New Research: Outcomes for Secondary Students with Disabilities in Higher Education and the Workforce

Connor Hill, Researcher
April 14, 2023

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Photo by Lachlan on UnSplash

The latest research from the Utah Data Research Center (UDRC) uses data from the Utah State Board of Education (USBE), the Utah System of Higher Education (USHE), and the Department of Workforce Services (DWS) to examine the postsecondary and workforce outcomes of students with disabilities (SWDs) that exited high school between 2012 and 2019. Using data through 2021, this study focuses on the descriptive outcomes for SWDs to help develop a baseline understanding of the challenges they face as they pursue higher education and enter the workforce.

This study relies upon USBE to identify students with disabilities. The disability types USBE identifies are autism, emotional disturbance, speech/language impairment, deaf/blindness, developmental delay, hearing impairment/deafness, intellectual disability, multiple disabilities, other health impairment, orthopedic impairment, specific learning disability, traumatic brain injury, and visual impairment (including blindness). Due to sample size limitations, and to limit the number of individuals excluded from this analysis, we combined disability types for this analysis. We aggregated individuals with hearing impairments, visual impairments, and deaf/blindness into a “visual or hearing impairment” category. Similarly, we combined developmental disorder, intellectual disorder, multiple disabilities, orthopedic impairment, and traumatic brain injury into the already existing “other health impairments” category. For definitions and criteria regarding disability types, see the Utah State Board of Education Special Edcation Rules (November 2022). USBE also provided variables of interest including the amount of time the SWDs were in a regular classroom setting (as opposed to a special education class), their enrollment in career and technical education (CTE) classes, and demographic information such as race/ethnicity and gender.

This study finds that Utah's SWDs enroll and graduate from postsecondary institutions at rates substantially lower than comparable national averages, though not all disability types enroll and complete postsecondary programs at the same rate. In 2011, a national report found that within eight years after high school, 60% of SWDs continued to postsecondary education. In comparison, the highest postsecondary enrollment rate among USBE SWDs was 43.8% for students that left high school in 2014 (using data through seven years after graduation). The same national analysis found that 40.7% of SWDs completed a program from a postsecondary school within eight years after high school whereas the highest annual cohort completion rate among USBE students is 9.7%. Comparing enrollment and completion rates by disability type reveals that students with a visual/hearing disability and speech/language impairment had the highest enrollment and completion rates. Individuals with a visual or hearing disability had an enrollment rate of 52.7% and a graduation rate of 12.8%; SWDs with a speech/language had a slightly higher enrollment rate at 54.9% but a lower graduation rate at 7.8%.

Similar to findings from national analyses, Utah SWDs enrolled and completed programs from two-year institutions at higher rates than four-year institutions. But comparing the 2011 report mentioned above to this analysis reveals a large difference: 41.3% of SWDs from the 2011 national analysis completed a program from a two-year college, while only 3.8% of USBE students with disabilities receive an award from the same type of postsecondary institution.

One of the ways we looked at median annual wages for SWDs was by comparing individuals by the amount of time they spent in a regular classroom setting. USBE separates SWDs into three categories: SWDs that spent 80% or more, 40-79%, or less than 40% of the day included in a regular classroom setting. SWDs that participated in a regular classroom setting 80% or more and 40-79% had approximately the same median wages up to five years after exiting high school, earning about $20,000 annually by the fifth year. Individuals that participated less than 40% had substantially lower wages, receiving approximately $15,000 in the fifth year after secondary school.

This study suggests that SWDs from USBE schools fall behind other SWDs from national analyses in regards to enrolling and completing awards from postsecondary institutions. However, there are similarities between the reports: SWDs are more likely to enroll and complete programs from two-year colleges, and students that participated in regular classroom settings more had higher enrollment rates––though completion rates by inclusion in a regular classroom setting did not always follow this pattern. This study further reports the median wages for SWDs up to five years after exiting high school by the top five postsecondary programs completed, by educational attainment and disability type, and by CTE enrollment while in high school.

For more information regarding this research, visit the interactive data narrative and access the full report.