2 Student Identity and Responsibilities

David Evans


What you’ll learn to do: explore personal identity and responsibilities of a college student

Nine young adults running outdoors towards the camera

A journey of a thousand steps begins with a single step.

—Lao Tzu, philosopher

In this section of the course, you will learn how to identify different categories of students as well as similarities and differences among students. You’ll also describe how personality tests and skills inventories help to evaluate career paths and identify personal interests to meet educational goals. In addition, you’ll describe the responsibilities of college student life and how they differ from high school or early career life.

Categories of Students

Learning Outcomes

  • Identify different categories of students as well as similarities and differences among students

Who Are You As a Student?

Imagine for a moment that you live in the ancient city of Athens, Greece. You are a student at Plato’s University of Athens, considered in modern times to be the first institution of higher learning in the Western world. The campus sits just outside of Athens’s city walls, a mile from your home. You walk to class and take your seat in the gymnasium, where all classes are held. Gatherings are small, just a handful of fellow students, most of whom are men born and raised in Athens. When your class is finished, you walk back to the city. Your daily work awaits you—hurry.

A lot has changed in higher education since Plato’s time. How does your college environment compare to the university in ancient Athens? Where do you live now, relative to campus? Do you report to a job site before or after class? Who are your fellow students, and where do they live in relationship to you and campus? What city or country are they from?

You may find many similarities in the past and the present. You may find many differences, too. Perhaps the most striking difference will be the makeup of each student body. For instance, prior to 1964, historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) were established “with the principal mission of educating Black Americans. These institutions were founded and developed in an environment of legal segregation and, by providing access to higher education, they contributed substantially to the progress Black Americans made in improving their status.”[1] According to the Women’s College Coalition, “The earliest women’s colleges were founded in the mid-19th century to give women access to higher education. This was a time when many people believed that it was unnecessary to educate women.”[2]

The number of women’s colleges have declined since 1964 with the passage of the Equal Rights Act. It is not hard to understand why. Through 2019, women now make up roughly 57% of college enrollment and are the majority demographic in mainstream college campuses. Historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) have declined moderately in number from 121 in the 1930s to 101 institutions today, but maintain their proud traditions with graduates such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Vice President Kamala Harris.

Statistics can also provide a window of understanding into what it’s like to be a student in higher education today:

  • Number of students enrolled in college: There were 16.6 million undergraduate students enrolled in degree-granting postsecondary institutions in fall of 2019, a 5% decrease from 2009 when undergraduate enrollment was 17.5 million students.[3]
  • Full-time vs. part-time: In fall 2019, degree-granting postsecondary institutions enrolled 10.2 million full-time and 6.3 million part-time undergraduate students. Between 2009 and 2019, full-time enrollment decreased by 7% (from 11.0 million to 10.2 million students) and part-time enrollment decreased by 1% (from 6.4 million to 6.3 million students).[4]
  • Race/ethnicity of undergraduate enrollments: Of the 16.6 million undergraduates enrolled in fall 2019, 8.5 million were White, 3.5 million were Hispanic, 2.1 million were Black, 1.1 million were Asian, 700,000 were two or more races, 120,000 were American Indian/Alaska Native, and 45,000 were Pacific Islander.[5]
  • Community college: In fall 2019, the 11.0 million students enrolled in 4-year institutions made up 66% of total undergraduate enrollment; the remaining 34% (5.6 million students) were enrolled in 2-year institutions. Between 2009 and 2019, enrollment increased by 10% at 4-year institutions (from 9.9 million to 11.0 million students) and decreased by 26% at 2-year institutions (from 7.5 million to 5.6 million students).[6]
  • Working in College: A majority of part-time students (81%) were employed in 2018 compared to 43% of full-time students. [7]
  • Distance learning: In fall 2019, some 36% (6.0 million) of all undergraduate students enrolled in at least one distance education course, and 2.4 million students, or 15% of total undergraduate enrollment, exclusively took distance education courses. Among undergraduate students who took distance education courses exclusively, 1.5 million were enrolled in institutions located in the same state in which they resided and 849,500 were enrolled in institutions in a different state. We expect to see significant shifts in these statistics due to the COVID-19 pandemic. [8]

These brief statistics point to the scope of university life in the United States of America and the diversity of the student body. Clearly there is no “one size fits all” description of a college student. However, each student is responsible for understanding the diverse backgrounds of his or her peers. Who are the students you share classes with? How have they come to share the college experience with you?

In this section, we look at several categories of students and at some of the needs of students in those categories. We also take a brief look at how all students, regardless of background, can make a plan to be successful in college.

Categories of Students

You may take classes with students from many age groups, cultures, and economic backgrounds. The makeup of college students has long been described in two categories labeled as “traditional” or “nontraditional” students.

Traditional Students

Traditional undergraduate students typically enroll in college immediately after graduating from high school and they attend classes on a continuous, full-time basis at least during the fall and spring semesters (or fall, winter, and spring quarters). They complete a bachelor’s degree program in four or five years by the age of twenty-two or twenty-three. Traditional students are also typically financially dependent on others (such as their parents), do not have children, and consider their college career to be their primary responsibility. They may be employed only on a part-time basis, if at all, during the academic year.

Nontraditional Students

Nontraditional students usually do not enter college in the same calendar year that they finish high school. They typically have full-time work obligations, may have dependents, possibly have served or are serving in the military, and/or are caregivers of sick or elderly family members. Some nontraditional students may have received a general educational development degree (GED) instead of a high school diploma. Another example of a nontraditional student would be a dual enrolled student. Here at Florida Southwestern State College, for the Fall 2021 term, 19.9% of our student population are dual enrolled (https://www.fsw.edu/researchreporting/generalstatisticsanddemographics).

The Diversity of Students

The classification of students as traditional or nontraditional is still used today despite all that has changed in our society. For example, the National Center for Educational Statistics still tracks student metrics using these categories. More importantly, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) also continues to delineate between traditional and nontraditional students in their determination of aid eligibility.

But many believe these labels to be archaic. We no longer live in a one-size, square-peg world. The majority of students today do not have the luxury to transition immediately from high school to a four-year college. More and more households have two-person incomes and cannot support the additional burden of college costs, making it necessary for students to work significant hours, or join the military, to pay for their education. Perhaps the student does not feel they are ready or prepared to make the leap from high school to college and needs time to experience life.

The bottom line is the traditional versus nontraditional labels do not do justice to the incredible diversity of college students today. Going back to the earlier reference to ancient Greece, Brittany Hively, the editor of The Parthenon of Marshall University, so eloquently states:

“When it comes down to it, we are all students working towards doing something we are passionate about, something we love and changing the world for the better. Tradition is great, but sometimes it is time for tradition to change, and in this case, it is as simple as some terminology”.[9].

The following video features several nontraditional students from the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. Students discuss their status as nontraditional students. Note that the differences are not just with age, but also experience.

You can view the transcript for “Non-Traditional Students at W&M” here (opens in new window).

International Students and/or Non-Native Speakers of English

International students are those students who travel to a country different from their own for the purpose of studying at college. For a lot of international students, English is likely their second language. Non-native speakers of English, like international students, typically come from a different culture too. For both of these groups, college may pose special challenges. For example, classes may at first, or for a time, pose hardships due to cultural and language barriers.

First-Generation College Students

First-generation students do not have a parent who graduated from college with a baccalaureate. College life may be less familiar to them, and the preparation for entering college may not have been stressed as a priority at home. Some time and support may be needed to become accustomed to the college environment. These students may experience a culture shift between school life and home life.

Link to learning

Lyric Swinton’s TED talk discusses some of the difficulties she faced as a first-generation college student and the importance of recognizing and challenging the negative effect of stereotypes.

Students with Disabilities

Students with disabilities include those who have attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorders, blindness or low vision, brain injuries, deafness/hard-of-hearing, learning disabilities, medical disabilities, physical disabilities, psychiatric disabilities, and speech and language disabilities. Students with disabilities are legally accorded reasonable accommodations that give them an equal opportunity to attain the same level of performance as students without a disability. Even with these accommodations, however, physical and electronic campus facilities and practices can pose special challenges. Time, energy, and added resources may be needed to ensure these students are afforded an equal opportunity at school.

Working Students

Many students are employed in either a part-time or full-time capacity. Balancing college life with work life may be a challenge. Time management skills and good organization can help. These students typically have two jobs—being a student and an employee. It can be a lot to balance. As of Fall 2021, Florida Southwestern State College has approximately 38% of students attending at a full time status and 62% at a part time status  (https://www.fsw.edu/researchreporting/generalstatisticsanddemographics). FSW offers multiple opportunities to try to assist financially including grants, loans, scholarships and potential work-study jobs.

Commuter Students

While there are many advantages to living on campus, many students choose to live off campus and commute to class. This may be convenient or necessary for students who have a full set of responsibilities in off-campus jobs. It may also suit students who have the option to live at home with parents to avoid room-and-board fees. Many returning students are commuter students too and may come on campus only for classes. At some colleges, like urban and rural schools, commuting to campus may be the only option.

Check out this story about one student’s experience finding the right time to start her college education.

Student Story: The Right Time to Go Back to School

This student story was written as part of Lumen’s College Success Student Contributors project. The story student stories are written in collaboration with real college students and college graduates to reflect real student experiences.

It’s unbelievable how much your mentality can change between being 18 and being in your mid-twenties. When I first went to college, I dropped out right away. Now I’m 25 and I have a 4.0.


I tried to continue my education after high school by going to college, but I wasn’t ready. I left college and started working with the state. My pay was very good considering I had no degree. Before I knew it, I was only 22 and had a high paying job and my own place and everything. But I wasn’t happy where I was at. I knew that job wasn’t what I wanted to do forever.


I knew I wanted to go into education and be a teacher. I decided to give up my apartment and my pay to move back in with my parents so I could go back to school. As cheesy as it sounds, I wanted to be happy in my career.


It’s different going back to school as an adult. A lot of scholarships are for incoming freshmen, or parents, and I didn’t qualify for any financial aid. However, I am in an organization of associations of women in community college. There is a membership fee, but there are a lot of benefits to being part of the organization. This organization has a scholarship open for people who are involved with and helping their community. I applied and I wrote about what I do as a volunteer, and I was awarded a scholarship. I didn’t think it was possible for me to get a scholarship, and I was very happy and grateful for it.


I decided to go the community college route and then transfer to another university and I’m actually transferring this fall. I completed the transfer application process online. I’m constantly emailing different counselors about what I need next and I feel like I’ve talked to maybe 8 counselors at this point. A lot of this process has been self guided and this seems to be the norm from when I’ve talked to other students. The schools say they have all these resources to help you, but it’s hard to actually connect with the people who are supposed to be there to support you.


When I decided to go back to school my mom asked me if I was sure. I told her that her position when she was my age was different from mine. My parents put a lot of emphasis on having a financially stable job and they didn’t really push college when I was younger. My job had everything they had wanted for me from good pay to retirement benefits, but it didn’t make me happy.

If I could give any advice to students I would say it’s important to get involved in internships or organizations that have something to do with your interests. I volunteer for the history museum because I am majoring in history and I am a board member for a woman empowerment organization because I want to help women succeed in their lives, no matter the age. My involvement both as a volunteer and a board member really reaffirms what I want to do. Pursuing these types of opportunities can also help you when you start looking for opportunities and scholarships.

Assessing Your Values

Learning Outcomes

  • Describe how personality tests and skills inventories help to evaluate career paths and identify personal interests to meet educational goals

Identifying Your Personal Values

The journey of achieving success in college begins with a single step: identifying your personal values. Your personal values are your core beliefs and guiding principles. They shape the roles you play in daily life. They color your interests and passions, and frame your thoughts and words. In essence, your values are a compass that help you make decisions and choices.

Even if you’ve never consciously thought about your personal values before, you already have some. Reflect on some of these questions to help you get started on identifying and naming some of your personal values:

  • Do you have a hobby or something you enjoy doing with your free time? What does that activity provide for you? What do you like about it? Why is it important to you?
  • Do you have any role models, mentors, or people that you look up to in your life, whether they are people you know personally, celebrities, or characters in movie or television? What is it about them that you admire the most? Are there ways in which you would like to be more like them? What does that say about what you think is important in life?
  • Do you have any goals, short or long term, that you are really excited about achieving? What is it about those goals that excite you? How do you envision life will be different once you meet your goal? What does this goal mean to you?
  • Think of a time when you had a conflict with someone in your life. Can you identify what caused the conflict? More importantly, can you identify why it was so important to you, what upset you the most, and what you would have accepted as an apology?

Getting in touch with and naming your personal values can be a powerful practice to help you start to identify what’s important to you in life, what you want to achieve, and how you want to spend your time. In fact, once you’ve identified your values, you may start to notice that other people in your life might have a different set of values and core beliefs that they live by. Understanding these differences might help you understand choices and behaviors from others that you previously had a hard time understanding.

Personal Values

Brene Brown, researcher, author, and thought leader, has a list of personal values you can take a look at. After checking out the list, circle or write down a few that you personally connect with. Feel free to come up with a few of your own. After you’ve identified a few personal values, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Are some of these values more important than others? Are they all of equal importance? How do they stack up to one another?
  • How do these values fit into your educational goals?
  • How do these values fit into your other life goals and wishes?

Examining your personal identity and values is an important first step in college because it will help you begin the process of defining your educational goals and ultimately planning your career. Research has shown that students who get involved in career-planning activities stay in college longer, graduate on time, improve their academic performance, and tend to be more goal-focused and motivated. Overall, these students have a more satisfying and fulfilling college experience.

Using Surveys to Help You Identify Your Values

To help you begin to identify your personal identity and values, you can use a “self-assessment” survey. These surveys can help you evaluate your personal identity—your thoughts, actions, attitudes, beliefs, values, and behaviors—in relationship to life experiences, like going to college and preparing for a career.

Many different self-assessment surveys are available from college career centers and online sites. Some are designed as personality tests, like the Keirsey Temperament Sorter, or as inventories, like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MTBI®), the most widely used personality inventory in history. You may also come across instruments designed as scales, measures, games, surveys, and more. These descriptors are often interchangeably used, although most often they refer to questionnaires. The distinctions are not as important as whether or not the instrument meets your self-assessment needs.

Some popular, free surveys are noted here.

Survey Instruments

ISEEK Career Cluster Interest Survey from ISEEK Careers/Minnesota Colleges and Universities lets you rate activities you enjoy, your personal qualities, and school subjects you like. Then you can see which career clusters are a match for your interests.

Values Clarification Questionnaire from InSite/Electric Eggplant is a two-part survey that looks at the specific values of ambition, appearance, family, friendship, independence, wealth, education, freedom, happiness, privacy, security, and honesty and then a scorecard and an interpretation are generated.

Career Interest Survey from CheckOutACollege.com/Community and Technical Colleges of Washington State allows you to select activities you like to do, personality traits that describe you, and subjects that interest you. The survey tool auto results suggest one or more of sixteen career clusters that match your selections.

Responsibilities of Student Life

Learning Outcomes

  • Describe the responsibilities of college student life and how they differ from high school or early career life

Stages of Life

Keep in mind that your personal values and interests can and will change as you get older. This fact has been shown in research conducted by a number of contemporary social scientists, like Erik Erikson and Daniel Levinson. Their studies show how our values affect our choices and how our choices can characterize the life stage we’re in.

For example, people ages 18–26, tend to make choices that are tentative (more short range) and support a desire for autonomy. For example, a high school student applying for colleges might not base their choice of school on where they plan to be living post graduation. A young professional might decide to move cities for a job opportunity, without giving additional thought to where they’re going to live long term or what their plan is beyond the next two or three years.

Later, during ages 27–31, young adults may rethink decisions and lean toward more permanent choices. A father might start making choices about where he lives based on the schools that will be available to his young children once they are school aged. In ages 32–42, adults tend to have a greater sense of commitment and stability, as shown by their choices. Perhaps they have committed to a home purchase, requiring them to make regular payments on a 15- or 30-year home loan, or maybe they are now rooted in their career path, committed to continuing with the work they are currently doing and unlikely to make a sudden pivot. Our personal identity and values change over time. They continue to affect our choices and can illuminate the stage of life [10].

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Keeping in mind that there are many phases of life, you can expect to see changes in your values and choices as you get older. You may experience a significant change in perspective while you are in college! To better understand your relationship with your values, you can continually revisit what is important to you to see how it changes or stays the same, year after year. Make a commitment to examine your thinking, actions, and choices, and keep taking self-assessment tests. This commitment will put you in a stronger position to manage changes in your educational goals, your career, living situation, hobbies, friends, and other aspects of your life. Changes are part of normal life transitions.

Student Responsibilities

Now that you have transitioned into college, you will have new responsibilities. You are probably familiar with what it means to have responsibilities. As a high school student, you were probably expected to complete your homework assignments and turn them in on time. When you lived at home, you may have had household responsibilities like washing the dishes or cleaning the bathroom. As a parent, you are likely responsible for meeting many of your child’s basic needs for food, shelter, and comfort. As an employee, your responsibilities are likely outlined in your job description and communicated to you by your supervisor.

What are your new student responsibilities? Are they financial? For example, are you responsible for sticking to a budget to manage your spending while you’re in school? Do you have course-specific responsibilities? For example, did your professor set a maximum number of unexcused absences allowed from class before you lose course points? Are your responsibilities social? Did you commit to being part of a club or a student group? Maybe you have health-related responsibilities and need to manage your blood sugar levels throughout long days of back-to-back classes. Maybe you have new ethical responsibilities as part of your role in student government or as a peer educator.

Take some time to reflect on what exactly is expected of you.

Expectations of Student Behavior on Campus

Expectations for student behavior vary from campus to campus. Students are generally expected to at least act consistently with the values of the institution and to obey local, state, and federal laws. It may also be expected that you actively participate in your career decision-making process, respond to advisement, and plan to graduate. You may have even been required to take this course.

Institutions provide additional details about student responsibilities. These details may be formal or informal. They may fall under academic expectations or a code of conduct. They may also include resources and recommendations. The University of South Carolina site “What Every Student Needs to Know,” for example, outlines a formula of responsibilities for student success.

Consult your college handbook or website for details about your rights and responsibilities as a student. Overall, you demonstrate that you are a responsible student when you do the following:

  • Uphold the values of honesty and academic integrity.
  • Arrive on time and prepared for all classes, meetings, academic activities, and special events.
  • Give attention to quality and excellence in completing assignments.
  • Allot sufficient time to fulfill responsibilities outside of class.
  • Observe etiquette in all communications, giving respect to instructors, fellow students, staff, and the larger college community.
  • Take full advantage of college resources available to you.
  • Respect diversity in people, ideas, and opinions.
  • Achieve educational goals in an organized, committed, and proactive manner.
  • Take full responsibility for personal behavior.
  • Comply with all college policies.

By allowing these overarching principles to be your guide, you are embracing responsibility and make choices that lead to college success. A full breakdown of the 2022-2023 FSW Academic Policies and Procedures Relating to Student can be found here.

College vs. High School

If you know others who attend or have attended college, then you have a head start on knowing what to expect during this journey. Still, the transition from high school to college is striking. College life differs in many ways. The following video clip is a brief, informal student discussion about the challenges you may face as a student and provides examples of issues students face in transitioning from high school to college. Click on the “cc” box underneath the video to activate the closed captioning.

You can view the transcript for “Seminar discussion: problems of the transition from school to university” here (opens in new window).

The two main problems identified in the video are time management and working in groups. Multiple strategies and solutions are shared by the students.

For more information about high school versus college, refer to this detailed set of comparisons from Southern Methodist University: “How Is College Different from High School.” The site provides an extensive list of the ways high school and college differ, including

  • following the rules in high school versus choosing responsibly in college.
  • going to high school classes versus succeeding in college classes.
  • understanding high school teachers versus college professors.
  • preparing for tests in high school versus tests in college.
  • interpreting grades in high school versus grades in college.

The site also provides recommendations for successfully transitioning from high school to college. Some of the biggest and most noticeable changes may be the importance of attendance as it pertains your grades, make-up work or the lack thereof and just learning how to adapt to your professors.


traditional students: those who attend college immediately after high school, graduate within four or five years, have no dependents, and often have family resources for funding their education

nontraditional students: those who may attend college at any time after receiving a diploma or GED, work to support themselves and fund their education, and may have dependents and households to maintain

personal values: one’s core beliefs and guiding principles; carefully assessing them can help us make effective decisions when planning our educational path

life stages: a concept from the social sciences that addresses how our values will shape our behaviors and priorities during different phases of our life plan

responsibilities: expectations we meet in both institutional and personal settings, often in accordance with existing rules and the attainment of our goals


  1. "A History of Historically Black Colleges and Universities." HBCU First, hbcufirst.com/hbcu-history-timeline. Accessed 12 Feb. 2021.
  2. "Our History." Women's College Coalition, www.womenscolleges.org/history. Accessed 12 Feb. 2021.
  3. "Undergraduate Enrollment." National Center for Educational Statistics, May 2020, https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator_cha.asp. Accessed 5 May 2021.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. "Fast Facts from Our Fact Sheet." American Association of Community Colleges, https://www.aacc.nche.edu/research-trends/fast-facts. Accessed 5 May 2021.
  7. "College Student Employment." National Center for Educational Statistics, https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator_ssa.asp. Accessed 5 May 2021.
  8. "Undergraduate Enrollment." National Center for Educational Statistics, https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator_cha.asp. Accessed 5 May 2021.
  9. "Non-traditional vs. Traditional students: It is time to bridge the gap." The Parthenon [Huntington, WV], March 2021.
  10. Weiler, Nicholas W., and Stephen C. Schoonover. Your Soul at Work: Five Steps to a More Fulfilling Career and Life. HiddenSpring, 2001.


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Student Identity and Responsibilities Copyright © 2023 by David Evans is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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