Photo Courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action.

High school students often have skewed visions of what college demands. I still vividly remember visiting my friend, Nick, after my first semester of college. Nick, who was a high school senior at the time, had a burning question he’d clearly been wrestling with — a problem that he seemed to feel would sink him in college: “How were you able to pay for and do laundry?” he nervously asked. (We’ll leave for a different blog post the embarrassing fact that neither Nick nor I had done our own laundry in high school.) Seeing his anxiety, I didn’t know how to break it to my friend that finding three quarters for the machine and learning to separate whites from colors were not the biggest issues I was facing. No, the biggest challenge I had was explaining to my microeconomics professor why I was struggling and that I needed help.

This week, we are proud to share two briefs for higher ed faculty and administrators, in partnership with the American Council on Education and the American Association of University Administrators. These resources are aimed at addressing the skills and capacities that would have helped me navigate challenges with my professor (but perhaps not my laundry).

With the emphasis on GPAs, SATs, ACTs, and applications during the senior year of high school, we often forget that the transition from high school to postsecondary life is an enormous leap and rite of passage for young adults — it’s beyond just academics. Students need to quickly begin making independent decisions for themselves in new ways, budgeting their time, balancing social and academic lives with greater independence, and taking greater responsibility for their futures. Self-advocacy skills (the skills to know yourself and your rights, and the ability to communicate on your own behalf) and self-determination (the capacity to be the primary agent in one’s learning and life) aren’t simply nice skills to have: They become the oxygen necessary to survive and thrive.

While it’s a big leap for any student, the shift to higher education is even greater for students with disabilities — regardless of their academic capacity. Many students with disabilities will have their first experience of approaching a faculty member to ask for accommodations (something their parents and IEP teams may have previously determined for them). They may also find other challenges, depending on whether their disabilities pose barriers to their understanding, their access to buildings, or their access to course materials. It’s no surprise that students with disabilities who have greater self-advocacy skills and capacity for self-determination do better in college than their peers: They have higher GPAs and are more likely to progress.  

For any of us, self-advocacy skills and self-determination reflect an empowered response to a state of vulnerability or a power imbalance. When any of us make a claim for work-life balance, ask for time off to care for a sick parent or child, or advocate for a promotion or higher pay, we continue to exercise these essential skills and capacities. These skills and capacities are essential to future success, and their existence goes beyond mere academic competencies. Thus, advancing self-advocacy skills and self-determination must become an explicit goal across our higher education systems, from students who have to set their own goals in developing these skills and capacities to faculty and administrators who create the environments in which those skills and capacities are developed. Here we identify a role for each: students, faculty, and administrators.  

Students. Students must recognize that skills in the areas of self-advocacy and self-determination are as important as anything they will learn in their coursework — or maybe even more important. Developing these skills will allow them to get more out of their coursework. So they must learn to approach challenges with a growth mindset, framing setbacks and obstacles as learning opportunities.  

Faculty. Faculty must come to see the advancement of their discipline as being incumbent on mentoring and supporting students as they develop these skills. There are countless examples of leaders with disabilities in nearly every discipline demonstrating these skills and capacities and, in the process, contributing new perspectives that help to address entrenched problems.  

Administrators. Administrators must recognize that the success of their students in exercising self-advocacy skills and of their faculty in supporting them isn’t just the purview of those individuals, but a function of the environment they help establish. Indeed, even the best intentions and efforts among students and faculty could fail in the face of department- and institution-wide cultures that don’t effectively support student needs.  

The last several decades have seen great advances in access to our institutions of higher education for racial minorities, disabled students, and other traditionally disadvantaged groups.  This progress has neither been inevitable nor linear—it’s been borne of specific choices and initiatives of groups and individuals who have embraced self-advocacy skills and self-determination on behalf of themselves and their communities. It is in this spirit that we invite students, faculty, and university administrators to take up this new torch for expanding opportunity and access at our institutions of higher education.

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