Groundbreaking Report Reveals Major Obstacles to College Access Nationwide for Students with Disabilities
- Academic and Cultural Barriers Undermine College Access
- 9% of Undergraduates Report a Disability, Triple Over Past 20 Years
- Most Commonly Reported Disabilities Today are Learning Disabilities
Washington, D.C., June 30, 2004—Students with disabilities—the most recent marginalized group waiting to gain full access to the American dream—still face serious obstacles to higher education, according to a new report, a comprehensive study of how students with disabilities fare in American higher education.
The report, “Higher Education Opportunities for Students with Disabilities: A Primer for Policymakers,” focuses on special barriers to equal educational opportunity in higher education, including legal, financial, academic, and institutional obstacles. Each barrier is examined from the point of view of policymakers, starting with requirements and options available under current federal law and considering how the law and practice can be changed to enhance opportunities for students with disabilities. The report also provides the most recent and comprehensive statistical profile of the size and composition of the population of students with disabilities.
According to the report, authored by Thomas R. Wolanin and Patricia E. Steele from the Institute for Higher Education Policy, only 57 percent of youth with disabilities achieve standard high school diplomas that prepare them for college admission. Students with disabilities face very fundamental challenges, including inadequate academic preparation in K-12 when compared to their peers without disabilities; lower academic expectations; inferior pedagogy and services; and the lack of full access to the core curriculum. Statistics for students with disabilities completing high school are improving—78 % of students with disabilities completed high school in 2001, up from 61 % in 1986. While this trend is favorable, students with disabilities still graduate high school at a far lower rate than their peers, 91 % of whom graduated in 2001, and fewer still go on to college. In addition, they are not provided the counseling required for the transition to a dramatically different “culture” and system of higher education, what the report calls “a different planet.”
K-12 policies are based on a paternalistic model appropriate for minors, with strong parental involvement, but this model is not transferable to higher education. By law K-12 guarantees admission and an “individual education plan” (IEP) aimed at “success” for the student. In stark contrast, higher education has no such structure or guarantees. Students with disabilities in higher education are only guaranteed “non-discrimination,” in part through “accommodation.” But the burden is on the individual student to successfully navigate higher education. Higher education “has no process aimed at achieving success for students with disabilities.”
Despite the obstacles, 73% of students with disabilities enroll in higher education, compared to 84% of their peers without disabilities. But, only 28% achieve diplomas in 4-year, public institutions as compared to 54 percent (almost twice) their peers without disabilities.
“The educational journey faced by students with disabilities is paved with major pitfalls,” said Wolanin. “Fundamental policy reforms are long overdue to guarantee that students with disabilities are not unwittingly victimized by the system.”
Other Key Findings:
- Currently, nine to 10 percent of all college students have a disability, which translates to almost a million students nationwide.
- The transition to higher education for as many as half of all students with disabilities is not an orderly march through the special education and transition plans process, because frequently, the onset of a disability occurs after a person has left secondary school. Moreover, many other students with disabilities routinely delay starting higher education, entering on average three years later than their peers without disabilities.
- Faculty attitudes and the entrenched academic culture were cited as major barriers to implementing accommodations for students with disabilities in higher education. Faculty often are ignorant of their responsibilities and resent the perceived intrusion into their academic roles.
- Only 28 % of undergraduates with disabilities earn diplomas in four-year, public institutions, less than half the rate of undergraduates without disabilities (54%).
- Provide high-level academic preparation, pedagogy and services, access to core curriculum and increased student financial aid, especially grants.
- Supply clear, comprehensive guidance for the transition period and differences in rights and culture between K-12 and higher education, emphasizing self-advocacy skills and development of an active leadership role for students with disabilities.
- Provide in-service training for college faculty and administrators to improve awareness of the needs and rights of students with disabilities.