URJHS Volume 7


Self-Esteem and Class Standing in Liberal Arts Undergraduate College Students

Katie Mitchel, Stephanie Smith, and Jenny Simpson
Huntington University


The present study compared the levels of self-esteem between college freshmen and seniors. This study hypothesized that college seniors aged 21 to 23 would have higher levels of self-esteem than freshmen aged 18-20. The Index of Self-Esteem (ISE) was administered to 50 participants, who also provided demographic information that included class standing. The mean level of self-esteem was determined for each group. The means for each group were compared using a two-tailed t-test, with a significance level set at .05. The critical t was 2.01 and the obtained t was .33. There was no statistical significance found. Implications for future research and limitations of the current study were discussed.


Self-esteem is a pattern of beliefs that individuals possess regarding their self-worth and is often based on perspectives of personal experiences and feedback from significant others (McWhirter, 1997). There are important internal and external sources of one’s self-esteem: sources include other’s approval, appearance, defeating others in competition, academic competence, family love and support, being a virtuous or moral person, and God’s love (Crocker, Luhtanen, & Cooper, 2003). Negga, Applewhite, and Livingstone (2007) reported that self-esteem positively correlated with social support, whereas social support negatively correlated with stress. All of these internal and external sources can affect self-esteem in a positive or negative way.

Self-esteem can be perceived differently among ethnic groups and gender. Watkins, Akande, Cheng, and Regmi (1996) compared Hong Kong undergraduate college students with Nigerian, American, and Nepalese male and female students. American males reported having the highest self-esteem regarding physical ability. American and Nigerian participants tended to report higher self-esteem than both Asian samples. The American participants had the lowest self-esteem when compared to other countries when dealing with shyness. In the United States, Crocker et al. (2003) found that Black American’s self-esteem was more strongly correlated with religiosity than White American’s. It may be that Black American’s self-esteem is based less on approval, regard from others, and academic performance than on religiosity.

Crocker et al. (2003) found that men’s self-esteem comes from accomplishing the goals ascribed to their gender (independence, autonomy, separation, and being better than others); whereas women’s seems to be dependent upon and attuned to others. Self-esteem is higher in girls than boys under age 13 but is higher in boys during adolescence. Self-esteem is also lower overall for females than males in college and is positively correlated with body satisfaction (Frost & McKelvie, 2004). Davis, Bremer, Anderson, and Tamill (1983) concluded that a positive relationship exists between self-esteem and “ego strength” in males and females. In their study, undergraduate male college students showed significantly higher self-esteem than females.

Self-esteem tends to be high in young children, dips in adolescence, and eventually increases with age as individuals identify the skills at which they excel and single out those skills as important for their self-esteem (Twenge & Campbell, 2001). Frost and McKelvie (2004), in a longitudinal study, found increases in self-esteem between late adolescence and young adulthood. According to Twenge and Campbell (2001), as one grows older, there are diminishing concerns about appearance and independence and this leads to an increase in self-esteem. Therefore, self-esteem tends to be higher in young adulthood.

Traditional college students enter college at late adolescence and graduate as young adults. Throughout college there is a significant decrease in stereotypic beliefs and defensiveness. Seniors tend to not be as homogeneous in certain attitudinal traits. For example, they are more other-focused than they were as freshmen, and they have significant improvement in critical thinking ability (Lehmann, 1963).

Self-esteem is affected by academic adjustment in college. Bettencourt, Charlton, Eubanks, Kernahan, and Fuller (1999) examined academic adjustment to college and grade point average. At the end of the first year, academic adjustment was predicted by development in collective self-esteem, which was associated with improvement in adjustment to college from first semester to second semester. College students may base their self-esteem on a wide variety of competencies; but given the context, academic competence is likely to be an important source of self-worth (Crocker et al., 2003). Forsyth, Lawrence, Burnette, and Baumeister (2007) found a positive correlation between self-esteem and school performance. Their results revealed that when they tried to bolster student’s self-esteem (by giving review questions to students who received a C or lower), the students actually did worse academically.

Most young adults emerging from adolescence are dealing with a normal developmental struggle between establishing intimacy in their lives and being isolated from others. Due to this, it is not surprising that loneliness is pervasive among college students. In particular, college freshmen who are negotiating a new and often challenging environment for the first time struggle with loneliness. Improving self-esteem can help alleviate suffering from these painful emotions (McWhirter, 1997).

Many students begin college unprepared for the challenges of balancing their responsibilities and maintaining a healthy lifestyle in the face of stressors (Negga et al., 2007). Pritchard, Wilson, and Yamnitz (2007) stated that stressful life events, negative moods, and engagement in negative health behaviors are part of what contributes to lower self-esteem. Students with low self-esteem open a door of vulnerability to negative outcomes associated with exposure to stressful experiences, such as depressive symptoms that generate further stressful experiences (Barker, 2007). Social support acts as a buffer against high stress levels, and it has been demonstrated that high self-esteem is associated with high academic performance and life stress (Negga et al., 2007).

Bettencourt et al. (1999) reported that college relationships and the quantity of extracurricular activities influenced adjustment in the college setting. According to Toews and Yazedjian (2007), self-esteem is positively correlated to overall college adjustment for females. Friedlander, Reid, Grahm, Shupak, and Cribbie (2007) found that from the fall to spring semesters, freshmen demonstrated an increase in the level of social support from friends but not from family. They also showed that decreased stress levels predicted an overall improvement in academic, personal-emotional, and social adjustment.

The present study examined the relationship between self-esteem and undergraduate class status as freshmen and seniors. An understanding of self-esteem in both college seniors and freshmen will allow institutions to consider the connection between self-esteem and academic class standing. This study hypothesized that self-esteem will be higher in traditional college seniors than in traditional college freshmen.



The participants in this study consisted of 25 traditional freshmen (aged 18-20) and 25 traditional seniors (aged 21-22) attending a private midwestern Christian liberal arts university. The mean age for the freshmen in this study was 18.88, whereas the mean age for senior participants was 21.60. One hundred percent of the participants were Caucasian. This study had a response rate of 12.4 percent. Twenty-five of the respondents were freshmen and 25 of the respondents were seniors. Twelve males and 38 females participated in this study (6 males and 19 females in each group). Because these participants were considered “traditional” students, this study defined “traditional” as between the ages of 18-23 and enrolled in school with at least 12 credit hours. Campus emails were sent to all traditional freshmen and seniors, encouraging them to participate.


This study used the Index of Self-Esteem (ISE) (Hudson, 1982). The ISE is comprised of 25 items “designed to measure the degree, severity, or magnitude of a problem a client has with self-esteem” (Hudson, 1982, p. 188). The items are rated on a Likert scale of 1-5 with a score of 30 or above indicating that the participants have a low self-esteem and a score of below 30 indicating that the participant has a high self-esteem. This index has good construct validity and known-group validity. The ISE has a mean alpha of .93 that indicates internal reliability in a two-hour test-retest. Sample questions include: “I feel that people would not like me if they really knew me well”, “I feel that others get along much better than I do”, and “I feel that I am a beautiful person.”


A list that displayed full-time freshmen and seniors was obtained from the Registrar’s office. The list included college identification numbers, ages, class standing, and enrolled credit hours. Names and other identifying information were removed to ensure anonymity prior to use. Flyers were placed in college dormitories asking students to come to a meeting to complete a survey on how they see themselves. Along with these advertisements, emails were sent to all selected freshmen and seniors on March 5, 2008, March 10, 2008, and March 12, 2008. These emails included the date, time, and place of the study and further stated that the participants would receive a small treat for their participation.

When the participants arrived at the appointed time, the surveys were distributed to students in a classroom setting, and the respondents were told that their participation was voluntary and they could quit at any time. Participants were asked to honestly complete each survey on their own and to the best of their ability. Participants were also informed that the information that they were providing was confidential. The participants did not include information on their survey about their name or college identification number in order to maintain confidentiality. The ISE was distributed to the respondents, and they were also asked demographic information including their gender, ethnicity, age, and class standing by year.


A two-tailed t-test was used to analyze the data. An alpha level of .05 and 24 degrees of freedom was used. When the obtained t of .33 was compared to the critical t value (2.01), the null hypothesis was retained. Freshmen and senior scores on the ISE Scale were not significantly different. The age range for freshmen was 18-20 and the range for seniors was 21-22. There were 25 participants in each group. The mean ISE score for freshmen was 26.16 with a standard deviation of 12.43, whereas the mean score for the seniors was 25.08 with a standard deviation of 10.98 (see Table 1).

Table 1
Freshmen and Senior Self-Esteem







Standard Deviation



Number of Participants





This study hypothesized that self-esteem would be higher in traditional college seniors when compared to traditional college freshmen at a midwestern Christian liberal arts university. No significant difference was found between the ISE scores of freshmen and seniors; therefore, the results did not support this hypothesis. This study seems to suggest that college experience does not impact one’s self-esteem. But this is counter-intuitive because university leaders recognize self-esteem as an important part of college experience.

An implication of this study might be that Christian college students tend to have a higher sense of self-esteem and more positive outlook on life than others. The ISE has a cut score of 30 ( ± 5). Therefore, individuals who score below 25 clearly do not have a problem with self-esteem, and individuals with a score above 35 clearly have a problem with self-esteem. In this study, the freshman mean ISE score was 26.16 and the senior mean ISE score was 25.08. Neither of the groups had confirmed problems with self-esteem; therefore, one could argue that the participants were an extreme group because they were relatively healthy. About 84 percent of seniors (25.08 ± 10.98) would have ISE scores below 35 (those less than +1 standard deviation above the mean). Freshmen scores were similar (26.16 ± 12.43).

Another possible interpretation of the findings may have been that the students who decided to participate in the study were students who had higher levels of self-esteem. If students have very low self-esteem they probably would not want to participate in such a study, especially one that focuses on how one views one’s self. Also, when answering questions about self-esteem, they might have answered items in the way they believed they should or in a way that makes them appear better than they actually feel about themselves (“fake good” bias). Future research could observe self-esteem of incoming freshmen with poor SAT scores and monitor their levels of self-esteem through their college experience until they are seniors. One could assume that there would be an increase in self-esteem for such individuals.

There has been very little research on the difference between the self-esteem levels at small universities and large universities as well as midwestern universities and universities in other parts of the country. One assumption could be that the professors at large universities do not know students personally; instead they are known by an identification number. In small universities, the classes have a smaller number of students, which allows the professors to interact on a more personal and individual level. One could assume that students at smaller universities have higher self-esteem because of being personally known by professors. Because there is a paucity of research, it is difficult to determine how much of a difference these factors may have had on the results in this study.

There were six male and 19 female freshmen as well as six male and 19 female seniors. Because the number of male and female participants was unexpectedly equal in both sample groups, it was quite simple to rule out the possible influence of gender on self-esteem and class.

This study does have its limitations that may have contributed to the insignificant results. A total of 12 males and 38 females participated in this study, which slants the data to mainly represent female self-esteem levels. Crocker et al. (2003) described the differences in self-esteem attainment between males and females as being based on fulfilling the goals ascribed to their gender, such as males’ need for independence, autonomy, separation, and superiority to others. Crocker et al. (2003) went on to state that female self-esteem is based on “being sensitive to, attuned to, connected to, and generally interdependent with others(p. 896). Self-esteem is lower overall for females than males in college (Frost & McKelvie, 2004); therefore, undergraduate male college students tend to show significantly higher self-esteem than females. When observing the ISE, one may argue that the items on the ISE tend to be more gender related to females because the questions tend to focus on connection and interdependence with others rather than independence and superiority that Crocker et al. (2003) described as the basis of male self-esteem.

Further research is needed because it is unclear whether a significant relationship does exist between the self-esteem of freshmen and seniors. The present study seems to suggest that a relationship does not exist. When conducting further research, it may be beneficial to obtain a random sample from other Christian colleges in the Midwest rather than a particular subgroup or gain a sample that is not voluntary but is more representative of the population as a whole. This would provide a more representative sample from the population of undergraduate freshmen and seniors who attend a Christian college.


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