Creative Education
2012. Vol.3, Special Issue, 1122-112 9
Published Online October 2012 in SciRes (
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
The State of Postsecondary Education for Persons with Intellectual
Disabilities: What Are the Perceptions of Key Stakeholders?
Colleen Thoma1, Kira Austin1, Edwin Achola1, Cecilia Batalo1, Dawn Carlson2,
Kim Boyd3, Leslie Bozeman1, Diane Wolfe4
1School of Education, Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, USA
2National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research, US Department of Education,
Washington DC, USA
3Department of Special Educa t ion, Chesterfield County Public Sch o o ls , Midlothian, USA
4Department of Special Education, Fluvanna County Public Schools, Palymyra, USA
Received August 24th, 2012; revised September 22nd, 2012; accepted October 10th, 2012
Evidence indicates that post-high school outcomes for students with disabilities look different from the
post-high school outcomes of a traditional high school graduate and vastly different from a student with-
out disabilities who has the opportunity to go to college. In fact, these statistics are widely used to advo-
cate for increased efforts to providing access to higher education opportunities for students with and
without disabilities. Beyond descriptive literature, little information is available on the current state of
knowledge in the field of post secondary education for students with ID. This qualitative investigation
examined transcripts generated from presentations by a variety of experts in the field of PSE-providing an
overview of knowledge on PSE for students with ID. Among other important findings, this study indicates
that there is limited clarity on the outcomes of participating in PSE, economics of higher education and
foundation of evidence on providing PSE for students with intellectual disabilities. The implications of
these findings for future research, policy and practice are also presented.
Keywords: Postsecondary Education; Intellectual Disabilities; Qualitative Study
The need for postsecondary education has increased greatly
in the past decade. Educators are just now beginning to under-
stand exactly how important it is for all students with and
without disabilities. In 2009, President Barak Obama spoke
powerful words in his State of the Union address in regards to
America’s changing educational system:
In a global economy where the most valuable skill
you can sell is your knowledge, a good education is
no longer just a pathway to opportunity; it is a pre-
requisite. Right now, three-quarters of the fastest
growing occupations require more than a high
school diploma. And yet, just over half of our citi-
zens have that level of education. We have one of
the highest high school dropout rates of any indus-
trialized nation, and half of the students who begin
college never finish…. But it is the responsibility of
every citizen to participate in it [educational system].
So tonight I ask every American to commit to at
least 1 year or more of higher education or career
training. This can be community college or a 4-year
school, vocational training or an apprenticeship. But
whatever the training may be, every American will
need to get more than a high school diploma.
(Obama, 2009: para. 61).
There are several economic, work-related, and social benefits
associated with postsecondary education. One such benefit in-
cludes increased earnings over a lifetime. The Institute for
Higher Education Policy reported those with a bachelor’s de-
gree would earn about 75% more over a lifetime as compared
to those with a high school degree (Baum & Payea, 2004).
Higher levels of education also correspond with lower levels of
unemployment (Baum & Ma, 2007). Other associated benefits
include improved health, increased lifespan, and higher re-
ported happiness (McMahon, 2009).
These improved employment outcomes as a result of partici-
pation in higher education have received a great deal of atten-
tion from the field of special education in recent years. This is
due, in part, from the consistently poor post-school outcomes
for students with disabilities, and in particular, outcomes related
to employment. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (2010) reported
that only 22% of all adults with disabilities participated in the
labor force as compared to 70% of those without disabilities.
Individuals with disabilities are more likely to have less job
experience and earn lower incomes than persons without dis-
abilities (National Longitudinal Transition Study-2, 2003).
Evidence indicates that post-high school outcomes for students
with disabilities look different from the post-high school out-
comes of a traditional high school graduat e and vastly different
from a student without disabilities who has the opportunity to
go to college. In fact, these statistics are widely used to advo-
cate for increased efforts to provide access to higher education
opportunities for students with and without disabilities (Stod-
den, 2005).
In 2008 the Higher Education Act (PL 89-329) was reautho-
rized as the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 (PL
110-315) (HEOA), and for the first time the law specifically
gave students with intellectual disabilities (ID) the opportunity
to attend institutions of higher learning. Opportunities included
attending postsecondary education through dual enrollment at
both the high school and institution of higher education, audit-
ing a course, or enrollment in specialized postsecondary educa-
tion (PSE) programs. While there have been a number of PSE
programs for students with disabilities, and particularly for
students with intellectual and developmental disabilities, that
preceded this change in the Higher Education Act, the inclusion
of support for these programs facilitated the integration of stu-
dents with ID into the PSE community. It raised awareness that
students with ID could attend college, regardless of the form or
severity of their ID, and helped universities overcome some of
the barriers to participation in PSE programs through three key
provisions. The first such provision waives the high school
diploma or certificate of completion requirement for enrollment
in PSE. Prior to this provision, students with ID who did not
earn a high school diploma were generally not found to be eli-
gible to enroll in a PSE program. In addition, the HEOA pro-
vided a mechanism for assuring that students attending special-
ized PSE programs for students with ID could apply for finan-
cial assistance to help cover some of the tuition and fees.
The HEOA also subsidized efforts to implement additional
programs as well as conduct research on their effectiveness
through the establishment of a number of model demonstration
centers and one coordinating center. These efforts were initi-
ated for the purpose of exploring best practices for admitting,
teaching, retaining, integrating, and preparing students with ID
for work and career. The Office for Postsecondary Education
(OPE) funded 27 centers with the aim of creating or expanding
“programs that focus on academics and instruction, social ac-
tivities, employment experiences through work-based learning
and internships, and independent living. Grantees will provide
individualized supports for students and opportunities to be
involved in college experiences with their peers without dis-
abilities (U.S. Department of Education, 2010).”
The National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Re-
search (NIDRR) also funded a center on postsecondary educa-
tion for students with ID. The center’s research activities in-
cluded a survey of existing PSE programs for students with ID,
and analyses of secondary data sets such as the National Lon-
gitudinal Transition Study-2 (NLTS-2) and the Rehabilitation
Services Administration Case Service Report (RSA-911) voca-
tional rehabilitation outcomes database in order to obtain a
better understanding of the characteristics of students with ID
who most likely attended, or wished to attend, these existing
postsecondary education programs.
In 2007, NIDRR called for proposals to conduct research on
PSE for students with ID. It became apparent that there was,
and continues to be, a very limited understanding of exactly
what happens to students with ID who wish to pursue PSE. A
small number of researchers and advocates have suggested that
young persons with ID who had some form of PSE demon-
strated improved social skills, better independent living skills,
and better employment outcomes when compared to students
with ID who did not receive PSE (Casale-Giannola, & Kamens,
2006; Dolyniuk et al., 2002; Hamill, 2003; Zafft, Hart, & Zim-
brich, 2004).
In 2011, Thoma et al., (2011) completed a review of the lit-
erature from the past ten years to identify current research of
postsecondary programs for students with ID to determine if the
evidence validates the assumptions of the field that PSE results
in improved outcomes for students with ID. The review illumi-
nated that PSE for students with ID is still very rare, and the
majority of research studies are descriptive in nature. Most
research in this area describes specific programs at institutions
of higher education or an individual student’s experience.
Overall, studies reported positive experiences for individual
students with ID who participated in PSE; however there is
little empirical evidence to support claims that the same kind of
improved outcomes exist for other groups of students who go
on for PSE. Zafft et al. (2004) demonstrated that students with
ID who participated in PSE had improved employment out-
comes as compared to their peers who remained in a high
school setting, but this was the only study that attempted to
examine outcomes from programs in a systematic way.
The phenomenon of students with ID participating in post-
secondary education is still in a developmental stage. Very little
is known about how those involved understand and participate
in this experience. In addition, Thoma et al. (2011) also found
that PSE programs for students with ID can be very different in
the types of services they provide, the anticipated outcomes
expected, and the degree to which students are included in the
life of the university/college. In order to better understand this
phenomenon, the researchers sought to gather information from
those who are experts in the area of postsecondary education, to
determine what is currently known about the field beyond what
has been published in the literature.
Growing interest in understanding the phenomenon of in-
cluding students with ID in PSE caused NIDRR, in conjunction
with OPE, to issue invitations to over 65 persons representing a
wide variety of stakeholders to attend a one day State of the
Science Conference on PSE for students with ID (2009). The
conference was held on the campus of George Mason Univer-
sity on November 6, 2009.
The morning of the conference was reserved for 16 presenta-
tions providing an overview of what knowledge of PSE for
students with ID was available at the time. A comprehensive
literature review was prepared by NIDRR staff and distributed
to conference participants prior to the meeting. The afternoon
sessions were structured to allow for the intense exploration
and discussion of research, policy and practice related to spe-
cific topics for an agenda of activities that would help the field
of PSE for students with ID establish itself and grow. One or
more well-known stakeholders in the field typically mediated
sessions allowing participants both to comment and ask ques-
tions of others in the session.
Forty-three experts participated in the working group ses-
sions at the State of the Science Conference. This number of
participants allowed the researchers to find rich descriptions
from the transcripts necessary to draw meaningful themes from
the qualitative data (Geertz, 1973). Participants in these ses-
sions included leading researchers, practitioners, advocates, and
policy advisors concerned with the current state of knowledge
in the field of PSE for students with ID. The breakout sessions
were structured in two waves. During the first wave participants
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Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
were assigned to either Group 1 or Group 2. The second wave
consisted of three different groups: Group 4, Group 5, and
Group 6. In the breakout sessions, participants were assigned to
different discussion groups, depending on their area of exper-
tise/focus. Table 1 provides an overview of the sessions and the
number of participants assigned to each.
Data Collection
During each breakout session, participants were asked to re-
flect on current practices related to the topic, the challenges
they faced in addressing the topic or meeting the needs of stu-
den ts with ID related to the topic, as well as what they perceived
to be their need for research to guide the further improvement
of practices related to the topic (Wenger, 1998). The facilita-
tor’s role was to guide the discussion to assure that all partici-
pants had an opportunity to contribute and to summarize the
key points from the discussion when the larger group came
back together to share their results. In addition, the participants
were asked to discuss how their practices were related to the
research literature review shared with them prior to their atten-
dance at the conference. In all, five broad areas ranging from
student specific interests and needs to macro-structural trends in
PSE practice and regulation underwent intense review and
The transcripts for each breakout session were used as the
data analyzed for this study. Extensive notes were taken, and all
conversations were transcribed verbatim by a court reporter. A
total of more than 500 pages of transcripts were obtained. This
rich source of information about PSE practices, challenges, and
directions for the future provided an opportunity for the field to
learn from the experiences of university program faculty, par-
ents, advocates, and national policy advocates, which is par-
ticularly critical given the very limited research in this area. It
also provided an opportunity to learn what those experts believe
to be the critical issues to address as they met to discuss them.
Perakyla (2005) points out that although most qualitative stud-
ies rely on interviews as a way of collecting data, there are
benefits in analyzing data collected from more “natural” inter-
actions. These transcripts provided insight not only on the per-
ceptions of the various stakeholders, but also the ways in which
these different individuals come together to address the chal-
lenges in the field.
Data Analysis
The analysis of the transcripts was conducted in multiple
stages using a constant comparative method (Corbin & Strauss,
2008). To increase the credibility of the findings, investigator
triangulation was used throughout the data analysis. The tran
scripts were reviewed by a total of six researchers serving a
variety of research perspectives. It is this triangulation of per-
spectives that provides a less biased review of the transcripts
and increases the credibility of the findings. These reviewers
brought immense levels of varying experiences and expertise
with regards to transition for individuals with ID and qualitative
research methodology. The primary author, an experienced
qualitative researcher in the field of transition for individuals
with ID, facilitated the qualitative review of data. The facilita-
tor aided in the development of research teams, facilitated team
meetings, and provided guidance regarding the overall data
analysis process.
Prior to research teams being established, all six reviewers
watched video clips of the morning presentations that were part
of the 2009 conference, recorded memos of their biases, and
then shared these biases with the larger team. These perspec-
tives helped to form smaller working groups by which the tran-
scripts were analyzed. Such biases ranged from ardent support
for post secondary education for learners with ID to skepticism
about the same. All smaller workgroups had a member from
each side of the spectrum as a way of bringing multiple per-
spectives to the review and analysis of the data. In addition, one
person experienced in qualitative research methodology but
with little knowledge of PSE programs for students with ID,
reviewed all transcripts separately as a last step in the data
analysis process to further enhance the credibility of the findings.
Saldana (2009) recommended two rounds or steps to the
qualitative data coding process. In each stage, researchers
choose both the method and analytical approach based on the
type of data to be coded, the strengths or experience of the cod-
ers, and the purpose of the study. In the first cycle of this study,
the researchers used descriptive coding (Saldana, 2009) which
provided an opportunity to summarize the topics addressed by
the discussion groups. Initially two working groups of two were
developed with each analyzing half of the transcripts. Two
additional researchers were brought in to examine all of the
transcripts independently. Their unique perspectives included
experience with students with ID, but not in the area of transi-
tion, and experience with postsecondary education, but not with
students with ID. All six reviewers read through their sections
of the transcripts individually, isolating emerging themes and
corresponding quotes, before sharing their findings with their
research partner and later with the larger team during the sec-
ond cycle of the data analysis process.
The first round of open coding yielded an assortment of
themes, which were then shared across the two work groups.
Table 1.
State of the science conference working group descriptions.
Group Discussion Focus Area # of Participants
1 Research needs regard ing students with ID in P SE programs in relati vely broad terms. 22
2 Research needs concerning PSE program characteristics and the broader context in whic h th ese programs exist and operate. 21
3 Detailed exploration of ways in which students with ID can be studied. 14
4 Deepened discussion of research needs and practices in the area of PSE programs and their characteristics. 15
5 Focus on how t he broader , social, political, and administra tive environments aff ect the de velopment and growth of PS E
programs for st udents with ID. 14
This ensured that these early ideas were based on the data at
hand. The second round of data analysis focused on reorganiz-
ing and re-conceptualizing the codes and themes identified
from the first round of coding. This study used a form of “fo-
cused coding” (Saldana, 2009: p. 151) to reorganize the data
into the overarching themes. The three teams worked together
to conduct the final selective coding and categorization of data
into broad conceptual frameworks. A theme such as outcomes
was inferred from social engagement, independence, and em-
ployment, which had been coded as separate themes in the ini-
tial coding. Group consensus was used to finalize the themes
that emerged from this data.
This rigorous analysis of transcripts yielded five themes:
outcomes, self-determination, funding, program design, and
research. These themes are described in detail below, in order
of the number of comments or recommendations that fit within
that theme. This order does not necessarily reflect the impor-
tance of one theme over the other themes, either by the authors
or by the participants of the conference.
The value of understanding the outcomes of PSE was accen-
tuated by a sizable portion of participants who felt that the there
were a number of important outcomes for students with ID that
supported their entering post secondary institutions, including
better access to competitive employment, improved academic
performance, social engagement and independent living. A
contributor thus indicated,
“I’d like to say that employment is perhaps the most im-
portant outcome, but it’s not enough. We also need to be
looking at least academics: and you know, socialization, I
think is the term that is often used. I really mean social
engagement, and independent living. So there are four:
academics, employment, independent living and social
The determination of important outcomes appeared to re-
volve around the need to invite the opinions of the learners
going through these programs. Some participants felt that rather
than stating what stakeholders hope these programs will en-
gender, it would be prudent to inculcate students’ expectations.
A contributor thus said, “and I think what may be an area of
qualitative research is to ask the students, what do you think
about what the outcome should be-when they start the pro-
With these outcomes discussed, the question of how they are
to be measured also arose, considering that there are multiple
ways in which these outcomes can be assessed. While it is rela-
tively easy to measure employment outcomes through deter-
mining the number of program participants who have a job
upon exiting the program, and/or comparing wages of those
who participate compared to those who do not, the participants
acknowledged that it was much more difficult to measure the
other important outcomes for students with ID. They discussed
the components of social engagement and independence that
would be outcomes of participation in PSE programs and
therefore should be measured. Participants identified the need
to determine whether or not an individual is experiencing the
following: greater independence, better language skills, better
reasoning, and greater self-determination, has received certifi-
cation in a specific work or living skill, and displays better
social skills or is participating in more meaningful relationships.
These thoughts were embodied in quotes such as, “Is the out-
come independent living, greater independence, greater self
directedness, employment? Is there some kind of certification
that anybody is finding for their students? Do they really have
more significant relationships, rather than like just a rela-
tionship where people are befriending them? Are they really
calling them on Saturday nights to go do things? ... do you want
to go to a frat party?”
The subject of outcome measurement was also examined
from the prism of the achievement of these learners compared
to the strides they made based on high school education. Some
contributors felt PSE should produce outcomes dissimilar from
those yielded by high school curriculum. A participant thus
indicates, “Some of them graduate and they are back to where
they were.” In light of the above expectations, participants also
explored the subject of how postsecondary programs can be set
up to specifically address these outcomes. Threads of discus-
sion that buttressed this subject included ones such as “How is
the curriculum developed towards a particular pointed out-
come?” and “We need to look at how effective the programs are
at creating those outcomes for the individuals in them.”
Self-determination as a critical outcome got notable exami-
nation by a host of contributors in the conference. This dis-
course spun around concepts such as how postsecondary pro-
grams can enable learners with ID to become their own best
natural supports, the scope of self-determination in view of
functional deficits, and the measurement of self-determination.
Participants talked about the need to distinguish ways in which
the programs facilitate the development of self-determination
competencies through approaches such as counseling; whether
PSE actually inculcates self-determination, and the contribution
of self-determination in the realization of other outcomes (not
sure this sentence is clear to the reader). This conversation is
encapsulated in questions and statements such as these: “Are
they being counseled and what are they doing with that infor-
mation to be self-determined. Do the post secondary experi-
ences increase self-determination and then does that further
enhance those outcomes?” and Is a student able to have char-
acteristics of self-determination-self awareness?”
Some participants also brought up the subject of scope of
self-determination in terms of what the learners will actually be
permitted to determine, and affording opportunities to exercise
self-determination within the postsecondary setting. One asked,
What do we let them determine?” Similarly, another stated, “
a world where students are actually enabled to choose some-
thing other than whatever program [for individuals with dis-
abilities] they know about.” The better part of the discussion on
self-determination focused on its assessment, both in terms of a
baseline measure as well as a way to track what was believed to
be improvement over time. This involved questions on how to
determine progress in advancement of self-determination and
the availability of opportunities to develop the competency.
Some participants thus recommended that a common measure
be used not only in a specific program, but for all individuals
with ID in PSE programs. One participant articulated
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“... that everyone who had incoming freshmen take the
self-determination scale; and see if we can correlate that
at the end when they graduate, … as some kind of unit
measurement…?” Another participant recommended that
programs identify “…proactive ways of measuring a
young person with a disability’s opportunity and, ability
to promote their self-determination and self-advocacy
Funding was also identified as critically important to the ex-
istence and success of programs. It was clear that experts iden-
tified a number of different funding sources, but they struggled
to access them equally and/or find organized ways to advocate
for the additional funding they needed to provide an adequate
level of supports and services for students with ID. One par-
ticipant at the conference on PSE for young adults with ID
characterized the concerns regarding funding:
“The third major category is, what are the economics? I
talked about that a little bit above, the funding. But how
much does it cost? Who is paying? What are the ways that
colleges and universities are providing in kind or other
support? And [how do we determine] the return on in-
Through qualitative analysis of the transcripts, it became ap-
parent that young adults with ID are often told they are not able
to participate in postsecondary educational opportunities due to
limited resources. These stakeholders believed that extensive
levels of support, which expand the financial burden for these
young adults, are needed in order for them to participate in PSE.
There is a significant differential with regard to the cost for
young adults with disabilities to have these same postsecondary
educational opportunities as those without disabilities. This was
acknowledged in every group focus meeting when funding was
Funding awareness is a necessary critical component in order
to be able to make informed decisions regarding PSE program
design, growth, and sustainability. This is reflected as one par-
ticipant questioned, “What are the different funding streams?
What are the different ways we maybe could reconceptualize
the funding?” Through identification of the funding streams and
determination of how funds are being used, comparisons to
programs for young adults without disabilities can be made.
Through this avenue, the possibility of gaining new resources
and/or redirecting existing resources was discussed. Some of
the agencies identified by the focus group that may provide
funding are vocational rehabilitation, independent living centers,
developmental disability (DD) agencies, and school districts.
Once funding sources are identified, the focus group partici-
pants acknowledged that access to the funds would be a chal-
lenge for these young adults with ID. These individuals were
identified as being at the bottom of the disabilities pyramid
with limited ability to gain access to funding. The main point
that surfaced in regard to this issue was the return on invest-
ment; that is, what are we getting for this allocation of funds,
bringing the discussion of funding back to outcomes and their
measurement. But this discussion added a distinction to the
need to identify the outcomes of PSE programs and to measure
them: the purpose of this activity was to inform the various
funding agencies that this was a worthwhile investment for the
future, not just an expendable “feel-good” program. The par-
ticipants were unified in their belief that these programs pro-
vided a positive return on investment for these young adults
and their families, but they acknowledged that until they had
evidence to prove that this was the case, programs would be in
danger of budgetary cuts in times of fiscal constraints. In order
to begin to secure funding for this concept, the development of
state and federal policies that provide higher education with
adequate funding needs to be undertaken. This will ensure that
postsecondary programs for young adults with ID will be estab-
lished throughout the nation.
The theme of funding was important throughout the analysis
and was identified as an opportunity to provide support for
these young adults with ID. The positive impact that this will
have for these young adults was acknowledged by the entire
group, thus allowing them to meet with academic and social
success, and to be able to improve their overall quality of life.
Program Design
Effective and efficient design of any newly conceived pro-
gram will help to ensure its success. A quote from the confer-
ence on postsecondary education for young adults with disabili-
ties in regard to program design is as follows:
“It seems to me that successful programs, successful stu-
dents are the ones that have huge amounts of supports.
And the supports are very different from just someone
who goes in to get an extended time on tests, and addi-
tional tutoring, these kinds of things in that you need so-
cial development, et cetera.”
This theme emerged as a constant thread in the development
of postsecondary educational opportunities for young adults
with ID. Through rich discussion of program design by the
participants, the creation and implementation of programs for
young adults with ID presented itself as a path forward to mak-
ing the dream of a postsecondary educational environment be-
come a reality.
Qualitative analysis of the transcripts presented the need to
clearly define admission requirements for colleges and univer-
sities. These requirements would need to be inclusive of social
skill development and the levels of mentoring needed when
young adults with ID are admitted to a program. Along with
admission requirements, clearly defined program goals and
objectives need to be determined with the use of an established
global outline for guidance. All stakeholders, including faculty,
providers of disability services, parents, and young adults who
are involved with a postsecondary program should have a clear
understanding of the program and its expected outcomes for
each participant. These program goals and objectives will act as
a guide when developing individual goals and objectives that
will meet the needs of each young adult.
In order to create a successful postsecondary educational
program that addresses the needs of young adults with ID, mul-
tiple participants identified exploring the differences between
various programs and the methods in which they are delivered.
Through this process, the intentions of each program and the
curriculum utilized can be identified. Replication of one of
these programs is a possibility. However, the entire team felt
that the key points from model programs (as described in cur-
rent literature as well as model programs identified in the future)
should be discussed and evaluated for use in the development
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
of a distinguished postsecondary program. Success of each
program design is dependent on the individual experiences of
the young adults for which it is developed based on their indi-
vidual experiences. Because of this, the focus group determined
that the young adult’s success should be defined in relationship
to the program design to determine which young adults are
successful and which are not. Barriers may be present that pre-
vent young adults from accessing services. Once identified,
these barriers need to be addressed with the program stake-
holders for resolution. In order to gain further support for pro-
gram design, data about the young adults with ID in these pro-
grams will need to be gathered. Through the aforementioned
data, the possible presence of a connection between theory and
postsecondary programs can be identified.
Identification of the culture of the program setting was a
critical component of program design acknowledged by the
group. Concerns about needs of the individuals involved with
the program and their support, living arrangements, and in-
structors were discussed at length. Other concerns ranged from
how supportive the culture in higher education is for these
various PSE programs and how the transition from a mandated
program (provided by the local education agency) to a competi-
tive program would be most likely to occur. There is a distinc-
tion between PSE programs that are solely run by a university
versus those that have an element of dual enrollment (students
are still receiving educational services from their local high
school simultaneously with participation in college/university
courses). Stakeholders also pointed out that there is a third al-
ternative: those programs that are run by the local education
program but are located on a college campus. Each of these
different programs faces different challenges for their connec-
tion to the rest of the campus environment.
Identification of a continuum of supports is needed to further
improve PSE for students with ID and identify those that hold
promise for employment and independent living outcomes for
these individuals. This description of promising practices of
supports may need to be mapped out as a path including exiting
from the postsecondary education program. These stakeholders
were recommending that a transition planning process to facili-
tate the movement from PSE programs to adult lives be identi-
fied. It should not be assumed that the same type of planning
that occurs to facilitate the transition from high school to post-
secondary education will be necessary. Instead, they were iden-
tifying this transition as one that will need to be addressed.
This emergent theme of program design was evident through-
out the analysis and was identified as an important step in pro-
viding opportunities for young adults with ID. Stakeholders
indicated that components of the program design were more
likely determined by the amount of and source of funding and
the outcomes the program staff believed to be most important.
The focus group acknowledged the impact that a successful
program design, based on evidence-based practices and antici-
pated outcomes, would provide for improvements to the overall
quality of life for these young adults with ID.
The need for research has been identified as an important
factor with regard to postsecondary educational opportunities
for young adults with ID. A quote concerning research from the
conference on postsecondary education for these young adults
is as follows:
“We really have to say that there is a real responsibility
for us to establish some foundation of evidence for this
embryonic practice that we hope will grow, but who
Through the process of qualitative analysis of the transcripts,
the focus group determined there is need for research in the
area of postsecondary educational opportunities for young
adults with ID, which is currently in its infancy stage. Visions
of stakeholders need to be identified along with the potential
benefits and incentives, as well as barriers to implementation in
postsecondary institutions. Federal and agency involvement can
provide guidance for university preparation and the impact that
these programs may have on faculty and the student body.
Future research needs to be broad and comprehensive with
studies that include comparisons across program types, identi-
fication of program participants, both external and internal
supports that are needed for success, and establishment of pro-
gram goals. Teacher preparation and appropriate program
staffing were identified by the group as imperative for connect-
ing all the grade levels with postsecondary education, thus
making postsecondary opportunities a part of the continuum of
services. Data collection on the critical variables identified by
the individual teams can be used to document program effec-
tiveness and thus provide support for future postsecondary pro-
grams for young adults with ID.
Research on the outcomes of creating social networks for
young adults with ID through PSE experiences still needs to be
conducted. The results may identify the current state of disabil-
ity awareness and the impact that research on awareness may
have on non-disabled young adults. Team members agreed that
there is a need to expand the understanding of others in regard
to disability being a form of diversity. Research that addresses
education about disability awareness can provide documenta-
tion in regard to the amount of return on disability awareness.
From these results, educational opportunities can be developed
to expand awareness and support for the disability community.
Return on investment was a critical component identified by
the team. Discussion centered on whether the cost for these
future endeavors makes sense given the potential outcomes.
Skill development and future opportunities for young adults
and their families would be the return on investment. The team
acknowledged that this return would have significant life
changes for these young adults with ID, which could improve
their overall quality of life.
The team members agreed that in order to expand the post-
secondary opportunities for young adults with disabilities, sup-
port is needed from the federal, state, and local levels. Two
supporters of this movement are the parents and young adults
with ID as they are the major agents for change for this next
disability movement.
This study was a qualitative review of transcripts from a se-
ries of discussions about the state of PSE for students with ID
from the practitioner, researcher and policymaker experts in the
field. This study included only one data collection method al-
though triangulation was achieved by having multiple re-
searchers, with varying levels of prior knowledge of and sup-
port for PSE programs, participate in the data analysis process.
Using these existing transcripts as the data for this study pro-
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 1127
vided insight into current practices in the field as well as the
challenges to increasing the access to postsecondary education
for students with ID, as discussed by this group of key stake-
holders. However, these are initial findings and point to the
need for further research that includes a range of data collection
strategies to further expand the research on postsecondary edu-
cation for students with ID.
Future studies can and should include multiple data collec-
tion methods including an opportunity to observe current prac-
tices and conduct follow-up interviews with participants to
enhance the credibility of these findings. Despite these limita-
tions, the findings of this study do provide a starting point for
understanding what is happening in a field where there does not
exist a significant evidence-base to guide current practice.
As the field of PSE for persons with ID currently exists there
is a rich mix of programs, from programs serving one or two
students to 150 students, in vast range of learning environments,
and using a variety of instructional and programmatic practices.
The current heterogeneity of the PSE programs lends itself to a
lack of clarity concerning common characteristics amongst
programs. Group participants called for an “organizing of the
fruit salad” that is these PSE programs. The data has truly
brought to light how little communication there is among the
variety of PSE programs and the critical need to supplement the
various model programs in existence with systematic, highly
rigorous research studies. In order to build this newly devel-
oped field, programs need to have a common language by
which to communicate and common goals to work towards.
There is also an intense need for programs to share successful
strategies with others in the field. It is only through this active
collaboration that the field will gain cohesion.
Second, this investigation has brought to light how important
it is for the field of PSE for individuals with ID to clearly iden-
tify their anticipated outcomes and collect data to analyze their
success in achieving them. To create sustainability of this
movement, the field needs to be able to directly link these PSE
programs to improved employment, income, independent living
skills, and self-determination at a minimum. Understanding
how to measure the impact of the PSE programs is essential.
The field needs to continue to discuss what outcomes are de-
sired out of the PSE experience for individuals with ID, as well
as how those variables can be measured.
As this field is growing and developing, funding is crucial. In
the United States current economic situation there are substan-
tial cuts underway, particularly in the Fund for the Improve-
ment of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE) programs in OPE.
The Transition and Postsecondary Programs for Students with
Intellectual Disabilities’ (TPSID) are very labor intensive. Indi-
vidual support professionals are needed in greater numbers,
services need to be provided to very small groups of students,
and often the investment in learning technology is substantial.
Funding will always impact these PSE programs and consider-
ing how to braid multiple funding sources may provide the
necessary supports to maintain these programs. Advocates in
the field need to articulate to multiple agencies and stake-
holders how vital funding is to providing equal access and par-
ticipation for person with ID into PSE.
However, continued funding may not come without under-
standing the potential outcomes of these PSE programs, and
understanding doesn’t come without research. Continued re-
search in this area is essential for the production and dissemina-
tion of knowledge about PSE for individuals with ID. Research
should truly drive this growing field as we gain knowledge of
effective practices and services for people with ID in PSE. To
create a truly sustainable field we need to ask, research, and
understand a variety of key questions including: What should a
PSE program encompass? How will outcomes be measured and
documented? How can information be shared? and How can the
best programs be replicated?
There is growing interest in providing PSE for students with
ID, as evident in the inclusion in the Higher Education Act of
2008, the funding of programs through the Transition Postsec-
ondary programs for Students with ID (TPSID) from the Office
of Postsecondary Education (OPE), and the continued growth
in participation in subsequent conferences on PSE. These pro-
grams provide an opportunity to learn from experience, and
movement forward will occur through continuing to fund such
programs while continuing dialogue as a means of learning
from each other and sharing program evaluation information
describing what is working as well as challenges encountered.
These PSE programs require enough time and monetary re-
sources to implement a full array of services, to improve the
implementation of those services, and to determine the impact
and outcomes from this vastly different range of services.
Lastly, there is a need to conduct rigorous research in the field
to provide the conclusive evidence that program developers and
funders can use to continue to move the field forward and im-
prove the otherwise abysmal outcomes for individuals with ID.
This study highlights the recommendations of key stake-
holders in the field of PSE for students with ID in 2009. Since
that time, a number of these recommendations have been im-
plemented. Annual conferences on PSE for students with ID are
held annually at George Mason University, serving as a mecha-
nism for program staff to share their experiences, policies, and
procedures with each other. Colleagues at the University of
Minnesota have taken on the task of creating a taxonomy to
better understand a variety of program characteristics including:
number of participants, types of coursework, types of accom-
modations and supports, and outcome measures (Institute on
Community Integration, 2011). Other colleagues at the Univer-
sity of Massachusetts at Boston, under the auspices of a training
and technical assistance project called Think College have de-
veloped a set of quality indicators used to help guide PSE pro-
grams to implement recommended practices to increase student
participation/inclusion on college campuses (Grigal, Hart &
Weir, 2011). And research across programs has begun through
a variety of different studies. However, despite the advance-
ments in the field, the recommendations of these stakeholders
continue to be relevant and provide impetus for increased
funding for model program development as well as research.
This paper is intended to promote the exchange of ideas
among researchers and policy makers. The views expressed in
it are part of ongoing research and analysis and do not neces-
sarily reflect the position of the U.S. Department of Educat ion.
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 1129
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