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Volume 14

Psychological Well-being of College Students

Melissa Ludban
Priscilla N. Gitimu*
Youngstown State University


Psychological well-being is important in the life of a college student. The purpose of the study was to examine psychological well-being of college students and the factors that impact it. The Ryff scale of psychological well-being was used to measure psychological well-being. Participants of the study were 131 college students. Results of the study indicate that gender, age (traditional vs. nontraditional students), support, and financial well-being were the factors that impacted psychological well-being of college students.


Psychological well-being is beneficial for adults to live a healthy life, making it an important aspect of one's life in the college years ( Molina-García, Castillo, , & Queralt, 2011). College life can frequently be chaotic and full of psychological stress. According to Chao (2012), college students' stresses have increased tremendously over the past decade. It is therefore important to understand factors that impact college students' psychological well-being. The research problem for this study asks, "What is the psychological well-being of college students and what variables may impact it?"

Operational definition

Psychological Well-being refers to the simple notion of a person's welfare, happiness, advantages, interests, utility, and quality of life (Burris, Brechting, Salsman, & Carlson, 2009). In this study, psychological well-being meant how one scored in the Ruff scale of psychological well-being.

Significance of Study

Psychological well-being is beneficial for adults to live a healthy life, making it an important aspect of one's life in the college years (Garcia, Garcia, Castillio, & Queralt, 2011). Research has found that there are increased levels of psychological disturbance among college students (Bewick, Koutsopoulou, Miles, Slaa & Barkham, 2010). Students with little support and less than favorable psychological well-being were found to be more likely to engage in negative activities such as alcohol use, sedentary behavior, and too little or too much sleep. Life dissatisfaction or even suicidal behavior have also been documented in students who have a lack of support and poor well-being of one's self (Chao, 2012). The study will contribute to a better understanding of college students' psychological well-being and the variables that may impact it.

Literature Review

The years that someone spends in college are often one of the most stressful periods; especially the beginning of college and often the transition from childhood to adulthood, (Burris, Brechting, Carlson, Salsman, 2009). Often these stressors can throw students off track, causing a decrease in their psychological well-being, (Chao, 2012).

Traditional students are active participants in a broad social-life in the microcosm of the university. Conversely, non-traditional students did not see themselves as "proper" full-time students and did not expect to fit into the college enviroment. The need to balance work and family as well as school was documented by non-traditional students (Christie, Cree, Hounsell, McCune, & Tett, 2008), Data from Kaufman and Taniguchi (2005) showed 40 percent of all college students were in their mid-20's or older, a large percentage of them were only enrolled part-time and had dependents. Non-traditional students that had the objective of attaining a bachelor's degree showed only a 31 percent completion rate compared to a 54 percent completion rate of their traditional counterparts.

Numerous studies have found that positive social support is crucial to manage stress, (Chao, 2012). To ensure the best outcome while enrolled in college, support is necessary to enable students to complete college sucessfully, as well as the transition from college life to the workforce (Bewick, Koutsopoulou, Miles, Slaa, & Barkmam, 2010). Support is not only significant from family and friends but also from academic staff in the college institutions. In a related study by Demir & Orthel, (2011), women's relationships were documented as being more deep, supportive, intimate, closer, lower in conflict, and affectively richer when compared to men's friendships.

Mental health was shown as a concern through several studies. Known factors revealed through previous research such as, financial debt and/or concerns come into play while a student is enrolled in a college program (Bewick, Koutsopoulou, Miles, Slaa, & Barkmam, 2010). Stressors that college students may encounter can ultimatley be a factor in the development of issues such as, concentration difficultly, fatique, eating disorders, anxiety, and other psychiatric illnesses (Burris, Brechting, Carlson, & Salsman, 2009). When psychological distress interrupts one's life, educational tasks may be placed on hold or even forgotten. Well-being and adjustment to college was associated with incoming college student's individuation from parents (Yelle, Kenyon, & Koerner, 2009).

Psychological well-being increased with high leisure time physical activity among collge students. Hence the best well-being and lifestyle was to endorse leisure-time physical activity into universities (Castillio, Molinia-Garcia, & Queralt, 2011). According to Burris, Brechting, Carlson, and Salsman (2009), female students were more likely to report seeking out and receiving care for psychological issues when compared to their male student counterparts.

On financial issues, higher levels of financial satisfaction were seen in female students when compared to male students. Lower levels of financial knowledge and late-age financial socialization were seen in female students when compared to male students (Falahati, & Paim, 2011).

Chan & Chan (2012) examined the relationship between college students' money-related abilities and financial well-being. High levels of debt and poor budgeting practices were shown to have negative effect on financial and personal well-being. Examples given in the study as negative effects were stress related health problems, poor academic performance¸ damaged credit history, and even dropping out of college. Financial stress did impact the students academic learning quality. The study promoted financial management information to students in college, especially at-risk students (Chan & Chan, 2012). In Amato and Sobolewski (2001) study, socioeconomic status was positively related with psychological well-being. Education and well- being were shown to also have a relationship. Educational achievement was shown to be positively related to people's reports of better overall well-being.

Men were more inclined to enroll in college if they had been married for two or more years. However, marriage was seen as a negative effect on women's education, possibly because of the increasing roles of wives. Gender roles were shifting and the world is beginning to be more supportive for women, education can take place later in age. However, married women were more likely to complete a college program as compared to unmarried women (Kaufman and Taniguchi, 2005).

When it came to children, male and females both were reluctant to attend college because of the increased physical, emotiona,l and financial care needed for a family with children. There were fewer symptoms of psychological distress, more positive self-concepts, and enhanced physical health when comparing married persons to single persons (Amato & Sobolewski, 2001). Kaufman and Taniguchi's (2005) study affirmed that children simply leave adults with less time for themselves, inhibiting them from furthering education. The top reason that female students drop out of college is primarily from family responsibilities. Other studies have no evidence that children change the likelihood of parents attending college. Marital dissolution had negative consequences on adult well-being. When children were part of the situation, women show more significant stressors with marital dissolution because of the added responsibilities (Williams & Dunne-Bryant, 2006).

Further research is needed to better understand the positive and negative factors that are associated with students' pyschological health and well-being. This study contributes to a better understanding of psychological well-being of college students.


The researchers completed the human subjects training, and they also received approval for human subjects from the Institutional Review Board (IRB). The participants were college students from a medium-sized Midwestern universzity in the U.S. Participants of this study were volunteer students who completed the survey during usual class time. A convenient stratified sample was employed by ensuring various class levels were all included in the sample. Both traditonal and nontraditional students were included in the sample.

The Ryff scales of psychological well-being (Ryff, University of Wisconsin, 2005) was used to measure multiple facets of psychological well-being. The Ryff Scales of Psychological Well-Being is a theoretically grounded instrument that specifically focuses on measuring multiple facets of psychological well-being. The five subscales on the Ryff scale are autonomy, emotional mastery, personal growth, positive relations, purpose in life, and self-acceptance. An example of a question from the scale is the following: Most people see me as loving and affectionate. Responses revealed levels of agreement from 1, strongly disagree, to 6, strongly agree, similar to a Likert scale. Also, a short basic list of demographic questions was asked. Questions like age, gender, marital status, and class level are examples of those.


The results showed that of all 131 participants surveyed, 91 (69.5%) were female students and 40 (30.5%) were male students. Ages of the participants surveyed were mostly 21 years of age with 25 students (18.5%), followed bythe age of 20 with 20 students (15.4%). The results also showed that 88 (67.7%) of the students that participated were Caucasian, followed by African Americans with 28 (21.5%). The class levels of the participants 41 juniors (31.3%), followed by 35 (26.7 %.) sophomores. Research also showed that 102 (77.9%) of students were single at the time of the survey, (19.1%) were married and 3 (2.3%) were divorced. One hundred four students did not have children (79.4%), while 27 (20.6%) did have children.

The Ryff Scale had the following Cronbach's alpha's for the various scales: Autonomy (.54), Emotional mastery (.76), Personal growth (.86), Positive relations (.87), Purpose in life (.81), Self-acceptance (.78).

What is the psychological well-being of college students and what variables may impact it? Variables considered for this study were gender, age, class level, marital status, amount of support, and finances.


For the gender variable, an ANOVA (Analysis of Variance) was conducted with Ryff six subscale totals as the dependent variable and gender as the factor/independent variable. ANOVA results indicated that the males and females means for psychological wellbeing as measured by the Ryff scale significantly differed for four of the subscales (personal growth, positive relations with others, purpose in life and self-acceptance) with females scoring higher than males in all the four subscales. ANOVA showed no statistical differences in autonomy and emotional mastery subscales. See table 2.

Table 1- ANOVA Psychological Well-Being by Gender.

Ryff Subscale Gender N Mean F Sig.
Autonomy Total male 37 37.6757 .595 .442
female 89 38.5393    
Emotional Mastery male 37 38.7027 .156 .693
female 90 39.2667    
Personal Growth male 38 40.0263 10.120 .002*
female 90 45.1778    
Positive Relations male 37 39.9459 3.971 .048*
female 90 43.6000    
Purpose in Life male 38 40.1842 10.137 .002*
female 90 44.7667    
Self-Acceptance male 39 38.8462 7.375 .008*
female 88 42.6364    
*Significant α< 0.05

Class level

An ANOVA was conducted with Ryff six subscale totals as the dependent variable and class level (freshmen combined with sophomores, juniors with seniors) as the independent variable. ANOVA showed no significant differences between the class levels for all the six subscales of Psychological Well-Being.

Marital Status

An ANOVA was conducted with Ryff six subscale totals as the dependent variable and marital status of students as the independent variable. ANOVA showed no significant differences between students who are married and not married for all six subscales of Psychological Well-Being.


The participants were first divided into two groups by age 18-23(traditional) and 24 and above (nontraditional). An ANOVA was conducted with Ryff six subscale totals as the dependent variable and age (traditional or non-traditional) as the independent variable. ANOVA results indicated significant differences in psychological well-being in two subscales (Personal growth and purpose in growth) between traditional and non-traditional students. See table 2 below.

Table 2- ANOVA Psychological Well-Being by Age.

    N Mean Std. Deviation F Sig
Autonomy Total Traditional(18-23years) 89 37.8539 5.50733 2.038 .156
Non-Traditional 35 39.4857 6.26555    
Emotional Mastery Total Traditional(18-23years) 87 39.0690 6.94295 .000 .991
Non-Traditional 38 39.0526 7.94218    
Personal Growth Total Traditional(18-23years) 87 42.6322 8.71128 4.538 .035*
Non-Traditional 39 46.1282 8.05631    
Positive Relations Total Traditional(18-23years) 86 41.7093 9.54231 2.366 .127
Non-Traditional 39 44.5128 9.20775    
Purpose in Life Total Traditional(18-23years) 88 42.1591 7.71904 8.852 .004*
Non-Traditional 38 46.4211 6.51249    
Self-Acceptance Total Traditional(18-23years) 86 40.9884 7.58093 1.292 .258
Non-Traditional 39 42.6154 7.03231    
*Significant at α=0.05

Support from family and friends

An ANOVA was conducted with Ryff six subscale totals as the dependent variable and whether a student had support from family or friends as the independent variable. ANOVA results indicated students who had of plentiful support scored significantly higher (α= 0.002, <.05) in the positive relations subscale (m=43.91, sd 9.56), compared to those with some or no support (m = 37.56, sd=7.73).

Financial concern

An ANOVA was conducted with Ryff six subscale totals as the dependent variable and whether a student had financial concerns as the independent variable. ANOVA results indicated that the means for psychological wellbeing as measured by the Ryff scale indicated a significant difference (alpha= 0.028) in only the EM (Emotional Mastery) subscale; those students who are concerned about their finances (Mean=37.10) differed significantly from those who were extremely satisfied with their finances (Mean=42.10).


The findings of this study suggest that college students' psychological well-being is affected by their age, gender, financial well-being, and the support they receive from family and friends. There was a significant difference in psychological well- being in two subscales (personal growth and purpose in growth) between traditional and non-traditional students. Females scored higher than males in four of the subscales from the Ryff scale of Psychological Well-being; personal growth, positive relations with others, purpose in life, and self-acceptance. Emotional mastery and autonomy showed no significant difference with this particular variable.

The present study suggests that possibily there is some connection between the way women look for care and receive care more often than men which may increase women's actual state of pyschological well-being, (Garcia et. al, 2011). This study also concurs with a similar study, by St-Jean-Trudel, Guayand Marchnad (2009), who found that women reported significantly higher levels of affection, emotional, and tangible support and positive social interactions than men.

This study findings concurs with Christie. et al, (2008) in that traditional and nontraditional students differed in psychological well-being in the personal growth and purpose in life. A high score in personal growth and purpose in life subscales according to Ryff (2005), indicated that nontraditional students had more feelings of continued development and had goals in life and a sense of directedness. Other research from Christie (2008) found that traditional students were active participants in a broad social-life in the microcosm of their university, whereas non-tradtional students are not so much.

Previous study from Flowers (2002) showed differences in psychological well-being between freshmen and seniors, however, the current study did not find differences in psychological wellbeing by class levels. Flowers, (2002) indicated that seniors showed higher levels of commitment and vocational purpose when compared to freshman through a study done on campus in a large southeastern university. The findings of the current study may have differed from Flowers (2002) probably because of the increase of nontraditional students; hence the freshmen were not necessarily younger than the seniors.

Within the context of this current study, the research suggested that those with plentiful support have a better overall psychological well-being as indicated in the positive relations with others subscale from the Ryff Scale. Notably, Christie, (2008), proposed that support from family and friends is not always the only support that allows for increased well-being, but academic support from their university is crucial as well. Also, it was suggested by Chao, (2012) that positive support is crucial to manage stress. Another similar study from Demir and Orthel, (2011) shared that women and men crave friendships to permit more closeness and less conflicting experiences to create a better overall well-being.

The participants of this study indicated they had plentiful support from friends and family. Having someone to depend on during difficult times in one's life can create a sense of relief and lower amounts of stress. When discussing non-traditional students and support, support would be of need if children and full-time jobs are part of the student's life. Support for these students would possibly be seen as a necessity and definitely create a higher level of psychological well-being. Positive relations with others are in turn a very large part of support and psychological well-being.

The current study found that participants with better financial well-being displayed better psychological well-being in the emotional mastery subscale of the Ryff scale. Those students that were extremely satisfied with their financial wellbeing had a higher overall feeling of psychological well-being in emotional mastery. According to the Ryff (2005), a person with increased emotional mastery has a sense of mastery and competence in managing the environment.

Earlier researchers Chan & Chan, (2012) found that high levels of debt and poor money management practices were shown to have negative effects on financial and personal well-being. The examples of negative effect given were stress related health problems, poor academic performance, and even the possibility of dropping out of college. Amato & Sobolewski, (2001) also researched the significance of psychological well-being when compared to financial well-being in college. That study indicated education and socioeconomic status have a strong correlation to an increase of one's personal control and a decrease of one's risk of depression, (Amato & Sobolewski, 2001).

Research from the current study indicated that those who are extremely satisfied with their finances displayed higher emotional mastery in their psychological well-being than those who were concerned about their finances. Possibly those individuals that are more economically stable are better able to manage their environment and control several external activities ultimately creating a higher point of psychological well-being.

Limitations & Further Research

The study used a convenient sample instead a random sample, and the females were more than the males. Possible future research could employ in-depth interviews to better understand differences in psychological wellbeing of college students.


When looking at the overall results of this study, it is evident that age, gender, support from family and friends, financial well-being, and support from friends and family contributed to students' psychological well-being. This study makes an important contribution in understanding psychological well-being of undergraduate students.


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This study received IRB/ Human subject approval before being conducted.

Biographic Information;
This paper was Melissa's Capstone Research work in her undergraduate. Dr. Gitimu was her faculty supervisor.