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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

Postschool Outcomes

Here the extent to which students with disabilities achieved their employment and postsecondary education goals is considered. Outcomes for a cohort of young people with disabilities when the group had been out of high school from three to five years are examined. Where comparable data are available, the outcomes of this cohort are compared with those of youth without identified disabilities who had been out of school a similar length of time.19

Postsecondary Education

Most American high school seniors expect to attend at least some college, and almost half of the youths in the general population expect to complete at least a bachelor's degree.20 The pervasiveness of the expectation of postsecondary education reflects the reality of the increasing technical complexity of our economy. Schooling may be even more important for people with disabilities than for others. In the employment arena, educational credentials attest to skills, knowledge, and a work ethic that can help direct an employer's focus toward a person's abilities rather than disabilities.

Federal activities reflect a recognition of the important role of postsecondary education in helping persons with disabilities achieve adult independence and economic productivity. For example, the HEATH (Higher Education for Adult Training for People with Handicaps) Resource Center, a federally funded center of information about education for individuals with disabilities, publishes a resource directory and operates the National Clearinghouse on Postsecondary Education for Handicapped Individuals. Federal legislation such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (Public Law 101-336), also supports the transition of youths with disabilities from secondary to postsecondary education.

Despite such legislation and information services, by definition, youths in special education have disabilities that make aspects of the educational process more difficult for them than for other youths. Thus, it is not surprising that the educational attainment of youths with disabilities is considerably lower than that of youths in general.21 Only 27% of youths with disabilities had been enrolled in postsecondary school at any time when they had been out of high school three to five years (see Figure 2). This enrollment percentage compares with an attendance rate of 68% for youths in the general population out of high school the same length of time.

Several factors may contribute to this sizable disparity between youths with disabilities and youths in the general population. One factor clearly is the nature of the disability the youths had. The majority of youths with disabilities had learning disabilities, mental retardation, or emotional disturbances (see Figure 1). Young people in these categories had among the lowest rates of postsecondary school attendance of any youths with disabilities. In contrast, young people with visual or hearing disabilities, for example, attended postsecondary schools at close to the same rate as youths in general.

Confounding this apparent relationship between disability and school attendance, however, is the fact that youths with learning disabilities, mental retardation, or emotional disturbances also had among the highest dropout rates of any youths with disabilities. Perhaps it was the absence of a high school diploma that created a barrier to further postsecondary education. However, the postsecondary enrollment rates of high school graduates with disabilities argues against this explanation. Even among graduates, only 37% of those with disabilities had enrolled in postsecondary schools, compared with 78% of high school graduates in the general population who had been out of school for the same length of time.

One further potential contributing factor to lower rates of postsecondary education for youths with disabilities involves the demographic differences between these youths and youths in general. Secondary school students with disabilities were significantly more likely to be poor, African American, and from single-parent households than were youths in the general population.22 These factors may have created social or economic barriers to postsecondary school attendance, which were more pronounced among youths with disabilities than among youths in the general population. However, when analyses were performed by the NLTS to adjust statistically a national sample of youths in the general population to match the gender, ethnic, and socioeconomic distribution of youths with disabilities, virtually none of the difference in postsecondary enrollment disappeared. The adjusted sample of youths in the general population, which was equally African American, poor, and from single-parent households, still had enrolled in postsecondary schools at a rate more than twice as high as youths with disabilities (62% versus 27% when youths had been out of school three to five years; p < 0.001).

When youths with disabilities did go on to postsecondary schools, it rarely was to four-year colleges. Only 4% of youths with disabilities had ever attended a four-year college at the time they had been out of high school three to five years. Two-year college attendance was more common (only 12% of youth had ever attended), but postsecondary vocational training was the most common form of postsecondary education (16%). Thus, the employment-related goals of high school seniors with disabilities continued to be reflected in their educational choices several years after leaving high school.


American society has expressed increasing concern about the quality of its high school graduates and their ability to help the country be competitive in a global economy. The 1994 School-to-Work Transition Act (Public Law 103-239) is a reflection of the country's commitment to support students in acquiring high-end vocational skills and in transitioning to the kinds of jobs needed in an increasingly information-based economy. Provisions in that legislation explicitly require states to include students with disabilities in the plans they develop for school-to-work programs.

This inclusion of students with disabilities in employment-related transition programs reflects an understanding of the difficult time many of them have finding a place in the workforce after high school.23 When youths with disabilities had been out of high school between three and five years, 57% were working competitively (see Figure 3), and the majority (43%) were doing so full time. Just over one-third of youths were not working (36%); many (17%) were not looking for work. These rates of participation in the work place lagged behind those of their peers without disabilities. More than two-thirds of youths (69%) in the general population were employed when they had been out of secondary school three to five years (p < 0.001).

Further, employment successes were not experienced by all youth with disabilities. As shown in Figure 3, only youths with learning or speech impairments began to approach the employment rates of youths as a whole. These were the categories of youths most likely to have taken a concentration of vocational education in high school. Successes also were most apparent for those who had graduated from high school. Almost two-thirds of graduates (65%) were employed competitively three to five years after high school compared with only 47% of dropouts. Three to five years after high school, employment also was significantly more common for young men with disabilities than for young women (64% versus 40%; p ‹ 0.001) and for white youths than for African-American or Hispanic youths (61% versus 47% and 50%, respectively; p ‹ 0.05).

Labor force participation did not necessarily translate into financial independence for youths with disabilities. The median hourly wage for working youths with disabilities was $5.72 three to five years after high school (1990), and only 40% of working youths with disabilities were earning more than $6.00 per hour. Wage levels were similar for most categories of youths except those with mental retardation or orthopedic impairments, among whom only 13% and 14%, respectively, were earning more than $6.00 per hour when they had been out of school three to five years. Almost twice as many young men as women with disabilities were earning more than $6.00 per hour (44% versus 23%; p ‹ 0.05), and more than three times as many white working youths as African-American youths were earning that much (46% versus 14%; p ‹ 0.001). Although graduates were significantly more likely than dropouts to have found jobs, they were not significantly more likely to be earning more than $6.00 per hour (42% versus 38%).

What Hurts? What Helps?

The previous sections have described the postsecondary education and employment outcomes of young people with disabilities. But describing outcomes is only the first step to understanding how public policy, educational programs, and related services can be used more effectively to help young people improve those outcomes. To go further, it is necessary to know what experiences in school helped students achieve their goals after leaving school. And it is necessary to know whether some school programs or experiences benefitted particular kinds of students most. In addressing these questions, the following aspects of postschool outcomes are examined:

Postsecondary education participation

  1. Enrollment in an academic program—whether at any time since the youth left high school he or she had been enrolled in a four-year college or in a two-year college program, which the parent or youth described as primarily academic.
  2. Enrollment in a vocational program—whether at any time since the youth left high school he or she had been enrolled in a postsecondary vocational school (public or private) or in a two-year college program, which the parent or youth described as primarily vocational.


  1. Whether the youth currently held a competitive job outside the home for which he or she was paid (sheltered, supported, and volunteer work were not included as competitive paid employment).
  2. An estimate of the annual total compensation youths received for their work.24

These postschool outcomes were related to a variety of aspects of the school programs and experiences of youths while they were in secondary school, as identified through multivariate statistical analyses, described below. The sample of youths (about 1,200) included in these analyses had been out of high school up to three years.

Many aspects of the secondary school experiences of young people with disabilities are closely related to the nature and severity of their disability. For example, placement in regular education classrooms is more common for less severely impaired youths than for those with multiple disabilities. Other characteristics of youths also are interrelated, such as the close connection between a student coming from a poor family and attending a school with a large proportion of students from low-income households. These interrelationships make it difficult to disentangle the independent relationships of school factors from postschool outcomes. Multivariate statistical techniques often are employed for just this purpose—to identify the relationship between a particular independent variable (for example, attending a special school) and an outcome, holding constant the variety of other factors included in the analysis. The results of multivariate analyses are reported here as the difference in the estimated probability of a particular outcome (for example, being competitively employed) between youth with a particular characteristic (for example, those who took vocational education) and those who did not have that characteristic, with the values of all other variables in the analysis held at their means. Thus, the analysis in essence creates "statistical twins," allowing researchers to understand how outcomes would differ for youths who were "average" on all other factors in the analysis but differed on the school factor under consideration.

The remainder of this article reports findings on the relationship of school factors to postschool outcomes, independent of differences between them, in disability category, self-care skills, functional mental skills, gender, ethnic background, coming from a single- or two-parent household, whether the youth was a parent, and the length of time the young person had been out of secondary school.25 Results are reported for youths with disabilities as a whole and for youths in four disability clusters, to identify whether particular high school experiences were more effective in supporting the transition of students with particular kinds of disabilities. Because considering each of the 11 disability categories separately would severely fragment the sample for these analyses, youths have been combined into broader groupings. The "mild" disability cluster includes youths with learning, speech, and emotional disabilities and mild mental retardation. Youths with visual or hearing impairments comprise the "sensory" disability cluster, whereas the "physical" disability cluster includes youths with orthopedic or other health impairments. Deaf/blind youths and those with moderate or severe mental retardation or multiple disabilities are included in the "severe" disability cluster.

The Effects of Poverty

Considered here are the relationships to postschool outcomes of two aspects of poverty: attending a high-poverty school and individual household income.

Attending schools with relatively larger proportions of low-income students made no significant additional difference in postschool outcomes for students at those schools, independent of the poverty levels and other characteristics of the individual students themselves. However, household income is strongly associated with how youths from those households fare in their early postschool years.

NLTS findings confirm that students from low-income households experienced poorer postschool outcomes than students with disabilities from higher-income households, as shown in Table 1. Youths with disabilities from low-income households were significantly less likely to attend postsecondary education programs, particularly academic programs, independent of other factors, confirming a relationship also apparent for youths in the general population.26 These relationships are consistent in direction across all disability groups and statistically significant for youths with mild or sensory impairments. Thus, students from low-income households were less likely than their wealthier peers to have access to the advanced education and training that could enable them to break out of the poverty of their childhood.

Controlling for other factors, economically disadvantaged youths were not significantly less likely than others to be employed, but poorer youths earned less per year than did those from wealthier families, suggesting that they may have worked in lower-quality jobs than youths with disabilities from higher-income households. Compensation gaps were largest for youths with both mild and severe impairments. These findings regarding the pervasive negative effects of family poverty are particularly disturbing in light of the growing number of children, with and without disabilities, who are growing up poor.

Enrollment in Academic Programs

Participation by students with disabilities in higher-level academic classes in high school (that is, advanced mathematics or a foreign language) related positively to enrollment in postsecondary academic programs. Among students with disabilities overall, those who took such classes in secondary school were 22 percentage points more likely to have enrolled in postsecondary academic programs than peers who did not take advanced academic courses, independent of other factors. It is likely that this relationship occurred both because those courses often were required for further education after high school and because enrollment in such courses was indicative of a relatively high level of cognitive functioning on the part of the students enrolled in them. The relationship between academic, high school course taking and postsecondary school enrollment was strongest for youths with mild and physical disabilities; those taking advanced, high school academic classes were 27 and 26 percentage points (p < 0.001 and 0.05) more likely to enroll in postsecondary academic programs, respectively, than those with similar disabilities who did not take advanced academic courses in high school. A weaker relationship is noted for youths with sensory impairments (a 19- percentage-point difference, p < 0.001), and the relationship for youths with severe disabilities was not statistically significant (9 percentage points).

Consistent with the contribution of advanced course work to later enrollment in academic programs, youths who had college preparatory programs in high school were somewhat less likely than others to enroll in postsecondary vocational programs (9 percentage points), and significantly so for youths with physical disabilities (19 percentage points, p < 0.05). The level of academic preparation in high school was unrelated to either of the employment measures. Perhaps in their early postschool years, students with disabilities were not getting the kinds of jobs for which advanced course work was necessary or beneficial. Alternatively, youths who had taken advanced high school courses might still have been in college and, therefore, not yet experiencing employment effects of their earlier course taking.

Vocational Course Taking

The intention of vocational education is to benefit youths both in finding postschool employment and in the wages they earn. Table 2 shows that there were strong positive contributions of both survey and concentrated vocational training to the probability of competitive employment (20- and 19-percentage-point-high probabilities for vocational students). Although both concentrating on vocational courses and taking unrelated survey courses contributed to higher employment rates in this analysis, additional NLTS analyses suggest that employment gains grew over time for youths taking a concentration of courses, whereas the employment rate was fairly stable over time for those taking unrelated survey courses, suggesting greater long-term benefits of concentrated vocational training.23

Further, taking a concentration of vocational classes was related to larger incomes; concentrators were estimated to earn $1,851 more than other students. Again, wage gaps increased over time in favor of those taking a concentration of vocational education.23 These postschool benefits of concentrated vocational education are an encore to the positive outcomes associated with such training while students were still in secondary school.

The largest benefits for both kinds of vocational course taking accrued to youths with mild disabilities, as expected, among whom vocational students had a probability of competitive employment almost 40 percentage points greater than that of students without vocational experiences in secondary school, independent of other differences between them. Further, for those youths, a concentration in vocational education was especially lucrative; concentrators were estimated to earn $6,247 more annually than nonvocational or prevocational students. Youths who took survey vocational courses also earned more—nearly $4,000 per year—than peers who took none. No statistically significant benefits of vocational training were identified for youths with severe disabilities or for youths with sensory disabilities.

Vocational education experiences were unrelated to postsecondary vocational education for all groups (not included in the table) and to postsecondary academic enrollment for youths as a whole. However, some differences in the relationship to academic education were observed for youths with different types of disability. For example, for youths with physical disabilities, taking either a concentration of vocational courses or participating in a work experience program was related to a significantly lower likelihood of pursuing postsecondary academic training, presumably because of greater emphasis on employment.

Contrary to expectations, Table 2 shows that, when other variables were included in the analyses, work experience did not make a significant added contribution to any outcomes for youths with disabilities as a group. It is likely that the skills and foci of work experience programs and vocational education in general were similar and that the two factors became confounded when youths with disabilities were considered overall. However, work experience was positively and significantly associated with employment for youths with physical impairments and, to a lesser extent, those with mild disabilities.

Placement in Special or Regular Education Classes

The NLTS examined the relationships to postschool outcomes of two aspects of high school placement: whether youths attended special schools that served only students with disabilities and the percentage of class time students spent in regular education classes.

Overall, 8% of secondary school students with disabilities attended special schools, ranging from only a few percent of students with learning disabilities to about two-thirds of those who were deaf. The educational experiences of students in special schools clearly differed markedly from those of their peers in regular schools.27 However, these differences did not manifest themselves in differences in postschool outcomes. The NLTS has found little relationship between postschool outcomes and attending special schools. Even for youths in the sensory disability categories who were most likely to do so, attending special school seems to have conferred no particular advantage.

However, controlling for other differences between youths, more time spent in general education classrooms was positively related to employment (see Table 3). For example, youths who spent all of their school day during secondary school in regular education settings were 11 percentage points more likely than their peers, who spent half of their time there, to be competitively employed and were estimated to have higher earnings ($2,095). However, these employment advantages accrued only to youths with sensory or physical disabilities, not to the largest group of youths, those with mild impairments, or to severely impaired youths. This difference in impacts supports the notion that regular education benefits youths cognitively equipped to absorb regular high school course work as it is presented in regular education classes. No benefits of regular education placements occurred for youths whose disabilities involved explicit learning problems or cognitive deficits.

Time spent in regular education also was associated with a greater likelihood of postsecondary vocational enrollment for youths with mild disabilities (10 percentage points).

Two caveats must be offered in interpreting these findings. First, one should not interpret these relationships as implying that regular education necessarily caused improvements in outcomes. Rather, it is possible that disabled youths who spent all of their time in regular education were more competent in ways not measured by the NLTS and that these differences contributed to their positive outcomes.

Second, these analyses reflect in large measure the experiences of youths who had succeeded sufficiently in regular education classrooms to graduate from high school. But many students did not do well enough in regular education classes to graduate. Findings from other NLTS research showed that spending more time in regular education was associated with a higher likelihood of course failure, which in turn contributed greatly to a higher likelihood of students' dropping out of school.5 Those who did not succeed in regular education settings and dropped out experienced negative postschool outcomes, as described below. Thus, regular education appears to confer advantages on those who succeed in it and graduate, but the negative effects of dropping out dominate the experiences of those who do not succeed in regular education settings.

Successful Completion of Secondary School

Dropouts with disabilities had consistently poorer postschool outcomes than did their peers who persisted in school, independent of other differences between them. Dropouts were less likely to enroll in postsecondary vocational programs (a 14- percentage-point difference compared with non-dropouts) and academic programs (a 12-percentage-point difference), particularly among youths with mild disabilities, those most likely to have dropped out (a 14-percentage-point difference). A pattern of negative, though weak, relationships was found between dropping out of secondary school and employment outcomes for youths with disabilities as a group when other factors in the analyses were controlled. These findings underscore for students with disabilities the importance of successfully completing secondary school as a platform for success in adulthood.