study have implications for those working with individuals who are in transition from late adolescence to young adulthood. It would seem prudent for these service providers not only to make an assessment of the difficulties faced by young adults, but also to determine both the living arrangements of their clients and the state of their clients’ identity development. In this way it might be possible to assess the particular needs of each individual based on the state of her or his identity development, as well as to assess the type and amount of available support. Taken together, this information may prove useful both in mitigating an individual’s immediate difficulties and in formulating a more long-term solution to the challenges of identity development.

Table 1

Participants’ Mean Scores on the Measure of Recent Life Experiences

as a Function of Living Arrangements and Identity Development Status

Identity

Development Status

Living Arrangements Diffuse Foreclosed

Family Home

Developmental Challenges (1) 30.5 32.0

Time Pressure (2) 21.8 22.4

Academic Alienation (3) 10.5 10.2

Romantic Problems (3) 4.3 5.9

Friendship Problems (3) 7.6 7.1

Social Mistreatment (4) 15.9 14.3

Assorted Annoyances (5) 11.2 12.6

University Residence Halls

Developmental Challenges (1) 42.8 32.5

Time Pressure (2) 18.4 19.9

Academic Alienation (3) 11.2 9.6

Romantic Problems (3) 3.9 6.9

Friendship Problems (3) 8.4 7.9

Social Mistreatment (4) 16.7 14.7

Assorted Annoyances (5) 12.3 14.8

Private Accommodations

Developmental Challenges (1) 35.4 31.6

Time Pressure (2) 25.6 28.7

Academic Alienation (3) 12.2 11.4

Romantic Problems (3) 4.8 4.6

Friendship Problems (3) 7.5 7.4

Social Mistreatment (4) 15.5 15.4

Assorted Annoyances (5) 17.9 19.4

Identity Development

Status

Living Arrangements Moratorium Achieved

Family Home

Developmental Challenges (1) 38.7 35.6

Time Pressure (2) 18.6 19.2

Academic Alienation (3) 13.9 9.1

Romantic Problems (3) 4.1 8.7

Friendship Problems (3) 11.5 7.4

Social Mistreatment (4) 20.2 18.8

Assorted Annoyances (5) 13.2 15.3

University Residence Halls

Developmental Challenges (1) 39.4 33.1

Time Pressure (2) 16.4 18.4

Academic Alienation (3) 14.0 8.5

Romantic Problems (3) 3.5 9.6

Friendship Problems (3) 10.9 8.7

Social Mistreatment (4) 21.6 19.8

Assorted Annoyances (5) 15.9 14.0

Private Accommodations

Developmental Challenges (1) 45.3 29.8

Time Pressure (2) 29.1 24.5

Academic Alienation (3) 13.8 8.2

Romantic Problems (3) 3.3 9.9

Friendship Problems (3) 13.9 8.7

Social Mistreatment (4) 25.4 20.1

Assorted Annoyances (5) 20.1 18.4

(1) These scores range from 10-50 with higher scores indicating

greater levels of developmental difficulties.

(2) These scores range from 7-35 with higher scores indicating

greater levels of time pressure.

(3) These scores range from 3-15 with higher scores indicating

greater levels of academic alienation, romantic problems, or

friendship problems.

(4) These scores range from 6-30 with higher scores indicating

greater levels of social difficulties.

(5) These scores range from 5-25 with higher scores indicating

greater levels of annoyance.

Table 2

Participants’ Mean Scores on the Measure of Well-being as a

Function of Living Arrangements and Identity Development Status

Identity Development Status

Fore- Mora-

Living Arrangements Diffuse closed torium Achieved

Family Home

General Well-Being (1) 9.1 9.3 10.2 10.1

General Health (2) 8.5 9.1 8.7 8.4

Vitality (1) 10.2 11.1 7.8 10.2

Self-Control (1) 8.4 8.9 8.3 12.8

Depression (1) 8.2 7.4 11.5 9.1

Anxiety (3) 9.3 8.7 12.8 9.8

University Residence Halls

General Well-Being (1) 9.0 9.8 10.8 9.8

General Health (2) 7.9 8.6 8.6 8.6

Vitality (1) 11.2 11.5 6.5 11.7

Self-Control (1) 7.9 8.5 8.1 12.9

Depression (1) 7.7 7.9 13.8 8.2

Anxiety (3) 10.2 8.9 18.4 8.5

Private Accommodations

General Well-Being (1) 9.6 10.3 10.5 9.5

General Health (2) 8.3 8.7 8.9 9.2

Vitality (1) 9.8 10.9 6.2 10.8

Self-Control (1) 7.6 9.8 7.9 13.5

Depression (1) 7.6 7.5 14.1 8.4

Anxiety (3) 9.4 9.1 13.4 8.6

(1) These scores range from 3-15 with higher scores indicating greater

levels of well-being, vitality, self-control, or depression.

(2) These scores range from 2-10 with higher scores indicating greater

levels of perceived health.

(3) These scores range from 4-20 with higher scores indicating greater

levels of anxiety.

Table 3

Participants’ Mean Scores on the Measure of Coping Strategies as a

Function of Living Arrangements and Identity Development Status

Identity Development Status

Fore- Mora-

Living Arrangements Diffuse closed torium Achieved

Family Home

Acquiring Social Support (1) 35.8 29.4 19.2 31.8

Mobilize Family (2) 17.5 16.2 15.5 10.8

Seek Spiritual Support (2) 8.7 7.5 9.1 8.4

Passive Acceptance (2) 13.3 17.5 8.3 14.2

Reframing (3) 17.4 27.4 10.2 15.9

University Residence Halls

Acquiring Social Support (1) 42.1 18.6 18.0 17.2

Mobilize Family (2) 16.9 14.4 16.7 10.6

Seek Spiritual Support (2) 9.2 8.2 7.5 8.7

Passive Acceptance (2) 12.4 16.0 7.2 11.8

Reframing (3) 18.4 26.0 12.9 17.9

Private Accommodations

Acquiring Social Support (1) 37.4 17.2 9.1 18.8

Mobilize Family (2) 16.2 15.8 6.3 9.9

Seek Spiritual Support (2) 8.3 8.0 7.9 8.9

Passive Acceptance (2) 13.9 17.2 6.1 10.6

Reframing (3) 15.9 36.9 35.5 16.3

(1) These scores range from 9-45 with higher scores indicating greater

effort to acquire social support to deal with their problems.

(2) These scores range from 4-20 with higher scores indicating greater

effort to mobilize family members to help with problems, greater

effort to seek spiritual support to help cope with problems, or more

passive acceptance of problems.

(3) These scores range from 8-40 with higher scores indicating greater

effort to reframe their problems in the most positive light.

REFERENCES

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Marsha Jordyn, Department of Psychology, University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand.

Requests for reprints should be sent to Mark Byrd, Department of Psychology, University of Canterbury, Christchurch 1, New Zealand. E-mail may be sent to m.byrd@psyc.canterbury.ac.nz

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