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Postsecondary Students with Disabilities:  Enrollment, Services, and Persistence
NCES 2000092
June 2000

Overview

How do the postsecondary enrollment and attainment patterns of students with disabilities compare to students without disabilities? What types of accommodations do institutions provide students with disabilities? These are among the important questions raised by legislation such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). To address these questions, it is useful to examine information provided by both students1 and institutions2 on students with disabilities in postsecondary institutions and the types of services institutions provide.3 Because a number of different surveys are mentioned in this Stats in Brief, it is important to note the particular population that was sampled and the year in which the survey was administered.

Enrollment of students with disabilities

According to the 1995–96 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS:96), roughly 6 percent of all undergraduates reported having a disability (not shown in tables). Among 1995–96 undergraduates with a disability, approximately 29 percent reported having a learning disability, and 23 percent reported an orthopedic impairment (figure 1). About 16 percent of students with disabilities reported having a hearing impairment, 16 percent a vision impairment, and 3 percent a speech impairment. In addition, one in five undergraduates with disabilities (21 percent) reported having another "health-related" disability or limitation.4 Students with and without disabilities differed somewhat with respect to age and the type of institution they attended in 1995–96. The average age of students with disabilities was 30, compared to an average age of 26 among students without disabilities, and nearly one-quarter of students with disabilities were 40 or over, compared to 12 percent of students without disabilities (not shown in tables). Those with disabilities were less likely to be enrolled in public 4-year colleges and universities (25 versus 32 percent), and more likely to attend either public 2-year institutions or "other" institutions, which include for-profit vocational institutions (not shown in tables). Students with disabilities, however, were about as likely as students without disabilities to attend private, not-for-profit 4-year institutions (14 and 15 percent, respectively).

Support services and accommodations

In a Postsecondary Education Quick Information System (PEQIS) survey conducted in the spring of 1998, a representative sample of 2-year and 4-year postsecondary institutions was asked about the enrollment of students with disabilities in 1996–97 or 1997–98.5 About three-quarters (72 percent) of the nation's 5,040 2-year and 4-year postsecondary education institutions enrolled students with disabilities in 1996–97 or 1997–98 (table 1). Almost all (98 percent) public 2-year and public 4-year institutions enrolled students with disabilities, compared with 63 percent of private 4-year and 47 percent of private 2-year institutions. Institutions that enrolled students with disabilities in 1996– 97 or 1997–98 were asked whether the institution had provided various special support services or accommodations designed for disabled students to any students with disabilities during 1996–97 or 1997–98. Almost all (98 percent) of the institutions that enrolled students with disabilities had provided at least one support service or accommodation (not shown in tables). Most institutions (88 percent) had provided alternative exam formats or additional time, and 77 percent provided tutors to assist with ongoing coursework (table 1). Readers, classroom notetakers, or scribes were provided by 69 percent of the institutions, and registration assistance or priority class registration were provided by 62 percent. Institutions also frequently provided textbooks on tape (55 percent) and adaptive equipment or technology (58 percent), such as assistive listening devices or talking computers. Sign language interpreters/ transliterators were provided by 45 percent of the institutions, and course substitutions or waivers by 42 percent.

Whether various support services or accommodations were provided varied substantially by institutional type and size (table 1). The general pattern was that public 2-year and 4- year institutions were more likely than private 2-year and 4-year institutions to have provided a service or accommodation, and medium and large institutions were more likely than small institutions to have provided a service or accommodation. Large institutions were also more likely than medium institutions to have provided many of the services.

Postsecondary persistence and attainment

Information on the postsecondary persistence and attainment of students with and without disabilities is available from the Beginning Postsecondary Students Longitudinal Study (BPS:90/94), which is a representative sample of students who enrolled in postsecondary education for the first time in the 1989–90 school year.6 These students were subsequently surveyed in 1992 and 1994.

Among 1989–90 beginning postsecondary students, students with disabilities were less likely than those without disabilities to have attained bachelor's or associate's degrees by 1994 (table 2). While it appears as though they were more likely than students without disabilities to have completed vocational certificates (19 and 12 percent), the difference was not statistically significant. When looking within institutional sector, many differences remained. For example, among those enrolled in public 4-year institutions, 33 percent of students with disabilities had completed bachelor's degrees, compared with 48 percent of students without disabilities. Among students enrolled in public 2-year institutions, similar proportions of students with and without disabilities earned some kind of postsecondary credential, though students without disabilities were more likely to earn associate's degrees (18 versus 7 percent). About 6 percent of both groups who started in public 2-year colleges attained bachelor's degrees.

Because the BPS survey covers a period of five academic years, not all students had completed their degrees by 1994. Therefore, it is also useful to examine the rate of overall persistence, which includes students who either attained a degree or who were still enrolled in 1994. Viewed from this perspective, about 53 percent of students with disabilities had persisted in their postsecondary program. In contrast, 64 percent of students without disabilities had done so (not shown in tables).

Comparability of data

This Stats in Brief reported the results of several National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) surveys that have collected information on students with disabilities. Estimates of the number of students with disabilities and the types of disabilities reported may differ depending on how the survey question is worded, when it is asked, and to whom the question is addressed (e.g., student, parent, or institution).7 Estimates may also depend on the timing of the survey relative to implementation of legislation such as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.


1 U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. Students With Disabilities in Postsecondary Education: A Profile of Preparation, Participation, and Outcomes, NCES 1999–187. By Laura Horn and Jennifer Berktold. Larry Bobbitt, project officer. Washington, DC: 1999.

2 U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. An Institutional Perspective on Students with Disabilities in Postsecondary Education, NCES 1999– 046. By Laurie Lewis and Elizabeth Farris. Bernie Greene, project officer. Washington, DC: 1999.

3 These data should not, however, be interpreted as implying any relationship between the enrollment of students with disabilities in postsecondary institutions and the accommodations that institutions provide.

4 These percentages do not sum to 100 because some students reported multiple disabilities.

5 Institutions' knowledge about student disabilities is based upon student self-report. Some students may report a disability but require no accommodations.

6 The enrollment patterns of the 1989–90 first-time beginning postsecondary students examined in this section are somewhat different than the patterns of all undergraduate students enrolled in 1995–96, which were described above. Among first-time beginning students in 1989–90, those with disabilities were about as likely as their counterparts without disabilities to attend public 2-year colleges and to attend public 4-year colleges and universities. They were less likely than students without disabilities to attend private, not-for-profit 4-year colleges and universities, and more likely to attend other types of postsecondary institutions. See Students with Disabilities in Postsecondary Education: A Profile of Preparation, Participation, and Outcomes (NCES 1999–187) for more information.

7 One of the reports cited in this issue brief, Students With Disabilities in Postsecondary Education: A Profile of Preparation, Participation, and Outcomes (NCES 1999–187), describes when and how the questions related to disabilities were asked in each of several student surveys.

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