Digest No. 02 - March 2017

Cooling Out Undergraduates with Health Impairments: The Freshman Experience

Carroll, J.M., C. Muller, and E. Pattison. 2016. “Cooling Out Undergraduates with Health Impairments: The Freshman Experience.” The Journal of Higher Education, 67, 771–800.


Jamie M. Carroll, Chandra Muller, and Evangeleen Pattison ask the question: Are first-year college students with health impairments more likely to receive negative signals regarding their degree progress, academic fit, and educational expectations than students without health impairments? The authors consider two categories of health impairments—physical and mental. Physical impairments were defined as any noncognitive impairment to include sensory, orthopedic, or health issue, whereas mental impairments were defined as any cognitive impairment including learning disabilities, attention deficit disorder (ADD), depression, or emotional disturbances.

The importance of this question stems from lack of college success that students with health impairments experience. The authors point out that only 16 percent of students with health impairments earn their bachelor’s degree in contrast to more than half of students without health impairments (Kochhar-Bryant, Bassett, and Webb 2009). Moreover, students with health impairments comprise 9 percent of the undergraduate population of colleges and universities (Newman et al. 2011).

Carroll et al. focus on the role health impairments play in a student’s adjustment to college during their first year of attendance. They posit that students with health impairments experience less progress toward their degree, lower degrees of academic fit, and lower educational expectations.

The authors used a sample of 11,820 first-year students who completed the spring 2004 survey of the Beginning Postsecondary Students Longitudinal Study (BPS). Survey responses were matched with transcript data collected. These students were enrolled in two- or four-year colleges and universities and stated a goal of receiving their bachelor’s degree. From this data, the authors developed two measures of students’ self-reported impairments: physical and mental.

Carroll et al. used student transcript data to compute measures of degree progress and academic fit. More specifically, the authors used college-level math completion and earning at least 20 credits as markers of degree progress. The students’ grade point average at the end of the first year was used as a measure of the student’s degree of academic fit as well as whether a student failed at least one course during their first year of college. The authors used the educational expectations of students reported in spring 2004 and spring 2006 to ascertain whether their expectations were lowered. Expectations were defined as lowered if an individual in 2004 expected to receive at least a bachelor’s degree and in 2006 they expected to receive an associate’s degree or no degree.

The authors used logistic regression to determine the influence of physical and mental health impairments on college math completion, earning at least 20 credits, course failure, GPA, and educational expectations with controls for the student’s back-ground, academic preparation, enrollment characteristics, and the first-year college experience.


First-year students without health impairments and college students with physical health impairments experience similar levels of progress toward their degrees in terms of their completion of college-level mathematics, earning 20 credits, failing one course, first-year grade point average, and their educational expectations. In stark contrast, first-year students with mental impairments are less likely to earn 20 credits and are more likely to fail one course, earn a lower grade point average at the end of their first year of college, and lower their educational expectations than their first-year student counterparts without health impairments.

This pattern of findings suggest that students with mental health impairments experience less success during their first year of college than do first-year students with physical health impairments or students without health impairments. Put differently, students with mental health impairments are at a higher risk for departure from their college of initial enrollment.


Three implications for CIC institutions emerge from the findings of this study. These implications are as follows.

  1. Students with mental health impairments constitute a heretofore “hidden” category of students at risk for first-year departure from colleges and universities. If not already established, CIC member institutions should consider the creation of a disability services office or designated disability services staff member. Such an office or staff member could arrange or develop the accommodations that students with mental health impairments need to support their academic success.
  2. Partnerships with campus and community resources who specialize in mental impairments will be key to assisting these students—whether through counseling centers on campus or agencies in the community.
  3. CIC member institutions also should consider establishing a campus intervention team to assist students whose mental impairments may be impeding their progress. Members of this team could include the dean of students, a staff member from disability services, manager of academic advising, as well as residence life and other key campus constituents who work with these students.


Jaime M. Carroll is a doctoral student in sociology and a trainee in the Popu-lation Research Center at the Universi-ty of Texas at Austin.

Chandra Miller is professor of sociolo-gy at the University of Texas at Austin.

Evangeleen Pattison is a doctoral stu-dent in sociology and a trainee in the Population Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin.


The following references are recommended for readers who want to learn more about efforts to accommodate students with physical or mental impairments.

Barnard-Brak, L., D. Lechtenburger, and Y.W. Lan. 2010. “Accommodation Strategies of College Students with Disabilities.” The Qualitative Report, 15(2), 411–429.

Fuller, M., J. Georgeson, M. Healey, A. Hurst, K. Kelly, S. Riddell, H. Roberts, and F. Weedon. 2009. Improving Disabled Students’ Learning: Experiences and Outcomes. London, England: Routledge.

Kochhar-Bryant, C., D.S. Bassett, and K.W. Webb. 2009. Transition in Postsecondary Education for Students with Disabilities.  Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press

Newman, L., M. Wagner, A.M. Knokey, C. Marder, K. Nagel, D. Shaver and X. Wei. 2011. The Post High School Outcomes of Young Adults with Disabilities Up to 8 Years After High School: A Report from the National Longitudinal Transition Study-2 (NLTS2). Menlo Park, CA: SRI Internal.

Wessel, R.D., J.A. Jones, L. Markle, and C. Westfall. 2009. “Retention and Graduation of Students with Disabilities: Facilitating Student Success.” Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability, 21(3), 116–125.