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People with Disabilities and Postsecondary Education -- Position Paper

Monday, September 15, 2003

Executive Summary

The National Council on Disability (NCD) undertook this synthesis in anticipation of the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA). Students with disabilities, who now are estimated to represent nearly 10 percent of all college students, currently experience outcomes far inferior to those of their non-disabled peers, despite the fact that research shows that they are more likely to obtain positive professional employment outcomes after degree completion than their peers. The purpose of this paper is to provide background that might guide reauthorization of the HEA to better support students with disabilities to achieve equal postsecondary outcomes.

Detailed information is presented here on interrelated issues impacting student preparation and access to postsecondary education: participation, retention and persistence towards degree completion; financial aid barriers; difficulties in interagency collaboration; emerging needs in personnel preparation; and gaps in the research base guiding policy and practices. There are five broad areas for policy makers to address in the reauthorization of the HEA. NCD’s recommendations draw from the extant research and from the direct input of youth with disabilities:

1) Improving Postsecondary Education Access through the Formation of a Federal Commission. A Federal Commission is needed to investigate and resolve discrepancies and issues across secondary and postsecondary institutions and to study and develop solutions for systemic transition problems for students with disabilities.

2)Improving Access to Postsecondary Education by Providing Information on Postsecondary Educational Support Provision. A national Web-based Assessment Center and Register of organized data and information on disability supports and services is recommended to enable students and families to better anticipate what supports and services will be needed, and whether they are available, in postsecondary settings.

3)Improving Participation and Persistence in Postsecondary Education through Formation of a National Technical Assistance Network. A national network of technical assistance centers should be established to assist faculty and disability support programs in postsecondary education settings, and to provide effective practice models, training of faculty and support personnel, and technical assistance to programs and people with disabilities.

4) Improving Financial Aid for People with Disabilities in Postsecondary Education with New Flexibility. Amendments to the Higher Education Act are needed to remove barriers to financial aid for students with disabilities and to provide funds for research, demonstrations, and training on disability-related financial aid issues.

5)Addressing Emerging Needs through Targeted Personnel Preparation and Research. Postsecondary education personnel preparation should include research and training on disability-related supports and services and should emphasize recruiting, educating and providing accommodations to teachers with disabilities.

Table of Contents

Executive Summary

I. Introduction

II. People with Disabilities and Postsecondary Education

A. Preparation to Access Postsecondary Education
B. Performance in Postsecondary Education
C. Attainment of Employment Following Postsecondary Education

III. Issues for Postsecondary Students with Disabilities

A. Issues of Access to Postsecondary Education

  1. Issues in Preparation for Postsecondary Education\
  2. Issues in Transition to Postsecondary Education

B. Issues of Student Progress in Postsecondary Education

  1. Participation\
  2. Retention and Persistence

C. Financial Aid Issues

  1. Cost and Time Factors\
  2. Social Security Issues\
  3. Issues Concerning Eligibility for, and Retention of, Federal Aid\
  4. Specific Financial Burdens Associated with Disabilities\
  5. Financial Aid and the Higher Education Act

D. Issues of Interagency Collaboration and Postsecondary Education

  1. Fragmentation and Inconsistencies in Service Provision\
  2. Differences in Service Emphases

E. Emerging Areas of Need

  1. Issues of Personnel Preparation\
  2. Gaps in the Knowledge Base

IV. Recommendations for Policy Makers

A. Addressing Access Issues through the Formation of a Federal Commission
B. Addressing Access Issues by Providing Information on Postsecondary Educational Support
C. Addressing Participation and Persistence Issues through the Formation of a National Technical Assistance Network
D. Addressing Financial Aid Issues through Flexibility
E. Addressing Emerging Needs through Personnel Preparation and Research

  1. Training of Personnel\
  2. Further Research\
  3. Further Study in Financial Aid\
  4. Further Support for Disability Demonstration Efforts

V. Conclusion


I. Introduction

Americans of every historical era and demographic group have recognized the power of education to transform the lives of people and sustain the life of democracy. Gradual changes in the labor market have rendered a postsecondary education critical to professional success. Leadership in the nation’s business, information, and commerce sectors has pointed to the need for highly educated workers, competent in higher-order thinking and technical skills, as the nation seeks to thrive in the competitive global economy. Completion of postsecondary education, including vocational-technical training, significantly improves the chances of securing gainful and satisfying employment and achieving financial independence. Students with and without disabilities who earn Bachelor of Arts degrees are almost on par in terms of attainment of subsequent employment (OSERS, USDOE, November 29, 2000; Harris eSurvey, 2000; HEATH Survey, 1998).

Policy and curricular changes at the secondary level have been supported by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and Title II of the HEA under the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). These adjustments have focused on improving academic achievement and post-school expectations for students with disabilities with the hope of facilitating access to higher education. Although supported in secondary education under IDEA, students with disabilities who succeed in secondary education are not receiving services to help them prepare for the disability-related challenges they will encounter during the post-school years. (Brinckerhoff, 1994; Izzo, Hertzfeld, & Aaron, 2001). Their lack of transition preparation has potential consequences for those college students who are unprepared to make financial decisions, learn about legal rights, and self-advocate for their support needs. Students with disabilities who access postsecondary education find the provision of assistance is no longer automatic or standardized under one federal rubric. The Rehabilitation Act and the ADA do not mandate specific accommodations. Individual institutions have considerable discretion to interpret the parameters of the reasonable accommodations required by law. Resources are often inadequate and disconnected. The type, range, availability of, and terms related to services are often widely discrepant and poorly integrated while access to mentors or technological training is either limited or non existent (Stodden, Jones & Chang, 2002).

In subsequent employment, fewer young adults with disabilities possessing a Bachelor of Arts degree work full time when compared with people without disabilities holding the same degree (National Center for the Study of Postsecondary Educational Supports, 2002). Individuals with disabilities are more than twice as likely to live below the poverty line as those without disabilities (New Freedom Initiative, 2001). Fewer individuals with disabilities are employed when compared with those people without disabilities. Of those people with disabilities who are employed, the vast majority work at low-paying, non-professional jobs, which lack prestige, come with no security, room for advancement, or significant medical or retirement benefits (Stoddard, Jans, Ripple, & Krauss, 1998).

Researchers and practitioners in the field of disability and postsecondary education have amassed substantial data which is evidence of the great strides made since legislators first recognized the rights of people with disabilities and also of the value of their participation in and completion of postsecondary education. Professionals have also ascertained numerous barriers and gaps in knowledge that remain. In fact, the knowledge gleaned from data remains vastly insufficient to the knowledge still to be found. The relative paucity of research is evidence of the newness of the field of study, but such gaps in knowledge render the enactment of policy changes leading to continued progress on an appreciable, universal scale difficult. Therefore, we recommend that evidence based research be conducted to provide a comprehensive foundation of knowledge from which evidence-based strategies may be determined. We recommend that research:

  • Document the importance and value of postsecondary education for people with disabilities through close secondary analysis of extant data sets.
  • Determine the current status of people with disabilities in postsecondary education by expanding the National Longitudinal Transition Study (NLTS).
  • Gather data on a national level in order to acknowledge services and accommodations for postsecondary students with disabilities; to learn about the ways in which student education, accommodations, medical and other services are financed; and to understand the differences in services provided, costs to students, and success rates from state-to-state.
  • Explore the issues that contribute to this current status through a number of effectiveness studies focusing upon specific factors that lead to successful outcomes for students with disabilities.
  • Include disability statistics in the data collected by the Student Aid Recipient Survey conducted by the Commissioner of Education Statistics, so that analysis of student expenses and ability to repay loans can include this information (Higher Education Act Section 131).

The reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, therefore, must contain a mandate to conduct a national study that will yield a clearinghouse for the collection, classification, and ongoing dissemination of data regarding the status of people with disabilities in postsecondary education and subsequent professional employment. It should include the institutional characteristics and legislative policies both conducive and preclusive to their positive outcomes. The study should take a holistic view of this growing population, recognizing the interdependent relationships between students with disabilities, natural supports, disability support staff, service providers, federal funding agencies, secondary and postsecondary staff and faculty, policy makers, researchers, and health care providers. At the same time, we further recommend the funding of broad-scale demonstration and intervention studies aimed at improving outcomes and success rates of students with disabilities in postsecondary education and beyond.

Congress is encouraged to review the most promising evidence based practices arising from previous studies and to enact the changes in federal policy that will best support the efforts of students with disabilities. These changes should encompass preparation for, transition to, access to, retention in, and completion of postsecondary education. We further urge Congress to consider the recommendations of this study, as well as those of the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities in drafting the reauthorization of the HEA.

II. People with Disabilities and Postsecondary Education

In order to provide a comprehensive knowledge base from which recommendations for evidence based practices and policies may be determined, it is necessary to know the status of people with disabilities today in postsecondary education. Information should be included about their status in the settings which lead up to higher education and follow it - that is, secondary education and employment environments. The information provided below is evidence that there has been steady but limited progress in all areas leading to improved quality of life for this population. However, change has been slowed by systemic barriers at all educational levels and complex interactions between the services available. Subsequent discussion of the issues leading to this current status will clarify the need for changes in policy and continued research.

A. Preparation to Access Postsecondary Education

For nearly two decades, significant changes have been reported regarding the practices by which students with disabilities are prepared for post-school success, including their preparation for college or university. Among the positive results for students with disabilities are (NCSPES, 2002; OSERS, 2000):

  • The percentage of students with disabilities graduating from high school with a diploma has risen steadily in recent years (51.7% in 1994 to 55.4% in 1998).
  • The percentage of adults with disabilities who report completing high school increased significantly between 1986 and 2000 (61% in 1986 to 78% in 2000).
  • The number of students with disabilities dropping out of high school has begun to decrease (35% dropped out in 1994, compared to 31% in 1998).

Nevertheless, students with disabilities continue to lag behind their cohorts without disabilities in terms of postsecondary academic preparedness. The U.S. Department of Education’s 21st Annual Report to Congress on the Implementation of the IDEA reported that a smaller percent of students with disabilities graduated with high school diplomas from 1996 to 1998, compared to students without disabilities (US DOE, 1999). Furthermore, the following data indicates a gap in efforts to provide appropriate and equal opportunity to this population (NCSPES, 2002).

  • Youth with disabilities drop out of high school at twice the rate of their peers without disabilities.
  • At the present time, fully 85% of all high school dropouts have some kind of disability (US DOE, 1999).
  • Students with disabilities are less likely than their peers without disabilities to complete a full secondary school academic curriculum, especially in math and science curriculum areas.
  • Youth with disabilities seldom attend or have any but the most perfunctory involvement in their Individualized Education Program (IEP) meetings (Abery & Stancliffe, 1996), thus are rarely prepared with a post-school transition plan.
  • When ranked according to how qualified they were for college admission, students with disabilities were “much less likely to be even minimally qualified,” based on an index score of grades, class rank, NELS composite test scores, and SAT/ACT scores (NCES, 1999)

Also of concern is the data that indicates that many students with disabilities are not being appropriately identified and served during childhood and adolescent years. The following statistics may be the result of delay in the diagnosis and identification of individual disabilities:

  • In a recent study, 31% of the participants with Specific Learning Disabilities (SLD) indicated that their disability was first identified at the postsecondary level (NCSPES, 2002).
  • When declaring a primary disability, 44% of the participants with an attention deficit disorder (ADD) indicated that their disability was first identified at the postsecondary level.


B. Performance in Postsecondary Education

Given the substantial research conducted through the National Center for the Study of Postsecondary Educational Supports (NCSPES) and other agencies, as well as the implementation of various legislative mandates and the consequent growing awareness concerning students with disabilities, there are a number of positive developments supporting the access and retention of people with disabilities in postsecondary education and subsequent employment. Among the positive outcomes of various federal directives and initiatives, and increased awareness, are (Harris eSurvey, 2000; HEATH Survey, 1998; US DOE, 2000):

  • The percentage of college freshmen with a disability has more than tripled over the last twenty years (3% in 1978 to over 9% in 1998).
  • The number of high school graduates with disabilities matriculating in postsecondary education has risen from 3% in 1978 to 19% in 1996 (Blackorby & Wagner, 1996; Dukes & Shaw, 1999).
  • One in eleven (or, 154,520) first-time, full-time freshmen entering college in 1998 self-reported a disability ranging from hearing, speech, orthopedic, learning, health-related, partially sighted or blind, or other conditions (HEATH, 1999).
  • More than 50% of students with disabilities enrolling in postsecondary education persist toward a degree or credential.
  • Nearly all public postsecondary institutions enroll students with disabilities (approximately 98% of public institutions in 1998).
  • Most postsecondary education institutions enrolling students with disabilities provide some level of services, supports, or accommodations to assist their access to education.


However, despite these above areas of progress - which pertain mostly to beginning college rather than long term outcomes - significant complications remain. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) mandates that all postsecondary institutions “are required by law to provide any reasonable accommodation that may be necessary for those people with an identified disability to have equal access to the educational opportunities and services available to non-disabled peers, if requested” (PL 101-336; PL 105-17).

An official website of the National Council on Disability