In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Academic Performance of First-Generation College Students with Disabilities
  • Allison R. Lombardi (bio), Christopher Murray (bio), and Hilary Gerdes (bio)

Students with disabilities are attending postsecondary school in increasing numbers (Newman, Wagner, Cameto, & Knokey, 2009). Recent estimates suggest that as many as 1 in 10 college students have some type of apparent (e.g., mobility impairments) or nonapparent (e.g., learning disability) disability. College students with disabilities have lower retention rates, take longer to complete degrees, and have lower degree completion rates than do their peers without disabilities (Horn, Berktold, & Bobbit, 1999; Murray, Goldstein, Nourse, & Edgar, 2000; Wessel, Jones, Markle, & Westfall, 2009). Thus, students with disabilities face a number of significant challenges adjusting to postsecondary school and have unique transition needs (Brinckerhoff, 1996; Sitlington, 2003).

In addition to serving a greater number of students with disabilities, many colleges and universities are also experiencing an influx of "first-generation" college students (X. Chen, 2005). Many first-generation students are less academically prepared than are continuing-generation students when entering postsecondary educational environments (Reid & Moore, 2008; Strayhorn, 2006; Watt, Johnston, Huerta, Mediola, & Alkan, 2008). Once admitted, first-generation college students have lower college persistence and attainment rates than do their continuing-generation peers, and these effects hold even after controlling for socioeconomic status (SES), institution type, and attendance status (Choy, 2001; Lohfink & Paulsen, 2005; Nunez & Cuccaro-Alamin, 1998). Moreover, first-generation college students often face unique familial, cultural, and social transitions that may make the transition to, and completion of, postsecondary school challenging (Ishitani, 2003; Strayhorn, 2006).

The current investigation was undertaken in light of growing evidence that disability status and first-generation status are factors that place a student at risk of experiencing difficulties adapting to and completing postsecondary school. Although both of these student characteristics are indicative of risk in isolation, we were interested in developing further understanding about the dual challenge, or cumulative risk, associated with having a disability and being a first-generation college student.

Literature Review

First-generation college students are more likely than continuing-generation students to come from low-income families (X. Chen, 2005). According to X. Chen (2005), 50% of first-generation students come from families with an annual household income of less than [End Page 811] $25,000, as compared to 7% among those whose parents earned bachelor's degrees or higher. Conversely, 3% of first-generation students come from families with an annual household income of $75,000 or higher, whereas 36% of students whose parents earned bachelor's degrees or higher come from households that earn $75,000 or more. Thus, first-generation students are more likely to come from low-income backgrounds, and we consider low SES to be an overlapping factor in our definition of first-generation college students with disabilities.

Factors Associated With College Performance

Considerable evidence indicates that students with disabilities have poorer academic performance in postsecondary school than do students without disabilities (Horn et al., 1999; Murray et al., 2000; Wessel et al., 2009). A number of individual demographic characteristics, skills, and environmental factors have been shown to affect the academic performance of college students with disabilities. For example, college self-efficacy has been shown to be a predictor of grade point average (GPA) among college students with disabilities even after controlling for other demographic characteristics and individual skills (Murray & Wren, 2003). Other researchers have found that students with disabilities sometimes have difficulty adjusting to the increased instructional demands within university environments (Finn, 1998; Janiga & Costenbader, 2002; McGuire, Scott, & Shaw, 2003; Scott, McGuire, & Shaw, 2003). Still other findings suggest that factors within college environments, such as faculty attitudes toward students with disabilities and the provision and utilization of accommodations, can impact student performance (Beilke & Yssel, 1999; Brinckerhoff, 1996; Dowrick, Anderson, Heyer, & Acosta, 2005).

First-generation students lag behind continuing-generation students in GPA (X. Chen, 2005). These findings are particularly important in light of evidence showing a positive correlation between GPA and first-to-second year retention rates and degree completion rates (Lohfink & Paulsen, 2005, Strayhorn, 2006). Further, there is specific evidence that first-generation status, in combination with race and gender, significantly predicts college GPA (Strayhorn, 2006). In this investigation we examined individual skills, along...