Developing purpose in college: differences between freshmen and seniors
Lamont A. Flowers
In the present study, 85 students from a large southeastern university completed the Iowa Vocational Purpose Inventory to determine if significant differences existed between freshmen and seniors on the development of vocational purpose in college. Results indicated that seniors self-reported significantly (p < .05) higher levels of vocational purpose in college than freshmen did. More specifically, data revealed that seniors self-reported significantly higher levels on two subscales that comprise the Iowa Vocational Purpose Inventory: vocational organization and vocational commitment (p < .10). Nonsignificant differences were found on the vocational competence subscale between freshmen and seniors. Taken as a whole, the results of the study suggest that students are developing vocational purpose in college. Implications for student affairs professionals and future research are discussed.
According to a well-known student development theory (Chickering, 1969; Chickering & Reisser, 1993; Evans, Forney, & Guido-Dibrito, 1998), student development occurs sequentially along seven stages or vectors in college. Based on Lewin’s (1936) interactionist paradigm and Erickson’s (1950) stages of psychosocial development, Chickering’s (1969) theory suggests that if the right mix of institutional supports exists on campus and if students are influenced or impacted by these services students will be more likely to complete the following tasks in college: 1) develop competence, 2) manage emotions, 3) move through autonomy toward interdependence, 4) develop mature interpersonal relationships, 5) establish identity, 6) develop purpose, and 7) develop integrity. The first vector is “developing competence.” Developing competence can take three forms: intellectual, physical, and interpersonal. The second vector is “managing emotions.” At this vector, college students begin to become aware of their emotions and seek to regulate their emotions to produce maximum behavioral outcomes. The third vector is “moving through autonomy toward interdependence.” At this level, students are seeking to become more self-directed, and self-sufficient, thereby, ultimately reaching a moderate level of interdependence with family, friends, and other acquaintances. The fourth vector is “developing mature interpersonal relationships.” The emphasis at this vector is on establishing and maintaining healthy interactions with other individuals in a way that is emotionally beneficial to all parties involved. The fifth vector is “establishing identity.” In this vector, students begin to become aware of and learn to develop their own identity. As a result of this complex position, movement through the first four vectors is necessary. The sixth vector is “developing purpose.” This vector, which also incorporates aspects of the preceding vectors, constitutes initiating and working toward occupation-related objectives. The seventh vector is “developing integrity.” In this vector, the focus is on developing an ethical and moral framework that serves as a blueprint for living. Therefore, during this stage of development, students determine the values they wish to live by.
Chickering’s seven vectors enable student development professionals to understand how students are adjusting to deal with the uncertainty of adulthood. In addition, the seven vectors also enable student personnel in higher education to better understand their roles as student development professionals by specifying a series of interrelated stages college students are seeking to resolve. Stated differently, Chickering’s theory provides researchers and student affairs practitioners with some very useful descriptors of the emotional and psychological transformation students might potentially undergo in college (Reisser, 1995; Thomas & Chickering, 1984; White & Hood, 1989). The present study seeks to isolate and study the sixth vector (i.e., developing purpose in college) because transition to this vector presupposes some resolution of the preceding vectors and because of the importance of obtaining job-specific skills in college that will translate into a career after college.
According to recent data taken from Cooperative Institutional Research Program (Sax, Astin, Korn, & Mahoney, 2000), based on more than 260,000 first-time freshmen from more than 400 colleges and universities nationwide, 72% of the students reported that one of the primary masons they decided to attend college was to get a better job. Thus, in many ways, colleges and universities function to impart skills, values, and information to students that can later be exchanged in the labor market for wages (Becker, 1993). To be sure, individuals who obtain a college degree are more likely to earn higher annual incomes than individuals who obtain a high school diploma (NCES, 2001).
To that end, this study seeks to determine if students are obtaining skills and values that encompass the vocational aspect of Chickering’s developing purpose vector. Thus, the major purpose of this study is to explore the impact of college attendance on students’ ability to develop vocational purpose-have an accurate assessment of their vocational goals and acquire the skills needed to be successful in a given occupation. Specifically, the study sought to answer the following research question: Are there significant differences in the self-reported levels of vocational competence, vocational organization, and vocational commitment in college between freshmen and seniors?
As Chickering and Reisser (1993) noted, “Developing purpose entails an increasing ability to be intentional, to assess interests and options, to clarify goals, to make plans, and to persist despite obstacles.” (p. 209) The conceptual framework for this study is based on the view that college seniors (students with more exposure to postsecondary education than freshmen) will report higher levels of vocational purpose than freshmen (Chickering & Reisser, 1993; Hood & Zerwas, 1997). Thus, the present study sought to examine the extent to which students were developing purpose in college-becoming more goal directed, independent, and focused on vocational interests as a result of their college experience (Chickering and Reisser, 1993). Precise ways in which this conceptual framework informed the research design are described in subsequent sections of the report.
The student sample for this study was drawn from a large, southeastern, and predominantly White university. Data were collected during the Fall 2001 semester. Before data collection commenced, approval was obtained by the appropriate human subjects review board at the institution. Students were informed that their identity would be kept confidential and that only aggregate data would be reported. Participants for the study consisted of volunteers recruited by a graduate research assistant. The sample consisted of 85 students. Fifty-eight participants were freshmen and 27 participants were seniors. The analyses included 54 females and 31 males. The racial composition of the student sample were as follows: 20 African American/Black students, 12 American Indian/Alaskan Native students, 1 Asian American/Pacific Islander student, 40 Caucasian/White students, and 12 Hispanic American students.
The Iowa Vocational Purpose Inventory was used to assess the extent to which students were developing vocational purpose in college (Hood, 1997). According to Hood & Zerwas (1997), the Iowa Vocational Purpose Inventory was developed to measure the vocational aspect of Chickering’s “developing purpose” vector. The Iowa Vocational Purpose Inventory contains 45 Likert-type items with a response set measured on a 5-point scale (e.g., 5 = always true, 4 = often true, 3 = sometimes true, 2 = rarely true, 1 = never true). It consists of three separate subscales: vocational competence, vocational organization, and vocational commitment. Vocational competence measured the extent to which students believed that they are prepared and have the prerequisite skills to enter an occupation of their choice. The vocational organization subscale measured the degree to which students believed that they had realistic vocational goals and occupational interests. The vocational commitment subscale measured the extent to which students believed that they are dedicated to a specific occupational area and are determined to achieve their occupational aspirations. For each item, students were asked to rate the extent to which each statement described their attitudes and perceptions (e.g., “I am prepared to work towards my current vocational goals,” “I understand why I have my current occupational interests,” “I feel confident I have chosen the best field for me,” and “I am more likely to take a course if it will further my vocational plans.”) Higher scores on the Iowa Vocational Purpose Inventory are associated with higher levels of development of vocational purpose in college. The items comprising the Iowa Vocational Purpose Inventory have been found to yield a high degree of internal consistency (Hood & Zerwas, 1997). Specifically, each subscale constituting the Iowa Vocational Purpose Inventory has yielded the following Cronbach alpha values: vocational competence (.82), vocational organization (.83), and vocational commitment (.84). The Iowa Vocational Purpose Inventory has also been shown to be useful in estimating freshman to senior year growth and development of vocational purpose in college (Hood & Zerwas, 1997).
Data analysis occurred in a two-stage process. In the first stage, means and standard deviations were computed for the total score on the Iowa Vocational Purpose Inventory and each subscale. In the second stage, independent samples t-tests were conducted (two-tailed) to determine if significant differences existed between freshmen and seniors on the total score and subscale scores comprising the Iowa Vocational Purpose Inventory. Because the relatively small sample size reduced statistical power and increased the likelihood of making a type II error (retaining the null hypothesis when it is false), results were reported significant at an alpha level of. 10 (Hays, 1994). Previous research supporting this alpha level, under similar experimental conditions, can be found in other published research reports (e.g., Flowers & Pascarella, 1999a; Flowers & Pascarella, 1999b).
Table 1 summarizes the impact of year in school on development of vocational purpose in college. As shown in Table 1, based on the Iowa Vocational Purpose Inventory total score, seniors’ self-reported significantly (p < .05) higher levels of vocational purpose in college than freshmen did. In addition, data revealed that seniors self-reported significantly higher levels on two subscales: vocational organization and vocational commitment (p . 10). These results suggest that seniors are developing vocational purpose in college; however they are not adequately developing skills to endow them with confidence in their abilities to work in their chosen career.
The present study sought to examine if seniors reported higher scores on a measure of development that focused on the extent to which students are working toward specific occupational objectives in college. As a proxy for growth and change on this dimension, seniors’ scores on the Iowa Vocational Purpose Inventory were compared with freshman students to determine if seniors self-reported more growth in this area. The study found that seniors reported significantly higher scores on the Iowa Vocational Purpose Inventory than freshmen did. Also, it was found that seniors reported higher scores on two subscales that comprise the Iowa Vocational Purpose Inventory. Overall, these results suggest that seniors may have a clear understanding of the type of vocation and career that they are interested in pursuing after graduation. It was also found that nonsignificant differences existed between scores on the vocational competence subscale between freshmen and seniors. Perhaps it is the case that seniors are not adequately developing along this dimension or it may be that other factors imbedded in the college environment are inhibiting growth along this dimension. Clearly, data from the present study do not permit the researcher to make any definitive statements regarding this particular finding.
Nevitt Sanford (1965) noted, “How a student turns out at the end of his college experience-the degree of his success from his own point of view, or that of the college-depends both on what he was like at the time of admission and upon the influences of college.” (p. 42) Based on this line of thought, and consistent with previous research, the effects of college on student growth and development are determined by the characteristics of the individual student and the influence of his or her academic program, extent of involvement with university-sponsored services, and the impact of student-faculty interactions (Astin, 1977, 1993; Bauer, 1995). To that end, future research is needed that introduces statistical controls for confounding variables that may have distorted the results presented in the study (i.e., precollege and background characteristics, institutional characteristics, academic and nonacademic experiences in college). In addition, future research is needed that incorporates a larger sample size from multiple institutions. Furthermore, in light of the findings reported in this study, future research needs to consider how colleges and universities can best help students devise a vocational plan early in their college careers to help students make the most efficient use of coursework, internships, and student organizations.
Limitations of the Study
Several limitations reduce the significance of the results of the study. First, data were collected from one university in the southeast. As such, readers may not generalize the findings to all postsecondary institutions. Second, since study participants consisted of volunteers who agreed to participate in the study, the generalizability of the study is further reduced (Pascarella & Terenzini, 1991). Third, the study measured change in vocational purpose as a difference between freshmen and seniors; perhaps results would be different if precollege controls of the self-report measures were used in conjunction with a longitudinal research design (Pascarella, 2001).
Means and Standarad Deviations for the Iowa Vocational Purpose
Inventory and Subscales
Dependent Variables Mean Deviation Mean Deviation p-value
Purpose Inventory 139.7 5.9 142.8 5.2 .022 *
Subscale 48.0 2.8 47.3 2.9 .274
Subscale 47.8 4.7 49.7 4.3 .088 *
Subscale 43.8 3.9 45.3 3.5 .081 *
* Acknowledgements. The author would like to thank Kari L. Shattuck, graduate student in the Student Personnel in Higher Education program at the University of Florida, for assisting with the data collection for this study.
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LAMONT A. FLOWERS
University of Florida
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