Academic journal article Journal of Higher Education

What Do College Students Have to Lose? Exploring the Outcomes of Differences in Person-Environment Fits

Academic journal article Journal of Higher Education

What Do College Students Have to Lose? Exploring the Outcomes of Differences in Person-Environment Fits

Article excerpt

This article continues a series of analyses using the "theory of careers" developed by John Holland (1966, 1973, 1985, 1997) to examine the patterns of student stability and change inherent in the college experience--as part of an effort to understand the satisfaction, learning, and retention of college students (see Smart, Feldman & Ethington, 2000; Feldman, Smart & Ethington, 1999; and Feldman, Ethington & Smart, 2001). The underlying basis of Holland's theory is that human behavior is a function of the interaction between individuals and their environments. The theory focuses on an assessment of individuals, their environments, and the interaction or "fit" between individuals, and their environments. Three specific assumptions are associated with these three essential components of the theory: (1) people tend to choose environments compatible with their personality types; (2) environments tend to reinforce and reward different patterns of abilities and interests; and (3) people tend to flourish in environments that are congruent with their dominant personality types. Most research assessing the validity of the three assumptions has tended to examine the merits of each assumption separately. The collective evidence from literally hundreds of studies over the past three decades or so has been summarized in several literature syntheses and meta-analyses (see, for example, Assouline & Meir, 1987; Holland, 1985, 1997; Spokane, 1985, 1996; Tranberg, Slane, & Ekeberg, 1993; Walsh & Holland, 1992).

Because Holland's theory intends to explain vocational behavior, most evidence of the validity of the basic assumptions of the theory has been derived from studies of employed adults. Moreover, attention has been directed primarily to the vocational choices of individuals and the significance of these choices for their vocational stability, satisfaction, and success. This dominant focus on individuals may be understood as a consequence of the primary focus of the theory itself and the scholarly interests of those who have conducted much of the relevant research. As a theory of careers, Holland's work is intended primarily to be of assistance to individuals in their search for careers that are satisfying and rewarding, and the research on the theory reflects this orientation toward individuals.

The vast bulk of the research literature in this area concentrates on the validity of the personality types and their searching behavior (the self-selection assumption) and on the consequences of individuals' choices of congruent or incongruent vocational environments (the congruence assumption) rather than on the reward and reinforcement patterns of vocational environments (the socialization assumption). Holland has acknowledged this differential emphasis in the research literature, noting that "the environmental models are only occasionally studied" (p. 160). As Walsh and Holland (1992) have put it: "We view the theory as primarily psychological in nature and one in which the personality variables are the most powerful and influential .... The theory tends to emphasize person variables and [to be] lean on the concept of reinforcement ... "(p. 63). Given the psychological orientation of Holland's theory and of those who have conducted most of the research on the theory, it is not surprising that work environments (in general) and the interpersonal and social structural patterns of environmental reinforcement (in particular) have not been of central interest.

While his theory is intended to explain vocational behavior, Holland has noted repeatedly that the theory and its basic assumptions are equally applicable to educational settings such as college and universities. The research evidence supporting the basic assumptions of Holland's theory is sparser as it pertains to college students; even so, dozens of relevant studies have been conducted over the past three decades (as reviewed in Smart et al. …

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