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Allison Ewing-Cooper and Kami Merrifield, University of Arizona

Kami Merrifield.jpgAllison Ewing-Cooper.jpgHow might college students change as they traverse the path from freshmen to seniors? One framework for understanding college students’ development is Erikson’s psychosocial theory. Erik Erikson (1902–1994) is one of the most influential theorists in psychology and human development. His theory of psychosocial development postulates that humans encounter eight major conflicts (or crises) in developmental stages across their lifespan. These conflicts center on the individual’s perception of themselves and the world in which they live (especially their relationships with other people). If the conflict is resolved, the person develops a positive strength; if the conflict is not resolved, problems may persist throughout their lifetime. The eight conflicts of Erikson’s theory are: trust vs. mistrust, autonomy vs. shame/doubt, initiative vs. guilt, industry vs. inferiority, identity vs. identity confusion, intimacy vs. isolation, generativity vs. stagnation, and ego integrity vs. despair (Crain, 2005).  

While Erikson's theory encompasses the entire lifespan (from infancy to old age), his eight conflicts can be readily applied to an undergraduate college student's lifespan, offering a unique paradigm through which to view the student-university relationship. Advisors, particularly, play a critical role in helping students overcome each conflict/crisis and ultimately achieve ego integrity (success upon graduation) versus despair (never graduating). 

Trust Versus Mistrust

The first conflict in the "infancy" of college is trust vs. mistrust. Will a student come to trust their university? Is their university generally consistent, predictable, and reliable? Advisors, as one of a student's first contacts with the university, help establish this sense of reliability. Advisors generate trust by answering student emails with timely and accurate information. Higher education is complicated and often hard to navigate, but advisors offer safe places for students to ask questions and receive predictable, consistent information. If a student is able to resolve this conflict and learn to trust the university, they develop hope (of graduation). If not, they grow to mistrust the university, often asking multiple people the same question, needing constant reassurance, or not seeking help when needed.    

Autonomy Versus Shame and Doubt

Just as toddlers learn to explore and try new things in their environments, college students are mastering a new phase of autonomy in their lives. For many traditional-aged college students, university is their first time away from their parents, living on their own. Advisors can help students foster independence by providing appropriate scaffolding, teaching them how to ask critical questions, and guiding them through novel processes (e.g., registering for classes, talking to professors, seeking internships). If students successfully navigate this conflict, they develop the core strength of will; if not, they become shameful or doubtful of their own efficacy. 

Initiative Versus Guilt

Advisors help students gain initiative by encouraging proactivity. Advisors model proactivity by reaching out to students before problems arise. Proactive Advising (Varney, 2013) invites students to take action and seek out help with well-timed touch points, including early in the semester, the middle of the term, registration time, and between semesters. One of the goals of Proactive Advising is to encourage students to take responsibility for their education and feel comfortable asking their advisor (and other university personnel) for assistance. Initiative helps students develop the strength of purpose. 

Industry Versus Inferiority

This stage in Erikson’s theory encompasses elementary school, where children begin to receive meaningful feedback on their strengths and weaknesses and start to compare themselves to others. Advisors help college students with similar crises by encouraging the development of a growth mindset and using Strengths-Based Advising. Instead of focusing on students’ deficits, advisors should emphasize what students do well (Schreiner, 2013). Thus, advisors help students build doable plans and learn to apply their strengths to current and future challenges. Advisors should look for students who struggle with inferiority, including imposter syndrome or constant negative comparisons to others (e.g., a student thinking that everyone else is smarter than them). By using a Strengths-Based approach, advisors help students develop industry and the core strength of competency.        

Identity Versus Identity Confusion

Traditional-aged students come to college as adolescents, figuring out who they are and where they fit in. One main identifying factor for students is their major; students frequently hear the question, “what is your major?” Advisors play a critical role in helping students explore different major options. Students who have achieved identity are confident in their choice of major and feel like they are in the right place.

James Marcia (1980) expanded on Erikson’s identity crisis to develop four identity statuses: diffusion, foreclosure, moratorium, and achievement. Students in identity diffusion have not explored nor committed to any identity; they are undecided and uninterested. Advisors may need to do deliberate activities, such as quizzes or assessments (like StrengthsFinder) to elicit exploration from these students. Students in identity foreclosure have made a commitment without a crisis (i.e., adequate exploration). For example, an advisor encounters a student who has wanted to be a doctor since she was ten and has never thought about any other options. These students can be particularly difficult to work with if they find themselves failing anatomy for the second time. Advisors play the crucial role of helping students build alternative plans, do meaningful exploration, and find success. Students in identity moratorium are very familiar to advisors of undecided students. These students are experiencing identity crises and have not made any commitments. However, since they are actively exploring, they are generally open to advisors’ recommendations of strengths assessments, open-ended questions, or general education courses. Students reach identity achievement only after they have adequately explored multiple options and committed to one; then they achieve fidelity, the core strength of this crisis.             

Intimacy Versus Isolation

Feeling connected and supported by a university are critical factors for retention (Tinto, 2004). Advisors help students connect to their schools by getting to know their students and recommending appropriate involvement activities that match students’ interests and goals. Since advisors see students more frequently than most other university personnel, they can check in to see if students have joined clubs or attended campus events. Feeling like the university cares for students is critical for success (Heisserer & Parette, 2002). Advisors show that their institution cares through approaches such as Appreciative Advising (Bloom, Huston, & He, 2008). By creating a safe space (the disarm stage of Appreciative Advising) and learning about students (discover and dream), advisors help students feel supported and understood. The design and deliver stage helps students put their plans into action and checking in with students (don’t settle) ensures students do not become isolated and achieve the core strength of love. Hopefully, students grow to love the experiences they have during their time at the university and feel connected to the institution and people. 

Generativity Versus Stagnation

Just as middle-aged adults focus on giving back to future generations, college students are motivated to give back to their university. Advisors assist students in finding opportunities for leadership and mentorship, including officer positions in student organizations, tutoring, and serving as preceptors.  Another key component of this stage is productivity; students need to feel they are contributing members of their university. The core strength of this stage is care; advisors can help students care about their university and their legacy as they move on to the next stages of their lives.    

Ego Integrity Versus Despair

When graduating, students achieve ego integrity: they reflect on college with hope and pride. At degree checkout, advisors can promote ego integrity by asking students to reflect on their accomplishments and successes. This task is particularly critical if students have overcome challenges (e.g., probation), changed their majors, or traveled circuitous paths to graduation. One crucial key to ego integrity is graduating. If students leave without degrees, it is easy for them to view their college experience with despair. Advisors play an instrumental role in retention and therefore help with ego integrity in all they do. The core strength of this stage is wisdom.

By applying Erikson’s psychosocial theory to advising, advisors view what they do in a different light. Advisors can identify ways to facilitate student growth towards independence, understand students’ behaviors in a way that can evoke empathy, and put into context students’ experiences and understand how these experiences may influence current behaviors. Every day, advisors help students overcome these eight crises and ultimately achieve success in school. 

Allison Ewing-Cooper
Assistant Director of Academic Advising
College of Social and Behavioral Sciences
University of Arizona
[email protected]

Kami Merrifield
Senior Academic Advisor II
College of Social and Behavioral Sciences
University of Arizona
[email protected]


Bloom, J. L., Huston, B. L., & He, Y. (2008). The appreciative advising revolution. Champaign, IL: Stipes. 

Crain, W. (2005). Theories of development: Concepts and applications (5th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

Heisserer, D. L., & Parette, P. (2002). Advising at-risk students in colleges and university settings. College Student Journal, 36(1), 69–84.    

Marcia, J. E. (1980). Identity in adolescence. In J. Adelson (Ed.), Handbook of adolescent psychology (pp.159-187). New York, NY: Wiley. 

Schreiner, L. (2013). Strengths-based advising. In J. K. Drake, P. Jordan, & M. A. Miller (Eds.), Academic advising approaches: Strategies that teach students to make the most of college (pp. 105–120). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Tinto, V. (2004). Student retention and graduation: Facing the truth, living with the consequences. The Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education. Retrieved from https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED519709.pdf

Varney, J. (2013). Proactive advising. In J. K. Drake, P. Jordan, & M. A. Miller (Eds.), Academic advising approaches: Strategies that teach students to make the most of college (pp. 137–154). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Cite this article using APA style as: Ewing-Cooper, A., & Merrifield, K. (2019, June). The eight crises of college students: Advising with Erikson across a student’s academic lifespan. Academic Advising Today, 42(2). Retrieved from [insert url here] 

Posted in: 2019 June 42:2


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