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Career maturity and academic achievement in college students with disabilities.

Career Maturity and Academic Achievement in College Students with Disabilities

PAssage of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and Public Law 94-142, The Education for All Handicapped Children Act, opened the doors of America's universities to individuals with disabilities (McLoughlin, 1987). Colleges and universities took great care to insure that programs, facilities, instructional methods and technologies and curricula were accessible. In turn, individuals with disabilities matriculated in increasing numbers (Johnson & Rubin, 1982). For many students with disabilities, as with students in general, a college education became the first step towards independence, a career, financial security, and self-sustenance (Fichten, Amsel, Bourdon, & Creti, 1988). It is unclear, however, that students with disabilities are competing on a equal basis with their nondisabled counterparts, particularly with regard to vocational development and career maturity.

Many college students with disabilities enter school with either the direct support or urging of the vocational rehabilitation system, a system whose foundation has traditionally been laid in theories of vocational development. The emergence of a theory of vocational development and career maturity occurred with the work of Donald E. Super (1957; Srebalus, Marinelli, & Messing, 1982) who postulated five stages of vocational/career development:

1. The Growth Stage (0 to 14 years)

2. The Exploratory Stage (15 to 25 years)

3. The Establishment Stage (26 to 45 years)

4. The Maintenance Stage (46 to 65 years)

5. Decline (65 years to death)

Super regards vocational exploration and development as an integral part of self-concept development. The typical college student explores the world of work in a variety of ways. Role playing and role modeling occur through participation in clubs, organizations and sports, while curricula offer exploration opportunities through foundations courses, orientation courses, laboratories and the diversity of general education opportunities. Through these experiences the student builds the vocational self concept as one aspect of the total self-concept (Wright, 1980).

Career maturity, characterized by the (a) ability to plan in a manner utilizing existing resources; (b) acceptance of responsibility for choices; (c) Possessing an awareness of preferred occupations and; (d) competence in decision making (Super & Overstreet, 1960) is an important personal attribute. The construct was at the center of research done by Phillips, Strohmer, Berthaume and O'Leary (1983) which revealed that cognitively immature disabled students tended to rely on others for decision making, suggesting the importance of career support services. Evenson and Evenson (1983) asserted that collegians with disabilities are in greater need of career guidance services than their nondisabled peers. They noted that students with disabilities face attitudinal barriers including lowered expectations, delayed vocational development and unsatisfactory career development support services from state vocational rehabilitation programs, and contended that opportunities for career exploration would maximize educational opportunities. Ruffner (1981) noted the importance of marketable job skills for individuals with disabilities, while Hopkins-Best, Wiinimaki, and Yurcisin (1985) suggested the importance of porviding career education services in their study of college women with disabilities. Several authors (Bowe, 1983; Lonnquist, 1979; Rosenberg, 1978) have suggested the extrinsic gains to be made through higher education for the disabled, including higher salaries, lower unemployment rates, and better job prospects.

A growing number of learning disabled adults are attending college, however many are experiencing job finding and job retention difficulties and post-college adjustment problems (Butler, 1984; Miller, Mulkey, & Kopp, 1984). Moreover, services for this group have been variously described as confused (Criskshank, 1984), paradoxical (Butler, 1984), in need of standardized terminology (Miller, Mulkey, & Kopp, 1984), and fraught with misconceptions and problems of definition (Brechin & Kemp, 1984; Witten, 1983). Rosenthal (1984) argued that learning disabled students can be successful if offered an array of support services, while Martin (1983) put forth a similar contention with respect to hearing impaired students.

In contrast to the prevailing literature, a study performed by Burkhead and Cope (1984) revealed that students with physical disabilities were more vocationally mature than nondisabled students, and capable of coping more effectively with problems of career decision making. Similarly, Gambrill, Florian and Splaver (1986) contended that the more difficult social situations encountered by individuals with disabilities resulted in the development of stronger assertion skills.

The purpose of this study was to determine if there are differences in academic achievement and career maturity between students with disabilities and nondisabled students and to determine if college students with learning disabilities differed from their nondisabled and disabled peers. In addition, the question of the prediction of academic performance for the group with disabilities was also examined. A causal-comparative research design, capable of demonstrating relationships, was utilized (Borg & Gall, 1983).



The 90-participant sample was selected from undergraduate students attending three state universities in the west and mid-west. The 45 students with disabilities were selected from students who had voluntarily identified themselves as disabled, either to their respective university or to the researcher. The comparison sample of 45 nondisabled students included study participants who were selected in a random sampling procedure, and volunteers. To control for developmental differences, all of the participants were undergraduates between the age of 18 and 26, inclusive. Using a series of computer generated random sampling models, the two study groups were matched by gender, class level and university. Because of the recent emergence of learning disabilities as a recognized disability (Miller, Mulkey, & Kopp, 1984) and the relatively large proportion (35.6%) of students with learning disabilities in the sample, the disabled sample was partitioned into learning disabled and other disabled groups. The smal numbers of individuals with other types of disabilities precluded meaningful comparisons involving those other disabilities.


A study questionnaire was developed to gather demographic and scholastic information. The scholastic information included student identification number, college class level, cumulative grade point average, academic major, and length of enrollment.

Basic demographic information on age, sex, living arrangements, marital status and participation in emotional/interpersonal or vocational counseling was obtained, as was disability related information including presence or absence of disability, type of disability, age of onset, present living situation, and financial support, including vocational rehabilitation benefits, or family support.

The Career Development Inventory (CDI), an instrument with an extensive history of development, was selected as a measure of career maturity. Based on Super's theoretical constructs, the CDI is a 120-item multiple choice inventory which yields eight scores: Career Planning (CP), Career Exploration (CE), Decision-Making (DM), World-of-Work Information (WW), Knowledge of Preferred Occupational Group (PO), Career Development Attitudes (CP + CE), Career Development Knowledge and Skills (DM + WW), and Total (Pinkney, 1985). The College and University Form of the CDI is the most recently published form and contains norms reported by sex and college class level based on a nationwide sample of 1,345 students.

The Career Planning (CP) scale measures a cognitive attribute of future planning orientation; average to high scorers are ready for career education activities, while low scorers may need instruction on how to obtain and use career information. The Career Exploration (CE) scale ..." reveals students' attitudes toward sources of career and occupational information, willingness to use these sources, and evaluation of perceived help from them" (Thompson, Lindeman, Super, Joordan & Myers, 1981, pp 11 & 12). Together these two scales form the Career Development-Attitudes (CDA) scale.

The Career Development-Knowledge and Skills (CDK) scale is a combination of the Decision-Making (DM) scale and the World-of-Work Information (WW) scale. The Decision-Making scale is a cognitively loaded assessment of the individual's ability to use both insight and knowledge to make vocational plans and decisions, while the World-of-Work Information scale tests knowledge of occupations and careers, and job seeking and finding practices.

The Knowledge of Preferred Occupational Group (PO) is a 40-item sclae that comprises Part II of the CDI. It is intended to assess familiarity with the career which individuals select as most interesting. This scale was omitted for this particular study. The CDI manual asserts that the broader scales, CDA and CDK "... are sufficient to test ... research and evaluation hypotheses" (Thompson, Lindeman, Super, Joordan & Myers, 1982, p. 12). Accordingly, analysis of CDI scores in this study were limited to these two scales and the Career Orientation Total (COT) score which combines all of the sub-scale scores.

Reliability for the CDI is reported through Cronbach's Coefficient Alpha, a measure of internal consistency, with scale coefficients ranging from .78 to .89 except for the DM (.67) and PO (.60) scales, and an overall coefficient of .75 for the CU form. Aiken (1985) suggests that reliability coefficients need to be higher than .65 in testing situations in which two groups are compared, a standard which the CDI meets. Earlier forms of the inventory cited reliability coefficients between .82 and .87 (Phillips, Strohmer, Berthaume & O'Leary, 1983). Construct validity of the CDI is generally strong and suggests the CDI "has utility for assessing career maturity" (Pinkney, 1985, p.273).


All participants were tested in small group or individual settings by the principal investigator or trained associates during a two-month period. Testing usually lasted less than one hour, and accommodations were made for students whose disabilities prevented completion of the materials in the usual manner. For example, students with visual impairments were provided with readers and revised answer grids. Because of the exploratory nature of this study, a 0.10 level of significance was used for data analysis.


An analysis of the descriptive data revealed both similarities and differences between the disabled (n = 45) and able-bodied (n = 45) study participants. The mean age for the total group was 21.68 years; the mean age for the disabled group was 22.29 years, while the average age for the nondisabled group was 21.06 years. There was a statistically significant difference in the ages at the .10 level (t = 2.83; p < 0.0058). Participants tended to be single (Not married total = 92.2%; Not married disabled = 91.1%; Not married nondisabled = 93.3%); living off campus (approximately 60% for both groups); and more women (57%) than men (43%) participated in the study which was matched on gender. Average length of enrollment was 3.02 years. The disabled population was enrolled for a statistically significant longer period (3.33 years versus 2.71 years; t = 1.92; p < 0.057). Table 1 depicts summarized demographic information.

College class level was reported by each subject; in both groups, the senior class was largest and the freshman class was smallest while the sophomore class was the same. No significant differences were found between the disabled group (GPA = 2.80) and the nondisabled group (GPA = 2.86) as a whole or following comparisons by partitioning the groups by gender or disability status. A series of correlational analyses failed to reveal a statistically significant predictive relationship between GPA and the other factors in the study, except that there was a significant correlation between GPA and receipt of vocational rehabilitation benefits (r = 0.31; p < 0.037).

A variety of disability types were represented in the study including visual (n = 4; 8.9%); hearing (n = 16; 13.3%); learning disabled (n=16; 35.6%); orthopedic - wheelchair (n = 1; 2.2%) orthopedic - ambulatory (n : 6; 13.3%); other (n = 10; 22.2); and multiply disabled (n=2; 4.4%). The majority of respondents had disabilities which were stable (91.1%) and not progressive in nature and most (62.2%) had been disabled since birth. A minority (33.3%) of students with disabilities received vocational rehabilitation benefits. There were no significant relationships between age of onset (F = 0.80; p < 0.46) or type of disability with the other factors under study.

Multivariate analysis of variance (MANOVA) techniques were used to determine if there were career maturity differences between the disabled and able bodied groups, and no significant differences were found (Wilks' lambda = 0.999; F = 0.02; p < 0.977). The disabled group was then partitioned into a learning disabled group and an other disabled group and compared with the nondisabled group, and with each other using MANOVA. The results indicated no statistically significant difference between the two disabled groups and the nondisabled group. However, Scheffe's post hoc multiple comparison techniques revealed a statistically significant difference at the .10 level between the learning disabled group and the other disabled group on the variables Career Development Attitudes and Career Orientation-- Total (Wilks' lambda : 0.911; F = 2.04; p < 0.0910).

Correlational analyses were performed on the CDI scores to explore possible relationships. Within the group of students with disabilities a significant positive relationship was found between Career Development - Attitudes and participation in vocational counseling (r = 0.304; p < 0.036).


Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Education for All Handicapped Children Act were landmark pieces of legislation for those with disabilities, guaranteeing, among other rights, access to college admission for the academically qualified. While a variety of physical and structural changes have been made to institutional facilities, it has remained less certain what additional accommodations are needed to meet the career needs of college students with disabilities. This study revealed generally that students with disabilities did not differ from their nondisabled counterparts on measures of career maturity. However, collegians with learning disabilities were found to be more vocationally mature than their peers with other types of disabilities. In particular, students with learning disabilities appear better able to perform career planning and exploration activities, and in general have a stronger overall career orientation.

This result may be an artifact of small sample size, or it may be an artifact of pre-college guidance services received by the learning disabled group. Much attention has been paid to this group in high schools in recent years, including an emphasis on vocational issues. When viewed in conjunction with the positive correlation between participation in vocational counseling and career attitudes, this finding underscores the continued significance of the provision of career guidance services for students with disabilities in general, and especially for students with disabilities other than learning disabilities.

The significant positive correlation between receipt of vocational rehabilitation benefits and grade point average also highlights the importance of career guidance services for those with disabilities, as well as the benefits of freedom from economic stresses. A disturbing incidental finding was the small number (n = 15; 33.3%) of students receiving vocational rehabilitation benefits. Presumably most if not all of the students in the sample would have met eligibility criteria. Why, then, were they not receiving benefits? The purchase of a college education is costly both in terms of time and money, yet yields undeniable long term benefits for those with disabilities (Bowe, 1983; Rosenberg, 1978). The current emphasis of the state federal system on projects such as supported work and projects-with-industry, and renewed interest in job placement, certainly suggests that the public sector is in a placement, not training, mode of operation. Moreover, the private sector has traditionally emphasized employment over training (Matkin, 1985). On the basis of these emphases, and the data from this study, it is not unreasonable to suggest that the rehabilitation system may be emphasizing short term solutions in lieu of long term gains.

Students with disabilities tended to be older and enrolled in college for a longer period than their counterparts. In general this is an era when there are fewer 18-year-olds to enroll, and more older students enrolling at least on a part-time basis (Strickland, 1987). Older students, and particularly those with disabilities may have different needs and interests than traditional-age students. Research into the characteristics and needs of this older group would benefit students with disabilities and the nondisabled alike.

While this study addressed career maturity issues of collegians with disabilities, it provided no information about job placement or job retention following graduation. Longitudinal research, following a group of college students with disabilities through the college years and beyond, is appropriate and warranted.

College is an important time of growth and development, a time of transition from dependence to independence, and especially so for individuals with disabilities. This study revealed the many commonalities and similarities found between students with disabilities and their nondisabled peers; it also suggests the importance of career guidance and vocational rehabilitation services for collegians with disabilities and for continued research in this area.


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Author:Scalia, Vincent A.
Publication:The Journal of Rehabilitation
Date:Apr 1, 1990
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