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June 15, 2022

College Promise on Students with Disabilities in Postsecondary Education: Identifying and Addressing Barriers to Access and Success

Because a uniform, national college promise model would not adequately serve the estimated 20 million students in postsecondary education, ETS and College Promise launched an effort to expand the work on College Promise programs to identify ecosystems of support for specific student populations. In 2021, we invited scholars, practitioners, and student representatives to join a design team and co-create the college promise program for their student populations. This research was recently published in a new study about programmatic strategies and supports to better serve five student populations, including students with disabilities.

In 1990 the ADA was signed into law. This comprehensive civil rights legislation prohibited discrimination and guaranteed individuals with disabilities the same opportunities as everyone else to participate in mainstream American life. Eventually, in 2008, the ADA Amendment Act was signed by the President, to restore the intent and protections of the ADA of 1990. Even with the amendments, the individual with a disability bears the brunt of responsibility to self-identify not only in college, but also in other parts of society, or risk not being accommodated.

The rate of students with disabilities earning an associate’s degree is similar to those without, but there is a discrepancy in earning bachelor's degrees. Approximately 34.6% of non-disabled people have earned a bachelor’s degree or higher, which is more than double the rate of people without disabilities. These numbers indicate disabled college students may require more support in order to be successful. Disability often overlaps with other personal characteristics such as veteran status, socioeconomic status (SES), and race. Individuals may also not be reporting a disability, causing inaccuracies in these numbers.

At the college level, students with disabilities must self-advocate and disclose their disability to the school’s disability services office in order to receive services. Furthermore, even with self-disclosure, receiving accommodations is not guaranteed. Change at the federal level includes rethinking the federal financial aid formula to include students taking reduced credits, student financial support to obtain a diagnosis, evaluation, and/or assessment of disabilities, funding to create a national training for disability awareness to dispel ableism, and standardizing postsecondary-level identification procedures. At the high school level, High school training for transition service providers and the use of evidence-based practices in high schools increase the likelihood of more positive post-high school outcomes. 

We know that disabled college students may require more support in order to be successful. Our recommendations here intend to support the holistic needs of college students with disabilities. 

Read the policy brief here. 

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