Identity Development Across the Transition from Secondary to Tertiary Education: A 9-wave Longitudinal Study


Annabelle H.T. Christiaens, Utrecht University, The Netherlands
Stefanie A. Nelemans, Utrecht University, The Netherlands
Wim H.J. Meeus, Utrecht University, The Netherlands
Susan Branje, Utrecht University, The Netherlands


A major developmental task during adolescence is the formation of a clear sense of self, known as identity formation. In the school context, identity development involves adolescents’ choices regarding their school, curriculum, and academic track. Educational identity development may become especially salient during school transition phases, such as the transition from secondary to tertiary education. During these transition phases, adolescents are triggered to reflect on who they are and who they wish to become, and they can use their new environment to reflect on the choices they have made. However, school transition phases may also spark feelings of uncertainty and doubt when adolescents are afraid to make the wrong choices or when they feel overwhelmed by the magnitude of choice or responsibility. To capture meaningful differences between subgroups of adolescents characterized by different developmental patterns of identity around the school transition, we applied a person-centered analytic approach to a 9-wave longitudinal dataset centered around the transition from secondary to tertiary education. Through this approach, we aimed to examine how and why adolescents differ in their identity development across the normative transition from secondary to tertiary education in the Netherlands. We also addressed the role of potential socio-demographic, academic, individual, and relational factors in identity formation across the school transition.


The present study conducted parallel process piecewise Latent Class Growth Analyses in a sample of 685 Dutch participants (47.0% girls, Mage = 17.29 years old at the time of transition). Identity was assessed through the Utrecht Management of Identity Commitments Scale, through the dimensions of educational commitment and educational reconsideration.  Longitudinal data from adolescent (bi)annual surveys were centered around the final year of secondary school, with 4 years before the final year and 4 years after for a total of 9 years.


Adolescents’ educational identity development across the transition could be meaningfully distinguished by a 4-class solution. These four classes were labelled 1) Increasing Self-Certainty, capturing an overall increase in commitment and a decrease in reconsideration after the transition, 2) Stable Self-Certainty, capturing stable high levels of commitment and low levels of reconsideration over time, 3) Post-Transition Uncertainty, capturing an increase in reconsideration after the transition and an overall decline in commitment, and 4) Enduring Uncertainty, capturing low levels of commitment and higher levels of reconsideration over time. Generally, findings indicated that adolescents with less adaptive developmental trajectories had less favorable academic, individual, and relational characteristics.


The school transition from secondary to tertiary education can be an impactful moment of development for adolescents’ educational identity. Findings showed more and less adaptive patterns of change and stability across the transition. While the majority was able to develop a clearer sense of self in the educational domain, a sizable minority of adolescents struggled with this task. Additionally, we could describe meaningful characteristics of distinct developmental trajectories through age, academic level, anxiety and parental autonomy support. Therefore, the school transition can be a sensitive moment in educational identity development and meaningful characteristics are associated with adolescents’ different developmental trajectories.


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