Social Adjustment of College Freshmen: The Importance of Gender and Living Environment

Article excerpt

The relationship between living environment, gender and both overall adjustment to college and social adjustment in freshmen students was examined in this study. The College Adjustment Scales were administered to 511 freshmen students living in on-campus housing. There were 259 students living in Freshmen Year Experience (FYE) Halls verses 252 students living in traditional residence halls that participated in the research. The overall adjustment level and social adjustment scale was utilized to compare overall and social adjustment levels based on gender and type of living environment. Males were found to have a significantly higher overall adjustment levels than females regardless of living environment. However, when freshmen males and females in the FYE halls were compared there was no significant difference in their levels of overall adjustment. There was a significant difference in social based on type of residence hall with students in the FYE halls having a significantly better level of social adjustment than students in the traditional residence hall group. This manuscript addresses the relationship between gender and living environment on the social adjustment of college students.


Without a successful adjustment and transition to college, students may drop out. Nearly 30-40% of college students drop out without obtaining a college degree, and many of these students never return to college to complete degrees (Consolvo, 2002). Individuals who are able to succeed at handling their independence and newfound freedoms are able to make new relationships while maintaining old relationships (Holmbeck & Leake, 1999). Developmental processes for male and female college students may differ, in that women tend to rely on relationships and socialization experiences to aid in adjusting to college more than their male counterparts (Kenny & Rice, 1995).

Research by Rong and Gable (1999) emphasized the importance that living environment, social support and making meaningful relationship connections have on students' overall adjustment to the college environment. Institutions that provide opportunities for not only academic support, but also social and personal support increase their retention rates (Consolvo, 2002).

Literature Review

Previous studies have suggested that relationships and making meaningful connections are important for students to adjust to the college environment. Students who have been able to establish bonds in their new environment adjusted better than students who were isolated and not as successful in establishing new friendships and relationships. The theory of attachment has been used to explain the importance of emotional bonds and healthy adjustment. Healthy individuals tend to have secure attachments to parents, guardians, and significant others in their lives. Individuals with secure attachments tend to have an easier time transitioning to college than individuals who do not have secure attachments (Rice, FitzGerald, Whaley, & Gibbs, 1995). Relationships with parents may change when students go to college, which can be a difficult transition for all involved, and cause additional stress and pressure on the students as they move through the developmental process and become adults (Mudore, 1999). The process of adjustment can be frustrating and overwhelming for many students, leading to emotional maladjustment and depression (Wintre & Yaffe, 2000), which may, in turn, negatively effect college performance.

High levels of social support buffer individuals from stress (Robbins, Lese, & Herrick, 1993). Attachment theory has emphasized the importance of healthy emotional bonds, and students who are able to create and maintain healthy bonds with others tend to have an easier time adjusting to college (Rice et al., 1995). Social adjustment may be just as important as academic adjustment, according to Gerdes and Mallinckrodt (1994) who studied 155 freshmen and found that "personal adjustment and integration into the social fabric of campus life play a role at least as important as academic factors in student retention" (p. 286).

One way of assisting students in establishing connections is to help them become involved in campus life. Student social adjustment to the college environment has been linked to student involvement in the university and has appeared to be a major factor in a student's overall adjustment (Moore, Lovell, McGann, & Wyrick, 1998). Numerous studies conducted in the 1990s indicated that students need continued support to become involved in activities and that this improves their overall adjustment (Dinger, 1999). The transition to college is difficult for many students and students need support and encouragement to join various organizations and participate in activities to feel like they are a part of the university community (Consolvo, 2002). Activities serve not only as a coping mechanism, but also have assisted students in making new friends and finding their place in the university community. Thus it is only natural that the residence halls would be an ideal places to have activities for freshmen and help create a sense of connection to the university.

Gender Issues:

Female students face unique problems adjusting to college. For example, there are more roles and opportunities for women than ever before; however those roles may not be acceptable to their families. Some parents and families still put pressure on their daughters to follow traditional career paths and to find a mate while in college (Baxter-Magolda, 1999). In addition, the ways in which males and females cope with stress and depression differs. Males tend to suppress depression via isolation and escape while females tend to engage in self-blame, crying, and are more likely to seek assistance (Arthur, 1998). However, the suicide rate continues to rise for people between the ages of 15 and 24. Suicide is on the increase for college students and becoming an issue on college campuses. Most students send outward signs before attempting or committing suicide. Students may isolate from others and give away possessions. These students may begin to miss classes and not turn in assignments. Females are more likely to send outward signs than their male counterparts and are three times more likely to attempt suicide than males. However, males are more likely to use lethal means and succeed in completing the suicide act (Erickson-Cornish, Kominars, Riva, Mcintosh, & Henderson, 2000; Eshun, 2000). Alfred-Liro and Sigelman (1998) found females more likely to have greater levels of depression and struggles with adjustment during their freshmen year than their male counterparts. In fact, a recent study indicated that 84% of college counseling directors are concerned with the number of student coming to campus with severe problems (O'Conner, 2001).This difficulty in adjustment for females may be due in part to the lack of social connections in the environment and the perceived oppression from male members of the university community. Thus, self-confidence and assertiveness may play a role in a woman's ability to adjust to college (Sands, 1998).

Women face additional problems with violence that is often denied or even condoned on college campuses. In a study conducted by Sands (1998), female undergraduate students experienced more demeaning, intimidating, and hostile behavior than their male counterparts. This behavior was exhibited by their male peers and by male faculty members. In fact, male faculty members and other members of the university community sometimes displayed negative attitudes toward female students (Jamerson, 1999). This additional stress of dealing with hostile behavior and demeaning actions and attitudes can lead to difficulty with adjustment, stress, and anxiety. Another factor affecting women is the way in which sexual issues are handled and discussed in the classroom. Female students have reported feeling uncomfortable with they way discussions such as multiple sex partner, sexual customs in other countries and rape and incest are handled by male professors (Jamerson, 1999). Numerous studies have indicated that female students often have a more difficult time adjusting to the college environment (Cook, 1995).

The degree to which a woman is able to adjust may be directly linked to her level of confidence and general self-esteem. Women who perceive themselves as "having a high sense of Personal Authority would also fare better in perceived college adjustment" (Protinsky & Gilkey, 1996, p.292). The social aspect of entering college and becoming involved in campus life may be more valued by female students than male students. Women have been thought to be more social and require a social connection than males in late adolescence (Gilligan, 1987), which is the profile of the traditional age college freshman. Although friendship and social activity for both males and females is important during the developmental process of late adolescence to early adulthood, women may tend to express feelings more openly, and be affected more emotionally by social situations that occur through any transition period, such as entering college (Rice & Whaley, 1994).

In a recent study on college students, Lee, Keough and Sexton (2002) found that college men and women appraised the college experience differently, and had different perceptions of stress relative to social connectedness. According to Lee, Keough and Sexton, women who experienced feelings of low connectedness on campus negatively appraised the collegiate experience or campus climate. Self-esteem, assertiveness and confidence may also be impacted by the perception of acceptance into the new college community, academic achievement and personal safety (Protinsky & Gilkey, 1996).

On Campus Living:

Living arrangements have impacted the social adjustment of college students. The environment in which students live has had a direct impact on the students' overall wellness level (Adams, Ryan, & Keating, 2000). Students who lived in environments that were conducive to learning and provided ample study space and opportunities for growth and interaction tended to have had an easier time adjusting than students who lived in other environments (Dinger, 1999). Millings and Mahmood (1999) also stated that colleges should have residential programs in place to alleviate student stress and other concerns.

Residence hall climates have been likened to families, in terms of rules, boundaries and an atmosphere of care and concern for other members. The sense of community that a hall has is similar to a family unit, with students developing care and concern for other students. Resident assistants have often acted as older sibling and have assisted in creating a positive and warm environment in the halls (Barthelemy & Fine, 1995). The social climate has also been deemed important in assisting students' with adjustment to college. In their study of 121 undergraduate students living in residence halls, Barthelemy and Fine, (1995) found that personal support was significantly related to adjustment to college life. Students who felt that they had a high level of support from members of the campus community had significantly higher levels of adjustment than students who felt that they did not have the support of others.

The climate of warmth, supervision, and order often seen in on-campus living can influence a student's positive adjustment to college. Residence halls can provide students with an environment in which they can grow personally (Barthelemy & Fine, 1995). According to Adams, Ryan, and Keating (2000) environment is important in assisting college students to appropriately develop and adjust to college

Given the implication that social support is one of the most important factors for freshmen to successfully adjust to the university environment, universities have begun various programs to assist in creating learning communities. These communities attempt to combine academics and social activities. Students are encouraged to learn from each other, have study groups, and also have social activities. These environments are residence halls that have specialized programs that attempt to bring academics into the halls through programs such as faculty review sessions for exams and tutoring centers located in the halls (Lamothe, Currie, Alisat, Pratt, Pancer, & Hunsberger, 1995).



All participants ([] = 511) in this study were first year traditional age freshmen at a major southern research II university. They were all between the ages of 18 and 20 ([] = 18.63, [] = .56). See Table 1 for the gender of participants. Table 2 shows the ethnic breakdown of the participants. There were slightly more female participants than male participants. Since the sample sizes were approximately equal for both groups, the homogeneity of variance assumptions were not violated and no special test for unequal group sizes was utilized for this study.

Currently, there are two main types of living environments available to freshmen at the university: (a) regular residence halls, which are traditional residence halls and (b) freshmen experience halls/floors. The Freshmen Experience Halls have specialized programs in place to assist freshmen in adjusting to the university environment. Programs include community building activities, a mentoring program, and a learning environment.

The university houses over 3000 students of which over 1600 are freshmen. The sample consisted of 259 students living in freshmen year experience residence halls, and 252 students living in regular halls. Only students living in co-ed halls were sampled for this study. Early in the second semester of college, students were administered the CAS (College Adjustment Scale) and the social adjustment scale was used to determine if there were significant differences between the groups based on gender.


The College Adjustment Scales were created by Anton and Reed (1991) and are published by Psychological Assessment Resources Incorporated. The instrument consists of 108 items and eight scales. These scales measure anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, substance abuse, self-esteem, interpersonal problems, family problems, academic problems, and career problems. The internal consistency of reliability for the scales ranges from .80 to .92 indicating a high degree of reliability. The scores are given in both percentages and T-scores. A T-score of 70 or above is considered significant on an individual scale. Lower scores indicate a higher level of adjustment to the college environment. In the 1991 study by Anton and Reed, the instrument was tested on 1146 participants using a two way Manova to examine possible gender and ethnicity differences. There was no significant difference found based on gender or ethnicity.


Data were collected in the residence halls at the beginning of the Spring semester. Students were asked to fill out the College Adjustment Scale at tables set up in the residence halls. Refreshments were provided to participants. Resident Assistants and other hall staff were asked to encourage students to participate in the research and participants were asked to inform others about the research. Signs were posted in the residence halls concerning the research. The researcher met with members of the University Housing office who encouraged the Resident Assistants to inform students about the research and provided assistance in setting up times for the researcher to access students in the halls. Students were informed that participation was voluntary, and that their responses would be kept confidential. The students were asked not to provide any identifying information of name and social security number to the researcher. A letter was developed by the researcher to explain the rationale for this research to the participants.

Data Analysis

T-tests were used to determine if there were significant differences in adjustment and social adjustment. T scores on the adjustment scale were calculated to determine an overall adjustment score.


Overall when all males in the study were compared to all females in the study, using a T-test, males were found to have a statically higher level of overall adjustment when compared to the females in this study. t (509) = 4.62, [] & .033 (one tailed). When freshmen males and females in the FYE halls were compared there was no significant difference in their levels of overall adjustment t (257) =. 154, [] & .70 (one tailed). In addition, when the Freshmen Experience Group and the Regular Residence Hall Group were compared using a t-test and the social adjustment scale, the results indicated that there was a significant difference t (509) = 7.76, [] & .006 (one tailed). Students in the Freshmen Experience Hall group had a significantly better level of social adjustment than students in the regular residence hall group. The differences in the adjustment level based on gender supported previous findings by Cross, Nicholas, Gobble and Frank (1992) that males adjust better to the college environment.


Given the impact that social connections has on overall adjustment, this cannot be overlooked as a factor in the adjustment of freshmen. When a person is faced with having to make numerous changes at one time the ability to make social connections directly impacts one's overall adjustment. College freshmen are faced with numerous changes in their lives, and going from the role of childhood into the early stages of young adulthood that can be a challenging and somewhat confusing transition. Freshmen need specific opportunities to integrate into college life in order for the university to increase the retention rates and assist students in obtaining success in college. The university environment can provide varied and exciting activities for new students. Activities having a focus of female-interest, male-interest, and more frequently interest for all students might present a connection, a "home" for new students especially those who might be shy or reticent to mix with people whom they do not know. On campus living environments, can be tailored to meet the needs of several groups, offering comfort and support.

There are several models of college student development. One widely recognized and utilized model in the student services field is the Dakota Model (Lavelle & O'Ryan, 2001). The Dakota Model of College Student Development was developed based on factor analysis of 738 students' responses to various items such as career beliefs and social beliefs. Students high in the social factor have an excellent understanding of social relationships and social skills. These students tend to have an easier time making friends and becoming involved in college life. In recent years the focus has been on creating small group environments that promote opportunities for personal growth and development in both academic and social spheres. In a study of 102 freshmen at a large Midwestern university Lavelle and O'Ryan (2001) found that smaller groups promote intimacy and more complete development of the students. These small groups created a family type of environment that also encouraged students' involvement and increased their ability to adjust to college in the social realm. This research supports Tinto's (1975) idea that cooperative learning is important in assisting students to adjust to the college setting (Boyle, 1989). College students undergo numerous developmental changes. Developmental systems models stress assisting students to cope with the process of change should be the focus of college programs. The research with college students suggests that becoming an individual and maintaining relationships is the main overall focus of the transition into adulthood (Lerner, Lerner, Stefanis, & Apfel, 2001).


With regards to women, the living environment may be an even greater factor in terms of social adjustment than for men. Women tend to use relationships and socialization experiences in college to adjust more than their male counterparts (Kenny & Rice, 1995). Females have traditionally been thought of as being more social and having a more difficult time adjusting to the college environment and making social connections than their male counterparts and numerous studies have found high levels of differences in the social adjustment of males and female (Cook, 1995). However, the differences in the adjustment levels for the groups in this study were not as high as other studies have reported. This may be due to several factors such as the changing roles of women in society, as well as the fact that more opportunities for leadership are now available for women than ever before. What is unclear is the amount of impact gender had on adjustment. Freshmen are in a new environment where they may not know anyone and programs that foster social relationships and connections can assist students in not feeling lonely, depressed and can alleviate fears. McWhiter (1997), in his study of 625 college students, found that female students are more likely to experience loneliness and social isolation than their male peers. This study found that female students had a more difficult time fitting into the college environment and were less likely to be involved in campus activities and less likely to have leadership positions in campus organizations.

Focused programs can help students realize that faculty and staff members are approachable by providing opportunities for students to become acquainted with faculty and staff outside of the classroom setting and typical academic environment. Pike (1999) studied 626 freshmen using the College Student Experience Questionnaire. About half of the students were living in Residential Leaning Communities (RLC) and the others were living in Traditional Residence Halls (TRH). Pike found that students in the RLC had significantly higher levels of involvement, integration, and interaction with others than students in the TRH. Furthermore, students in the RLC were more likely to have greater educational gains and more positive college experiences than students in the TRH. In addition, females in this study were more likely to be involved in student clubs and organizations. Involvement in extracurricular activities has been linked to greater levels of adjustment in college students. Students in the RLC were more likely to be involved in clubs and organizations and connected with the university. The relationships that students had with friends and family was also found to be significant in terms of adjustment for both groups. However, Pike's study did not find significant gains by faculty involvement with students. In a study of 286 freshmen, Holmbeck and Wandrei (1993) found that it is important for freshmen to have, and maintain relationships with others in order to have high levels of mental health. The degree to which a student connects with the university and peers was directly linked to the student's emotional health. They also found that depression and anxiety levels were higher for students who had high levels of separation anxiety from their parents. Students who were able to gain high levels of independence were more likely to have an easier time with the adjustment process.

As the "who is responsible" pendulum swings between the concept of total autonomy for college students as a resurgence of the concept of campuses being responsible for a large part of the student's development, the level of adjustment remains a priority. There has been continuing pressure on administrators, housing staff and faculty to not only recruit quality students, but to retain, and eventually graduate those students. The successful adjustment and relative satisfaction with the first year of college experience has been the focus of many admissions and student affairs professionals.

Social connections play an important role in assisting students in their overall adjustment to the college environment. At best, on-campus personnel must continue to search for avenues that may increase satisfaction, positive attachment and enthusiasm for freshmen to continue their studies.

It is hoped that this study has provided some insight into variables that have an impact on the satisfaction and adjustment for freshmen.


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Assistant Professor, Department of Human Services

Stephen E Austin State University

Nacogdoches, TX


Professor and Chair

Department of Counseling, Human Development and Educational Leadership

Montclair State University

Upper Montclair, NJ


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