Leah B. Benjamin is a 2019 graduate of the PsyD Program in Clinical Psychology at Antioch University, New England

Dissertation Committee

  • Roger L. Peterson, Ph.D., ABPP, Committee Chair
  • Dean Hammer, Psy.D., Committee Member
  • Roberta Caplan, Ph.D., Committee Member


agency, emerging adulthood, decision-making, higher education

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Over the past several decades, there has been a cultural shift impacting the experience of individuals in their late-teens to mid-20s in the United States. These individuals undergo a time of “cultural limbo,” during which the lines between adolescence and adulthood are blurred. The term emerging adulthood describes this distinct developmental period, which fits within the context of Erikson’s preexisting stages of psychosocial development (Arnett, 2014). A challenge for emerging adults is coming to terms with some of their more adult-like responsibilities in life. This requires making complex decisions that will impact their lives for many years to come, such as decisions around higher education enrollment. An integral part of decision-making is one’s sense of personal agency—that one has control over decisions, is responsible for outcomes, and can persevere through challenges that might prevent them from progressing along their chosen life course (Côté & Levine, 2002; Deci & Ryan, 2000; Schwartz, 2005). However, little is known about how agency operates in decision-making for emerging adults. This study aimed to increase understanding of agency’s role in decision-making for emerging adults using the higher education enrollment decision as a prototypic complex decision. Using Strauss and Corbin’s (1990) grounded theory methodology, semi-structured interviews were conducted with emerging adults, asking them to share their experiences of agency in their higher education decision. Despite many aspects of this decision-making process that were outside of their control, participants uniformly identified a personal sense of agency in their process. This finding aligns with some of the developmental characteristics of emerging adulthood, such as a self-focused perspective and an overall sense of optimism (Arnett, 2014). Also addressed are implications for ways that we can support emerging adults as they make complex, adult-typical decisions.