Part 2: Defining and Adapting to Changing Student Demographics

This blog is the second in a four-part series about the current demographics of students in postsecondary settings and how to address their specific needs with a multi-tiered system.

The reasons for pursuing a postsecondary degree are unique to each student, and the amalgam of experience, goals, and characteristics they possess influences their motivation for completing their degree. At the same time, postsecondary institutions have the power to cultivate student success through their academic and support services. Particular groups of students, such as nontraditional, students with disabilities, low-income, and language learner students, have specific needs both on and off their physical campus that require attention. Colleges and universities need to adjust to meet the changing needs of their student population. This four-part blog series explores the current demographics of each of these student groups and the ways in which postsecondary institutions can better ensure–rather than diminish–successful results for some of their most vulnerable students.

“Most notably, the college graduation rates for students with disabilities is significantly lower than the general population: while about 60% of students enrolled in four-year institutions graduate within six years, less than half of students with disabilities, about 30%, graduate within eight years.”

Demographics of Students with Disabilities

Students with disabilities comprised 11.1% of the postsecondary student population during the 2011-2012 school year, which is the most recent data available (National Center for Education Statistics, 2018). In addition, the diversity among students with disabilities is worth noting. While data about specific types of disabilities is not available for higher education, the data for students ages 3 to 21 can help us project the particular and varied needs of students in higher education settings. Disabilities for which there is data, mainly because they are protected under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, are autism, orthopedic impairment, hearing impairment, vision impairment, traumatic brain injury, developmental delay, intellectual disability, and emotional disturbance, among a few others. The highest percentage of students have specific learning disabilities (34% of students with disabilities and 4.5% of all students) or speech or language impairment (20% of students with disabilities and 2.6% of all students; NCES 2018). Among students in this population, 2% have multiple disabilities.

Most notably, the college graduation rates for students with disabilities is significantly lower than the general population: while about 60% of students enrolled in four-year institutions graduate within six years (NCES), less than half of students with disabilities, about 30%, graduate within eight years (see The Hechinger Report’s The vast majority of students with disabilities don’t get a college degree).

Approximately one of every ten postsecondary students, who is part of a protected population and should be receiving additional services, is not graduating after eight years.

That is no less than a crucial call to action. As the educators and supporters of all students, we must ask ourselves two important questions: in what ways are our students with disabilities unique, especially when we consider the cross-sectionality of characteristics, and how do we help them successfully access and graduate from college?

Students with Disabilities Are Not Only Students with Disabilities

We have an obligation to serve students with disabilities appropriately, and we can do that by recognizing that their disability exists in context. The cross-sectionality of demographics show that students with disabilities have complex backgrounds rooted in both historical and individual experiences. The racial achievement gap is just as prominent, if not more, in the population of students with disabilities as it is in the general student population. For students receiving services under the IDEA Act (ages 3 to 21), 17% were American Indian/Alaska Native, followed by 15% Black, 13% white, and 13% who are two or more races. The overidentification of students of color in special education classes is a systemically racist issue that deserves a full conversation in another blog post (which I will be sure to explore in the near future). While those percentages may seem pretty similar on the surface, the gap between receiving services and graduating is stark. During the 2014-2015 school year, 76% of white special education students earned a traditional high school diploma while 65% of Hispanic students and 62% of Black students earned one. The mere opportunity to attend college is less likely for students of color with disabilities; therefore, the transition and sustained success of being in college must be closely and deliberately attended to.

Veteran status is another cross-sectional demographic that greatly impacts the postsecondary experiences of students with disabilities. Over 20% of students with disabilities are veterans, meaning not only does this subgroup have specific needs due to their disability, but they also have specific needs related to being a veteran, and it affects quite a high percentage. A study by the American Council on Education found that while a majority of institutions they surveyed had programs and resources designed specifically for students who are veterans, fewer than half connected faculty and staff to information and training to learn how to support them. We are missing a key opportunity to improve student outcomes by considering how both of these student needs–disability and veteran status (which may or may not be directly related)–affect a student’s experience and are indications for their needs. For recommendations for supporting veterans as students, see The Association of American Colleges & Universities and the Community College Research Center.

While other subgroup demographics for students with disabilities are important, dependent status may greatly influence students’ success. A student may be classified as dependent, which is true for 8.6% of students with disabilities, but dependence as it plays out in the real world is less clear. Undoubtedly, some students with disabilities are dependent on someone else for more than just financial reasons and consequently may need accommodations both physical and mental, from having someone in the classroom with them to needing additional communication and interaction. For 14.3% of students with disabilities who are independent and unmarried, a lack of support at home, whether it’s financial, physical, emotional, or mental, may be a significant barrier to graduation. Data to this detail is rare, and some may argue unnecessary, so faculty and staff must seek it out individually to know each of their students and all of the factors affecting their performance and happiness.

Discover What Students with Disabilities Need

Students with disabilities do not lack the intellectual capacity to keep up at the higher education level. Rather, as a population, they need more assistance with skills like organization, time management, and executive functioning. We can compare the resources for students with disabilities in the K-12 environment to those in the higher education environment to recognize that higher education institutions can do more to increase access and success. According to the Hechinger Report, the lack of structure in college compared to high school leaves many students flailing: “…families of children with disabilities and the students themselves say that schools are failing to provide direct instruction in communication and organizing strategies or, if they do teach them, failing to give students adequate practice” (Mader & Butrymowicz, 2017). This type of instruction can start early on in students’ academic careers and continue on in postsecondary settings.

Learning non-academic skills is one side of the coin; faculty encouragement and assistance is the other. Instructors must consider all of the characteristics students with disabilities possess when assessing, monitoring, and providing for their students, and the gap between best practices and what faculty and staff know must be addressed. The Improving Access to Higher Education Act, which focuses primarily on support for faculty to learn how to provide effective instruction and stronger career assistance to students with disabilities, was referred to the House Committee on Education and the Workforce in the summer of 2017 but appears to have stagnated, which is concerning and means that many instructors must seek out this information and develop their own capacity independently.

Both as a whole institution and as individual instructors, higher education communities can partner or communicate with K-12 schools to learn best practices for modifications and accommodations. Developing students’ “soft skills,” such as studying, tracking assignments, and communicating with professors and classmates, can be integrated into courses as well as explicitly taught through campus-hosted classes and material resources. Lastly, asking students directly what they need can be very informative, and institutions can seek out more information about their specific students and then make adjustments to student support services, such as differentiated resources for veterans, guidance for navigating financial aid, and finding academic and social centers. Understanding a student’s disability as well as the additional context of that disability creates a whole picture of the student and their needs, and the ways we highlight and uplift each of our students with disabilities indicates how we pursue and effectively provide for them an accessible, equitable, and complete education.