Neag Researcher Studying College and Career Readiness for Students with Disabilities

Allison Lombardi has received two grants to support college and career readiness for students with disabilities who are often left behind their peers in this area.


High school is traditionally a time when students are excitedly mapping out their futures. But students with disabilities often lack equal access to college and career readiness resources, putting them steps behind their peers and often leading them toward low-wage work.

Allison Lombardi, associate professor of educational psychology in the Neag School of Education, was recently awarded two grants supporting college and career readiness for students with disabilities from the Institute of Educational Sciences within the U.S. Department of Education. Together, the two new awards total more than $1.2 million.

Lombardi will perform a secondary analysis using the National Longitudinal Transition Study (NLTS 2012) which has national data about students aged 13 to 21years old with and without disabilities. The study includes data about students’ background, health, functional abilities, engagement in school, academic supports, and their expectations for the transition from high school to adult life and the steps they are taking to achieve them.

Lombardi will collaborate with UConn colleagues Graham Rifenbark, Eric Loken, and Clewiston Challenger on this project, all faculty in educational psychology, as well as Karrie Shogren and Tyler Hicks from the Kansas University Center for Developmental Disabilities.

Lombardi will apply these data in a new way to assess how students with disabilities are accessing college and career readiness resources.

“When it comes to college and career readiness, we don’t know a whole lot about how it’s defined for all students, especially not those with disabilities” Lombardi says.

The breadth of the NLTS will allow Lombardi to study students with many kinds of disabilities, like learning disabilities, autism spectrum disorder, intellectual disabilities, mental health disorders, and mobility or other health impairments. The study also includes students without disabilities.

When it comes to college and career readiness, we don’t know a whole lot about how it’s defined for all students, especially not those with disabilities. — Allison Lombardi

College and career readiness is defined in terms of three key areas: academic engagement, social or interpersonal engagement, and planning for employment or post-secondary education. Previous research has not looked at all three of these domains together. This new project will build on her existing grant project, the College and Career Readiness for Transition (CCR4T), which was a $1.4 million award she received in 2019, also from the Institute of Educational Sciences.

Providing students with appropriate college and career prep can help them plan early by taking courses or participating in extracurricular activities that will be the most beneficial for their long-term goals.

Lombardi’s project will shine a light on the racial and ethnic and socioeconomic aspects of accessing college and career readiness resources, identifying possible barriers for students with and without disabilities. This aspect of the project will address a significant gap in special education research.

“We will better understand the role economic hardship and race may play in preparing youth with disabilities for college and careers,” Lombardi says.

This project will also focus on how to improve services in a post-pandemic world by looking at the situation years before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Lombardi will disseminate her findings to special education educators and school counselors. This will help address both sides of the coin as those working in special education are trained to support students with disabilities but may have less experience with college and career readiness. While counselors may lack expertise regarding students with disabilities, but have a wealth of knowledge about college and career readiness.

Lombardi hopes her dissemination plan can help these two groups work collaboratively to provide better outcomes for students.

In another newly funded grant, Lombardi is collaborating with the University of Oklahoma’s Zarrow Center, which is the lead institution on this grant, to develop an assessment tool for middle school students with disabilities. Lombardi will serve as the site PI on this grant and collaborate with Rifenbark and Tracy Sinclair, who is also faculty in educational psychology in the Neag School.

There are few assessment tools that focus on this population in sixth to eighth grade. By conducting this assessment earlier, it will give students more time to utilize their high school years.

The assessment measures social and other nonacademic skills which are the bedrock for success in many fields. This assessment will help refine a student’s individual educational program (IEP), which is a standard part of special education.

The study will follow this population of students into their high school years to help determine how helpful the assessment is in planning for high school coursework and beyond.

“This is really a unique project in that it’s taking what we do for transition assessment in high school and applying it earlier for student with disabilities in middle school,” Lombardi says.

This kind of proactive planning can help students with disabilities access more diverse career paths. Students with disabilities are often steered toward low-wage jobs or are unemployed after high school.

Lombardi hopes this kind of work can help students with disabilities access higher education and better-paying careers.

Lombardi holds a Ph.D. in special education from the University of Oregon. Her research focuses on the transition from adolescence to adulthood, with a particular focus on college and career readiness and higher education experiences of underrepresented groups, including students with disabilities.

Follow UConn Research on Twitter & LinkedIn.