Skip over navigation

Journal Issue: Special Education for Students with Disabilities Volume 6 Number 1 Spring 1996

Transition from High School to Work or College: How Special Education Students Fare
Mary M. Wagner Jose Blackorby


In 1983, the first generation of children to go entirely through elementary school under the provisions of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (Public Law 94-142) was approaching secondary school. The secondary school students with disabilities who had preceded them had left school, and disquieting reports were surfacing in some states and communities regarding how they were faring as workers, postsecondary students, and citizens.1-3 Graduation and employment rates were low, and so were wages. Most students were not furthering their educations after high school. Social adjustment often was difficult.

How widespread were these problems? Were students with particular characteristics more prone to have difficulty making the transition from school to adult life? What could schools or service agencies do to support students in making that transition more effectively?

The absence of answers to these kinds of questions prompted the U.S. Congress to direct the Department of Education to commission a study of "a sample of handicapped students, encompassing the full range of handicapping conditions, examining their educational progress while in special education and their occupational, educational, and independent living status after graduating from secondary school or otherwise leaving special education" (Public Law 98-199, section 618). In 1985, SRI International, under contract to the Office of Special Education Programs, began to develop the design, sample, and instruments for the National Longitudinal Transition Study of Special Education Students (NLTS). In 1987, under a separate contract, SRI initiated the NLTS, the largest single investment in research ever made in the special education field.

Since 1987, the NLTS has helped define much of what is known about the experiences of young people with disabilities nationally while they were in secondary school and in the early years afterward. The results of this study provided solid measures of the frequency of critical school experiences4 and accurate indicators of student performance.5 From the NLTS, researchers also learned the extent to which youths followed various life paths after high school, moving into postsecondary education, employment, residential arrangements of various kinds, and marriage and parenthood.6

The NLTS includes a nationally representative sample of more than 8,000 youths with disabilities,7-10 drawn from the rosters of special education students in more than 300 school districts nationwide. All sample members were special education students between the ages of 15 and 21 in the 1985–86 school year. Data were collected about them in 1987 and again in 1990. School records of sample members, telephone interviews with their parents and with the students themselves when possible, and surveys of the principals and teachers who served them all have contributed to a rich database about young people with disabilities in secondary school and early adulthood.

In describing their experiences, the NLTS reports percentages of youths with a particular status (for example, the percentage employed). Percentages reported in the NLTS and in this article have been weighted to represent youths nationally; they are not percentages of the sample, but estimates for the population of youths with disabilities as a whole and for students in each of the 11 federal special education disability categories in use in 1985. The distribution of disability categories within the full population of youths with disabilities nationally is depicted in Figure 1. Note that youths with learning, cognitive, and emotional disabilities predominate; physical and sensory disabilities are low-incidence conditions. Thus, for example, values for youths with learning disabilities are weighted more heavily than those for youths with visual impairments when discussing youths with disabilities as a group because of the significantly greater number of those with learning disabilities in the population.

Given this large and representative sample and its broad scope and multiple sources of data, the NLTS is a firm basis for understanding how youths with disabilities fared in their early postschool years in furthering their educations or finding work. Specifically, the following questions are considered here:


  • What were the goals of young people with disabilities for their early postschool years?
  • What did special education students bring with them to their adult roles by way of education and training?
  • To what extent did youths with disabilities participate in postsecondary education and in the workforce in their early years after secondary school?
  • What factors contributed to more positive adult outcomes for youths with disabilities?