Many teens and young adults with hidden disabilities such as specific learning disorders, ADHD, high functioning Autism and similar issues aspire to-and yearn for-greater success in higher education and community inclusion.

Currently, approximately 11 percent or 2 million of all college undergraduates report having a disability. Each year, more students with disabilities are attending postsecondary education at rates similar to non-disabled students (70% vs 80%).

However, far too many arrive at college unprepared for the demands of an adult learning environment that expects them to possess the ability to ask for what they need, balance complicated schedules, adjust to social demands, and produce college-caliber work. As a result, the average time to complete an undergraduate degree takes 8 years, and only one in three students with disabilities complete their studies and earn a degree.

One effective approach to improving persistence, retention, and matriculation are summer college-bridge or transition-focused programming such as LDI’s Emerging Leaders Summer Academy. These bridge programs provide strong support systems – from both inside and outside the classroom- while offering excellent opportunities to develop and skillfully use life success strategies.

This article reviews some of the most pressing barriers facing students with disabilities in college settings, offers practical interventions and shares successful outcomes from the third annual cohort of Emerging Leaders Summer Academy.


College-capable students with disabilities face very fundamental matriculation challenges, such as inadequate academic preparation in high school when compared to their peers without disabilities; lower academic expectations; inferior pedagogy and services; and the lack of full access to the core curriculum.

According to the report, “Higher Education Opportunities for Students with Disabilities: A Primer for Policymakers”, only 57 % of youth with disabilities achieve standard high school diplomas that prepare them for college admission. In addition, they are not provided the counseling required for the transition to a dramatically different “culture” and system of higher education, what the report calls “a different planet.”

After arriving at college and identifying as a student with a disability, many students remain unprepared to manage their own disability accommodations and independently seek out and work with college disability services offices, even if they had special education transition planning in high school.

Where 87% of students with learning disabilities had academic accommodations and supports in K-12, only 19% continue getting support at the college level.  The burden is on the individual student to successfully navigate higher education. Higher education “has no process aimed at achieving success for students with disabilities,” such as mandated by IDEA.

A college education is a critical component in addressing the unacceptably high rate of unemployment and underemployment of people with disabilities, yet only 34% of students with disabilities are completing their degrees, or roughly half again lower than their non-disabled college peers. Very little research is available to guide professionals who wish to improve students’ experiences and outcomes.

A college degree can make a real difference in the work life of students with disabilities. On average, only one-third of working-age people with disabilities (32%) are employed compared to over two-thirds of people without disabilities (73%).

The July 2016 BLS reports even more graphically, the under and unemployment of working age (16-64 years old) adults with disabilities.  Just 4.5 million of 30 million working-age persons with disabilities are currently in the workforce with an additional million disabled Americans over the age of 65 continuing to work.

Together, they represent just over 3% of the total U.S. workforce. This means that nearly 50 million Americans living with disability are not working, going to school or achieving the quality of life they are capable of living.

As a country, we continue to accept paying out over $200 billion in entitlements each year, rather than work on achieving better educational, life and employment outcomes through training, support and expanded programs that include high potential individuals with disabilities in our policies and planning.

Creating a completion culture with a sense of shared responsibility among community stakeholders

The Emerging Leaders Summer Academy is a collaborative private/public partnership between  the Life Development Institute (LDI), an independent postsecondary program for higher education capable young adults with learning challenges, Phoenix Community College, a campus in one of  nation’s the largest public community college systems and Northern Arizona University, a traditional public university located in Flagstaff, Arizona .

The purpose of the Emerging Leaders Summer Academy is twofold:

  1. Create a practical and inclusive bridge between the secondary and higher education/career development aspirations of under-prepared & under-represented college-capable/college-bound students with learning/social challenges that improves readiness and academic success in high school and college, builds interpersonal effectiveness, self-esteem/confidence, develops self-advocacy and leadership skills.
  2. Demonstrate program effectiveness validating that students with learning/social issues can achieve significant academic success with persistence, pass rates, and retention/matriculation rates commensurate with non-learning/socially challenged high school and college peers.

The Social Change Model of Leadership (SCML) provided the theoretical frame for the LDI Emerging Leaders Summer Academy, as it was created specifically for college students and promotes leadership as a purposeful, collaborative, values-based process that results in positive social change.

In both the LDI Emerging Leaders Summer Academy and SCML models, social responsibility and change for the common good are achieved through the development of specific core values targeted at enhancing students’ levels of self-awareness and ability to work with others. These values functioned at the individual (i.e., Consciousness of Self, Congruence, Commitment), group (i.e., Common Purpose, Collaboration, and Controversy with Civility), and societal (i.e., Citizenship) levels.

2016 LDI Summer Emerging Leaders Academy participants

Of the 14 students who began the 2016 cohort, 8 were in high school, 2 were college bound and 4 were continuing college students representing a broad socio/economic demographic of young men and women from across the US, Navajo Nation, India and Canada. The Academy also welcomed a member of the 2015 Emerging Leaders as a summer intern, who is currently attending Beacon College.

Through contributions made to the LDI Education Fund and private donations, 7 students were provided with full scholarships covering all tuition, housing and recreational activity expenses. The funding allowed the Academy the ability to have a student cohort that was both inclusive and diverse in its representation, thus making it a truly representative learning and living community of peers.

All students lived on campus at Northern Arizona University (NAU), embedded in a new residence hall adjacent to the Business College, where classes were held. NAU staff was outstanding in providing personalized attention in the residence hall, staffing for on-campus activities and additional campus security.

The weekly schedule was a robust one, and students worked in class, in the community demonstrating working together in common purpose performing service learning, traveling in northern Arizona to many great recreational activities and learning how to manage the little free time provided for them.

Dynamic linkages with Phoenix Community College provided an opportunity to earn college credit in Leadership studies and see how they could handle a greatly accelerated class schedule of doing 16 weeks of work in the five weeks of the Academy.

The Personal Leadership course focused on utilizing the Social Change Model of Leadership qualities that make strong leaders. Emerging Leaders used information gathering skills, problem-solving skills and decision-making skills, as well as learn critical thinking to be able to be a leader in school, work and the community.

  • Course completion: 92%
  • Class average: 3.41 out of 4.00
  • Pass rate: 86%
  • Credit earned: 12/14 students

A second course covered Student Leadership Group Fundamentals, and was a hybrid online and ground-based offering through The National Center for Student Leadership. Emerging Leaders aspired to earn the Certified Student Leader Certificate, where they successfully demonstrated their abilities to use critical skills needed to be effective both in college and their careers, such as managing conflict, leading with integrity and embracing diversity and differences.

  • Course completion: 92%
  • Class average: 3.54 out of 4.00
  • Pass rate: 86%
  • Certificate earned: 11/14 students

Rounding out the 2016 course offerings was Career Investigations. This LDI-developed course was created to improve employability, and provides for essential basics of putting together professional job seeking documents and how to conduct a job search. Emerging Leaders developed the capacity to recognize and effectively use these tools and positive work behaviors in order to make them more employable.

  • Course completion: 92%
  • Class average: 3.41 out of 4.00
  • Pass rate: 93%
  • Credit earned: 13/14 students

In addition to providing elective credits for high school students, transferable college credit and a national certification, new friendships and handling new life challenges, the 5 week summer initiative allows for discovery and articulation of personal, group, and societal values through community engagement.

It has opened the front door to a new world of possibilities and potential for contribution as an engaged citizen, accomplished student and valued team member that can’t be accomplished in a static, traditional or online classroom setting.

LDI is grateful to our educational scholarship foundation donors, which enabled us to serve students with financial needs, allowing these self-determined leaders to succeed in high performance adult environments at comparable levels as their non-disabled peers.