Improving Outcomes for Students with Disabilities: Policy and Research Issues
Promoting success in postsecondary education reflects the crux of the U.S. Department of Education's mission to ensure equal access to education and to promote educational excellence throughout the nation. Stemming from this mission, strategic investments sponsored by the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services resonate with the goals of improving academic excellence, employment, independent living, and community integration. As evidenced by labor market trends, these goals highlight the increasing importance of post-secondary education for improving the employment and quality of life outcomes of students with disabilities.
By the year 2006, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (1999) projects that 18 of the top 25 occupations with the largest and fastest employment growth, high pay, and low unemployment will require at least a Bachelor's degree. These occupations will consist mostly of jobs in the areas of health care, computer technology, and education. In addition, it is anticipated that labor force groups with lower than average educational attainment will continue to experience obstacles to obtaining jobs with higher pay. While nearly two-thirds of future jobs will require less than an Associate or Bachelor's degree, these jobs provide the lowest pay and benefit options. Many of these future occupations will provide pay below the poverty threshold. Given this scenario, postsecondary education opportunities will be of vital importance for all future job seekers, particularly those with disabilities.
The increasing importance of postsecondary education for quality employment outcomes underscores several key policy issues relating to individuals with disabilities. First, findings from a recent National Center for Education Statistics study (Horn & Berktold, 1999) suggest that students with disabilities experience substantial barriers to accessing postsecondary education opportunities. Data from the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS) showed that students with disabilities were more likely to be male than female, and more likely to be white than from a minority background when compared with students without disabilities. Furthermore, even when students with disabilities were qualified for participating in four-year degree programs, these students were significantly less likely to do so when compared to their non disabled counterparts.
A second policy issue relates to factors that facilitate persistence and degree attainment in postsecondary education. Another recent NCES study (Lewis & Farris, 1999) surveyed postsecondary education institutions regarding services and accommodations provided to students with disabilities. Though this study provided important benchmarks for demonstrating how the needs of students with disabilities are addressed, the effectiveness of these provisions toward increasing academic and employment outcomes is unclear. Policy questions focusing on future needs and the reasonableness of provided services and accommodations could be better addressed if reliable, ongoing data collection efforts were pursued.
The role of vocational rehabilitation is a third issue that needs further exploration. Analyses of the vocational rehabilitation database show that vocational rehabilitation consumers gain increased employment outcome rates as well as higher wages and earnings depending on their level of postsecondary education experience (Research Triangle Institute, 1999). Similarly, when controlling for factors such as demographic characteristics, vocational rehabilitation, Supplemental Security Income (SSI), participation, and other variables, postsecondary education experiences more than tripled the likelihood of employment outcomes for transition-age individuals with disabilities when compared to similar persons who had not achieved a 12th grade education (Berry, 1999).
Tailoring ongoing and future research efforts will help better inform policy decision regarding special education and vocational rehabilitation during the next century. And the extent to which students with disabilities reap the benefits of postsecondary education will depend to some extent on how well we identify, evaluate, and promote successful policies and practices for this diverse population.
Hugh Berry is a Policy Analyst with the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, Washington, DC. He may be reached at 202/205-8121 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views presented in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Department of Education or the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services.