FAQ: Postsecondary Education Options for Young Adults with Significant Disabilities

Posted on September 09, 2012

Print this entry


When we think back to who we were at age 18, we conjure up memories of a curious young adult with a plate “not yet full”. As young adults, we learn from experiences with college, employment, family, and friends. We take on relationships, risks, rights, and responsibilities. We expand our independence as we shrink our need to rely on others. We chase our dreams and flee our fears. But the sum total of adult learning experiences leaves us far different from that headstrong and naïve 18-year-old.

We all agree that education is responsible to provide educational services to children through high school graduation at which point entitlements end and the young adult is expected to assume responsibility for postsecondary education. Teachers can only teach the knowledge and skills necessary for young adults to enter the complex adult world. The educational experience sets the stage for adult learning. But for young adults with disabilities, especially significant disabilities, the transition from school to adulthood is exceedingly difficult. We can all reflect on how difficult some early adult experiences were for us; they are far more daunting for many young adults with disabilities. So, in this article, we raise some important questions that we frequently hear from young adults with disabilities and their families. More important, we reflect on what our role might be as special educators in preparing our students for adulthood.

1. Should we be thinking about educational experiences for young adults with disabilities after high school? Yes. Although only about one-third of young adults with disabilities are involved in some type of postsecondary education within two years after high school, the numbers are increasing (Wagner, Newman, Cameto, Garza, & Levine, 2005). Four out of five students with disabilities list postsecondary education as their measurable postsecondary goal on their Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) (Cameto, Levine, & Wagner, 2004). Much as we provide college and career counseling for high school students without disabilities, we should provide similar options and supports to young adults with disabilities.

2. What if a young adult has a disability too significant to go to college? What if college is just not realistic? First, we have been surprised by the motivation and tenacity that is unleashed when some young adults, even those with significant disabilities, go to college. Be careful not to close a door to opportunity. But second, remember that postsecondary education involves far more choices than just the traditional degree track at a four-year college. There are opportunities to learn and grow from participating in the overall postsecondary experience at a variety of levels and in diverse settings. In addition to attending a four-year college, there are numerous options for young adults with disabilities:

• two-year community colleges

• applied technology colleges

• vocational and technical schools,

• adult and community education courses

• apprenticeships and internships

• service learning opportunities

• workshops and seminars

Government-sponsored programs such as Job Corps, Workforce Investment Act programs, and YouthBuild, among others, provide additional opportunities. See the U.S. Department of Education’s (2008) Bridges to Opportunity: Federal Adult Education Programs for the 21st Century for more information.

3. Is a four-year college even a remote possibility? Yes. Students with disabilities who graduate with a high school diploma and meet the minimum test score requirements of a college or university can apply. For students who do not meet these requirements, some colleges and universities have open admission programs and their advisors can usually arrange an avenue into postsecondary education. Also, the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 has made it possible for students with intellectual disability to apply for federal financial aid, specifically grants and work study funds, to help pay for college. Find out more at www.thinkcollege.net. This website describes case studies and opportunities for college students with intellectual disabilities.

4. But what realistic outcomes can a young adult with significant disabilities expect from postsecondary education? Is it really going to change anything? There is a good chance the answer is “yes”. Research has shown that individuals with disabilities who have even minimal postsecondary education experience are more likely to be employed than those who do not (Institute for Higher Education Policy, 2005). According to the National Longitudinal Transition Study – 2, frequently reported outcomes include higher income and benefits, job satisfaction, job security, and career options (Wagner et al., 2005). Postsecondary education also provides opportunities for personal and social growth (Grigal & Hart, 2010). Many of us can relate to this. Personal and social growth occur whether students challenge themselves to take a few courses for credit, audit a class, or simply learn independent living skills while using campus transportation. The probable outcomes of expanded independence, contributing citizen in a community, and wage earner are too great to dismiss.

5. Doesn’t this raise false expectations of individuals with disabilities that set them up for failure? We would argue that the real failure is stifling a learning opportunity. But we must understand the risks at the outset and make a thoughtful and calibrated decisions. We also must understand that at least initially, supports and accommodations may be necessary. Many of us needed support from our friends, family, and advisors when we entered college. Many young adults with disabilities are not skilled in reaching out for supports. They may not understand the questions to ask or the strategies necessary to be assertive in advocating for oneself with a college instructor. Disability service staff who assist college students inform us that one of their chief concerns is lack of self-advocacy and negotiation skills in incoming college students with disabilities. So we must understand that the risks are real and the consequences can be harsh. But our response should not be to shrink away. Instead, we must carefully calculate the course of study and teach the young adult the skills likely to be necessary in the selected postsecondary environment.

6. What accommodations are reasonable? What can I expect to be done if I am a parent or a teacher of a child/student entering postsecondary education? Most accommodations that are common to secondary education are also available in postsecondary education. Examples include assistive technology, preferential seating, note takers, alternative media, alternative test taking arrangements, reduced course load, access to peer tutors, and learning skills classes. However, there are fundamental differences in how these accommodations are administered. In contrast to secondary education where school districts are responsible for identifying students with disabilities, postsecondary education is under no similar obligation. Rather, students are responsible for self-disclosing their needs and requesting appropriate accommodations. This leads to a “rubber meets the road” opportunity for students to learn and apply their skills of self-determination and self-advocacy. Further, students may experience some trial and error when using accommodations in postsecondary education as it is a new process with many variables. This trial and error process often serves as a valuable real-world learning experience for students.

7. From a college perspective, isn’t this an exercise in compromising academic standards? Absolutely not. Academic standards must remain uncompromised by new learners on campus. Otherwise, the prospect of postsecondary education for college students with disabilities will fail. The imperative of maintaining high academic rigor has two effects. First, an individual’s support team must carefully survey and select the most appropriate postsecondary learning environment. Several key questions arise. Which college is most compatible based on academic programs offered and the individual’s skill levels? What disability support services are available? What academic support services are available? Second, by starting early in transition planning, the support team must make efforts to increase the individual’s academic skills to be compatible with the selected college standards. When the Higher Education Opportunity Act was re-authorized in 2008, the U.S. Department of Education set aside funds for evaluating programs for college students with intellectual disabilities. For example, 27 transition postsecondary programs for students with intellectual disabilities (TPSIDs) were funded to demonstrate an inclusive model of postsecondary education. This model focuses on academic enrichment, socialization, independent living skills, and integrated work experiences (U.S. Department of Education, 2011). Additionally, a National Coordinating Center was funded to provide technical assistance and evaluation of the effects of the TPSIDs on the college environment. The center has developed standards and quality indicators for TPSIDs in effort to ensure student success and maintenance of academic standards at institutions of higher education. Find more at http://www.thinkcollege.net/for-professionals/higher-education-opportunity-act-of-2008

At 18, we may have been headstrong and naïve, but whether we knew it or not, we were about to embark on an adventurous journey. As life-long learners, we were just getting started. Young adults with significant disabilities need to be afforded the same opportunity. As educators, we must prepare them to be as skilled and knowledgeable as they can be to increase the probability of their success in adulthood.

Authors: Bob Morgan, Scott Kupferman, Jeff Sheen, Utah State University


Cameto, R., Levine, P., & Wagner, M. (2004). Transition Planning for Students With Disabilities. Menlo Park, CA. SRI International. Available from http://www.nlts2.org/reports/2004_11/index.html.

Grigal, M., & Hart, D. (2010). Think College: Postsecondary education options for students with intellectual disabilities. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing.

Institute for Higher Education Policy. (2005). The investment payoff: A 50-state analysis of the public and private benefits of higher education. Washington, DC: Author.

U.S. Department of Education. (2011). Transition and postsecondary programs for students with intellectual disabilities. Washington, DC: Author.

U.S. Department of Education. (2008). Bridges to opportunity: Federal adult education programs for the 21st century. Report to the President on Executive Order 13445. Washington, DC: Author.

Wagner, M., Newman, L., Cameto, R., Garza, N., & Levine, P. (2005). After high school: A first look at the postschool experiences of youth with disabilities. A report from the National Longitudinal Transition Study-2 (NLTS-2). Washington, DC: OSEP: U.S. Department of Education.