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The college environment provides a unique opportunity for your student to grow and develop in all areas of their life, including socially, emotionally, spiritually, physically, and intellectually.

I have served in higher education for almost 20 years in various settings, from a small private school to a large state school. Through my diverse experiences in student affairs, there was a common theme: students change from freshman to senior year. Sometimes the change is barely noticeable, like a newfound hobby/interest. Other times the change is significant, like maturing from an irresponsible 18-year-old to a 21-year-old with an A/B GPA, all while working 20 hours per week and being involved in several student organizations.

One of the great things about college is that it provides a safe space for your student to grow, develop, and change. As a higher education leadership professor, I interact with my doctoral students who currently work in higher education across and outside the United States. I have the opportunity to see how much they care about their students and their desire for their students to grow and develop at their institutions. I can confidently say that higher education professionals want to challenge and support your student in their journey in college, regardless of the institution type or size.

You might be wondering how college will impact your student. Theories related to student development have been researched and applied for decades, with new theories/ideas emerging yearly. These theories provide a common language for student affairs professionals, so they know how to best challenge and support your student. Every program, activity, and leadership opportunity your student will have the chance to be part of has been intentionally planned to enhance the college experience for your student. A movie on the lawn might seem “simple” or “basic,” but think about the opportunity for your student to interact with other students at such an event. Or, if your student chooses to be on the planning board for an event like this, they learn so much about planning, marketing, and carrying out the necessary tasks to make this event successful.

A great book in its third edition is “How College Affects Students: 21st Century Evidence that Higher Education Works” by Mayhew et al. (2016). You might want to invest in this book if you’re a student development theory nerd like me. If you’re not a student development theory nerd (like the rest of the world, most likely), I’ll give you some highlights. You can also search “student development theory” online and find many resources to dig a little deeper. For starters, psychosocial theories examine how students develop their identity based on various aspects of their dimensions of diversity. Cognitive-structural theories can explain how your student will develop ethically, morally, and intellectually. As you can see, there’s a theory for every aspect of college student development (and I only named a couple).

Knowing that your student will change in college, how can you support them? For many students, college will provide a level of independence they have not experienced. The newness of all the decisions they have to make daily can be overwhelming. You might have guessed it, there’s a theory to explain that! Sanford’s (1962) theory of challenge and support tells us students need to be developmentally ready for whatever level of “challenge” they are facing, or else they might “retreat” if the challenge is greater than their “readiness.”

Practically speaking, encourage your student to make decisions independently while they are still home. If they are used to everything being done for them (including decisions like how to schedule their day), then they might be overwhelmed when they get to college and have to plan each day. Start small (packing their own lunch if that is something you typically take care of for them) and encourage more independent thinking/action (like letting them tell you how they might handle conflict with a teacher or friend instead of rushing to handle it for them right away). Listen to what your student is saying…truly listen. If they aren’t saying much, ask them, “can you tell me more about ____.” Based on what they tell you, you might be able to discern an appropriate level of “challenge” for them to take the next step in their growth and development.

Take confidence in knowing that the student affairs professionals at your student’s college are there to help them succeed, grow, and develop. Maybe a little research into how college affects students will also help you feel prepared for the upcoming change.



Mayhew, M. J., Rockenbach, A. N., Bowman, N. A., Seifert, T. A., Wolniak, G. C., Pascarella, E. T., &

Terenzini, P. T. (2016). How College Affects Students: 21st Century Evidence that Higher

Education Works (Vol. 3). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Sanford, N. (1962). The American college. New York: Wiley.


Dr. Jason Castles is the Program Director and Associate Professor in the Higher Education Leadership doctoral program at Maryville University.