The Plight of Students with Disabilities in Higher Education

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Caelan Fraschetti

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The I.C.U. Project
May 15, 2019
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The Plight of Students with Disabilities in Higher Education

Getty Images/iStockphoto

Getty Images/iStockphoto

Getty Images/iStockphoto

In recent years, support for students with disabilities has become a top priority of educational institutions in the United States. On January 11 of 2017, the case of Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District was presented before the Supreme Court. Endrew, a 5th-grade student with autism, was believed by his parents to not be getting an adequate education. They sued the Douglas County School District under the Individuals with Disabilities Act for reimbursement of Endrew’s private school tuition. The Court ruled that children with disabilities must be offered an Individualized Education Plan. This means they must be included in the classroom and provided the chance to graduate without being held back.

According to the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress, 92% of 8th graders with disabilities in the country were not proficient in reading and math. Of the seniors in high school with disabilities, 88% were not proficient in reading, and as many as 96% of students not proficient in math. While these statistics are four years old, these have had little change over time, and that is appalling.

Now, these proficiency rates are bad enough on their own, but the compounded issue is with higher education. Data collected by The Hechinger Report reveals that fewer than 35% of students graduate from four-year universities within an eight-year span. In August of 2017, reporter Autumn Arnett interviewed Beacon College President George Hagerty, a strong advocate for the implementation of programs for students with disabilities. In one of his most enlightening quotes, Hagerty stated that he had “never seen what people call [a learning disabled] student. They have the same strengths and ambitions as other students, they just have an island of challenge that you don’t want to become the landscape of their life.” This idea of an “island of challenge” recognizes that students with disabilities are the same as every other student, just with a different set of challenges.

Often times, the greatest struggle for students with disabilities in higher education is caring for themselves. For some, this manifests itself as an inability to manage personal care. Others, however, simply can not manage the workload. By the time they reach college, it can be extremely difficult to adapt to independence, as many are used to an intensive support network. Research suggests that one of the greatest benefits to these students is teaching them time management and organizational skills compatible with their disability. If the focus is solely on moving them onto the next grade, without establishing a solid foundation, they are doomed to fail.

This is not to say that schools are not trying. Rather, the issue in many cases is simply a lack of resources in the form of human capital. Teachers can have the right intentions, but without proper training to handle students with disabilities, their efforts may actually worsen the students’ proficiencies. On top of this, regular teachers don’t have the time to dedicate to these students as they tend to require more explicit instruction, and need hands-on attention, especially at a young age.

Students with disabilities need help to identify their strengths and weaknesses. The more they understand themselves, the less help they will need as they progress, and the greater their ability will be to advocate for themselves. With the proper support and resources, any student is capable of success in college and beyond.


Works Cited


Alter, Mark, et al. “Four Ways Schools Fail Special Education Students.” Education Week, Editorial Project in Education, 20 Feb. 2019,

Arnett, Autumn. “Moving Past Students’ ‘Islands of Challenge’ to Encourage Academic Success.” Education Dive, 5 Apr. 2017,

Chatlani, Shalina. “Report Finds Higher Ed Is Failing Students with Disabilities.” Education Dive, 15 Nov. 2017,

“Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District.” Oyez,

Hartwell-Walker, Marie. “Success in College Despite Learning Disabilities.” Psych Central, Psych, 8 Oct. 2018,

Mader, Jackie, and Sarah Butrymowicz. “The Vast Majority of Students with Disabilities Don’t Get a College Degree.” The Hechinger Report, The Hechinger Report, 22 Nov. 2017,

“Measuring Status and Change in NAEP Inclusion Rates of Students with Disabilities.” National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) Home Page, a Part of the U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics,

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