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

Students with Disabilities in Higher Education: Participating in America's Future

Ensuring that high school students with disabilities have access to and can fully participate in postsecondary education has been identified as one of key challenges in the future of secondary education and transition for such students (Luecking & Gramlich, 2003). As the American economy becomes increasingly more knowledge-based, attaining a postsecondary education is more critical than ever (Carnevale & Desrochers, 2003). Projections for the next decade suggest that the strongest job growth will be in occupations requiring postsecondary education. Further, analyses exploring the relationship between educational attainment and earnings have, over the past 25 years, found that the gap in earnings between the different educational levels has widened. For example, in 1975, those with an advanced degree earned 1.8 times as much as high school graduates; by 1999, the disparity had increased to 2.6 times as much (Day & Newburger, 2002). The need for knowledge attainment and skill development through two-year and four-year colleges and universities, as well as public and private vocational training programs, has intensified for both students with and without disabilities.

Policies related to transition planning have been put in place to support students with disabilities in achieving postsecondary education and other post-high-school goals. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 2004 (IDEA) amendments specifically draw attention to postsecondary education as one of several critically important post-school goals for youth with disabilities that needs to be addressed in the young person's IEP/Transition meetings. The National Longitudinal Transition Study–2 (NLTS2) has found that postsecondary education is a primary high school goal for more than four out of five secondary school students with transition plans (Cameto, Levine & Wagner, 2004). Perhaps reflecting this, youth with disabilities increasingly are taking rigorous academic courses in high school, including college preparatory classes such as math and science (Wagner, Newman, & Cameto, 2004). However, the NLTS2 has also revealed that only about 3 in 10 young adults with disabilities have taken postsecondary education classes since leaving high school (Wagner, et. al., 2005). This current rate of attending postsecondary school is less than half of their peers in the general population, with students with intellectual disabilities among those with the lowest rates of enrollment. Attainment of a postsecondary education credential opens opportunities in the labor market for individuals with and without disabilities, including higher earnings, benefits, and opportunities for career advancement. In short, it has increasingly become a ticket to an individual's future economic self-sufficiency. Yet, students with disabilities are still very much in the minority in postsecondary education.

There is also growing concern regarding student persistence and the successful completion of programs of study for those who do enroll in postsecondary education. Access is only a first step in a larger challenge of persisting and succeeding within the postsecondary education environment, completing a program of study and graduating, and, ultimately, achieving meaningful employment following program completion. Because of the high stakes involved, exploring the conditions that contribute to postsecondary success and persistence has been a focus of educational psychology research for the past three decades. Some researchers have noted as students are actively engaged in learning, they are more likely to participate in college (Gardner, 1998), whereas, others emphasize the role student involvement in out-of-class experiences plays in students persistence (Kuh, 1991). No single variable explains persistence. What we know is that of the 53% of high school graduates who enter a four-year college directly from high school, only 35% graduate with a college degree. Findings are even more dismal for students who enroll in two-year community and technical colleges, with only one-third of students who enroll full-time in community colleges successfully completing their programs of study and graduating (Tinto, Russo, and Kadel, 1994). Even among those who enroll with a goal of earning a degree or certificate, fewer than half actually complete a credential of any kind (Silverberg, Warner, Fong, & Goodwin, 2004). These findings do not bode well for young people with disabilities because there is virtually no data that suggests that their experiences are any different. While more youth with disabilities are enrolled in two-year community and technical colleges than in other types of postsecondary schools, there is no information currently available on their rate of postsecondary education completion. But given the additional barriers to participation that they encounter in many postsecondary settings (i.e., programmatic, support service, accessibility, financial etc.), their opportunities for success are likely more limited than students without disabilities.

Seventy percent of students with disabilities identified some type of employment as a goal for the years after secondary school in their IEPs according to the NLTS2 (Wagner, et. al., 2005). Their future employability and opportunity to become economically self-sufficient is, as for all students, linked to the attainment of increased levels of knowledge and skills gained through participation in postsecondary education and vocational preparation programs. We need a better understanding of what it takes to support students with disabilities – especially those with the lowest participation rates – in postsecondary education and employment. And we need to apply that emerging knowledge in ways that make it possible for students with intellectual, developmental, and other disabilities to successfully enter and complete post-high school educational programs through which they gain the knowledge and skills necessary to participate in our nation's workforce, and to be engaged citizens in our communities and society.


  • Cameto, R., Levine, P., & Wager, M. (2004). Transition planning for students with disabilities: A special topic report of findings from the National Longitudinal Transition Study-2. Menlo Park, CA: SRI International.

  • Carnevale, A., & Desrochers, D. (2003). Standards for what? The economic roots of K- 12 reform. Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service.

  • Day, J. C., & Newburger, E. (1997). The big payoff: Educational attainment and synthetic estimates of work-life earnings. In Current Population Reports (pp. 23–210). Washington, DC: U.S. Cencus Bureau.

  • Gardner, J. (1998, November). The changing role of developmental educators in creating and maintaining cultures of success.

  • Kuh, G. D. (1991). Involving colleges: Successful approaches to fostering student learning and development outside the classroom. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

  • Luecking, R., & Gramlich, M. (2003). Quality work-based learning and postschool employment success. Information Brief, 2(2).

  • Silverberg, M., Warner, E., Fong, M., & Goodwin, D. (2004). National assessment of vocational education: Final report to Congress: Executive summary. Retrieved from U.S. Department of Education website:

  • Tinto, V., Russo, P., & Kadel, S. (1994). Constructing educational communities. Community College Journnal, 64(4), 26–29.

  • Wagner, M., Newman, L., & Cameto, R. (2004). Changes over time in the secondary school experiences of students with disabilities. A report of findings from the National Longitudinal Transition Study (NLTS) and the National Longitudinal Transition Study-2 (NLTS2). Menlo Park, CA: SRI International.

  • Wagner, M., Newman, L., Cameto, R., Garza, N., & Levine, P. (2005). After high school: A first look at the post school experiences of youth with disabilities. A report from the National Longitudinal Transition Study-2 (NLTS2). Menlo Park, CA: SRI International.