Impact Feature Issue on Postsecondary Education and Students with Intellectual, Developmental and Other Disabilities

Key Roles in Planning the Transition to College and Careers


Margo Vreeburg Izzo is Associate Director and Program Director of Special Education and Transition at the Nisonger Center, The Ohio State University, Columbus

Students with disabilities have the most important role in planning their own transition from high school to postsecondary education, employment, and independent living. However, parents, educators, and adult services personnel also have crucial roles in the teams that work with the students to prepare for post-high school life. This article provides an overview of some of the key roles of those adults in assisting students to explore, plan for, and move into further education and career preparation opportunities after high school.

The Role of the IEP Team

Federal legislation provides very clear guidance on how educators and parents must design special education and related services to prepare students with disabilities for further education, employment, and independent living. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) of 2004 requires school personnel to begin planning transition services with the student, parents, and other agency representatives prior to the student's 16th birthday, or younger if determined appropriate. The Individualized Education Program (IEP) team must review the IEP annually and update the:

(aa) "appropriate measurable postsecondary goals based upon age-appropriate transition assessments related to training, education, employment, and, where appropriate, independent living skills;(bb) transition services (including courses of study) needed to assist the child in reaching those goals."(IDEA of 2004, Section 614, d, VIII)

The IEP team meets on an annual basis to discuss the student's vision for the future, present levels of performance, transition services, and annual goals. The IEP is developed to prepare the student for postsecondary education and employment. Once students reach the age of 16, they assist the IEP team to develop measurable postsecondary goals. Examples of such goals are: "After high school, Liz will obtain a two-year degree in Allied Health's Patient Care Program" and "After high school, Juan will attend classes at Independence Community College and work part-time on campus in the bookstore or student center." Once these measurable postsecondary goals are developed, the IEP team writes annual goals and identifies transition services needed to prepare students to reach their postsecondary goals. Since students' postsecondary goals guide what types of annual goals and transition services are delivered, it is essential to identify postsecondary goals that students are motivated to achieve. For example, if a student wants to go to college but doesn't currently have the study habits and educational track record to make that a realistic goal, then teachers and parents need to share their concerns with the student. They need to give him or her an opportunity to take steps toward better preparation to achieve that goal or to revise the goal. Going to college will require attending classes, doing homework, and receiving grades. If a student does not like these tasks, perhaps the student could look at alternative forms of post-high-school education, such as attending non-credit adult learning classes through the local adult and community education program where participants do not have to complete homework or take tests.

The IEP team is also involved in planning community experiences with the student to confirm potential employment and postsecondary goals and to explore various work and college settings. Research indicates that the best predictor of employment following high school is paid work experience in high school. Gaining the skills to maintain employment is critical even if a student wants to go to college. Ultimately, employment is the goal of both high school and college programs.

Finally, the IEP must include a statement of the interagency responsibilities or any needed linkages. For example, a rehabilitation counselor may support a summer work experience by funding a job developer and coach to work with a student. By including descriptions of both educational and adult services in the IEP, a coordinated set of transition services leading to postsecondary education and careers is more likely to occur.

The Role of Transition Services

Transition services are designed to facilitate movement from school to adult settings including college, vocational education, employment, continuing and adult education, adult services, independent living, and community participation. IEP teams consider students' strengths, preferences and interests when planning these services. Transition services are provided by teachers and related services personnel such as occupational therapists, transition specialists, and rehabilitation counselors. These school and adult services personnel provide instruction and community experiences to develop the skills students need to navigate college and employment settings. Bridge programs located on college campuses, but designed for high school students, are becoming increasingly popular. These programs give students opportunities to navigate college settings with their age-peers without disabilities, enroll in or audit college classes, and move toward employment and adult participation in the community.


The Role of Rehabilitation Services

The Rehabilitation Act was reauthorized under the Workforce Investment Act of 1998 to consolidate, coordinate, and improve employment, training, literacy, and vocational rehabilitation services. The act mandates that vocational rehabilitation (VR) counselors participate in transition planning for students served under IDEA, at the very least, in the form of consultation and technical assistance (National Council on Disability, 2009). Students with disabilities are eligible for VR services if they meet the following three criteria:

  • Their physical or mental impairment constitutes or results in a substantial impediment to employment.
  • They can benefit from VR services in terms of an employment outcome.
  • They require VR services to prepare for, secure, retain or regain employment.

However, not all eligible students can be served by VR due to a lack of funds.

Vocational rehabilitation counselors provide direct services to help transition-age youth gain the educational and vocational skills needed to transition to living, working, and participating as adults in community life. The VR counselor works with eligible youth and the IEP team to develop an Individual Plan for Employment (IPE) designed to assess, plan, develop and provide VR services to prepare for, and engage in, gainful employment (National Council on Disability, 2009). An IPE contains the specific employment outcome that is chosen by the eligible individual, and any services provided by VR listed and described in the IPE must be focused toward securing a reasonable employment outcome. VR counselors provide services to enable youth with disabilities to leave high school, attain postsecondary education and training, and achieve employment rates and levels of wages comparable to their peers without disabilities. Services provided through the IPE to youth and adults eligible for VR include assessment, counseling and guidance, referral, job-related services, corrective surgery, therapeutic treatment that may reduce or eliminate an employment impediment, prosthetics, employment-related transportation, related personal services, interpreter services, and rehabilitation technology.

Several studies have reported that students with intellectual and developmental disabilities who participate in postsecondary education have increased their earnings (Grigal & Dwyre, 2010). Despite this, not all VR counselors will include the costs for college as a VR service in the IPE. However, many professionals and parents can attest to the significant growth in employability skills that occurs when young adults with disabilities are participating in college classes with their age-peers. The skills of being a good student overlap considerably with those skills needed for successful employment.


In summary, professionals and parents should encourage high school students with intellectual disabilities to take the lead in exploring the skills and education needed to transition to college and careers of interest. Students must take an active role in developing their IEPs and be comfortable talking about the nature of their disabilities with both educators and other professionals. Encouraging students to advocate for necessary accommodations in the high school setting will prepare them for college. Finally, empowering students to embrace their futures with the self-determination needed to set goals and make adjustments on a daily basis will help ensure their success.

  • Grigal, M., & Dwyre, A. (2010). Employment activities and outcomes of college-based transition programs with students with intellectual disabilities. Insight. Retrieved from

  • Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act, 20 U.S.C. 1400 et seq. , (2004).

  • National Council on Disability. (2009). National disability policy: A progress report. Retrieved from