New Government Report Finds More Needs to be Done to Help Students with Disabilities Transition to College, Careers

Aug 7, 2012 Issues: Education, Disability Policy


WASHINGTON – a new government report released today found that students with disabilities face several challenges accessing services that may assist them as they transition from high school into postsecondary education or the workforce. The report, issued by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and conducted at the request of U.S. Rep. George Miller (D –Calif.), the senior Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, highlights challenges students with disabilities face accessing federally funded transition services and the extent to which federal agencies coordinate their transition services.

Today, individuals with disabilities have an unemployment rate of 15.2%, nearly double the rate of those without disabilities; and, only about 20% of individuals with disabilities participate in the workforce compared to 69.3% of those without disabilities. Furthermore, despite the successes of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in providing students access to public education, the academic achievement of students with disabilities is still far behind their non-disabled peers.

“Students with disabilities often face academic, physical, social, and economic challenges when transitioning from high school to postsecondary education or the workforce,” said U.S. Rep. George Miller.  “The federal government has a critical role to play in ensuring equal opportunity for these young people at such a pivotal time in life.  While there are federal programs in place to help students overcome transition challenges, we need to improve students’ access to these support services through better coordination, increased use of data, and common outcome goals among the various programs.  I thank Senator Harkin for joining me and working together to make sure those improvements happen.”

“Today’s students with disabilities, the ‘ADA Generation,’ have high expectations for their education and their careers. But statistics show that the deck is still stacked against them when it comes to finding a job and earning a living: high unemployment and low labor force participation rates have stubbornly held for decades,” Senator Harkin said. “As we work to bring more people with disabilities into the labor force, we must ensure that our efforts are well-coordinated, efficient and effective. Transition services to help students succeed in college and careers are vitally important, and I hope that we can use the findings of this report to increase access and make it easier for students and their families to navigate programs that are here to help people with disabilities lead full, independent lives.”

GAO interviewed state and local officials responsible for administering the federal programs that provide transition services, service providers and parents and students with disabilities in five states – California, Florida, Minnesota, Maryland, and Nevada.

GAO found that students with disabilities face several challenges accessing federally funded transition services as they leave high school for postsecondary education or the workforce.  GAO found these challenges include:

  •  Lack of preparedness for postsecondary education or employment.
  • Difficulty navigating multiple programs that are not always coordinated. 
  • Possible delays in services as they wait to move to adult transition programs. 
  • Limited access to transition services.
  • Lack of adequate information for parents, students, and service providers of available programs. 

 GAO found that more federal coordination could lessen the challenges students with disabilities face as they transition from high school to college or careers. For example, differing requirements for adult programs can confuse students and parents. In Minnesota, a parent training and information center found it challenging for parents to navigate the system and coordinate resources for their children across programs. All the states surveyed found that appointing a case manager to coordinate services and guide students and their families through the transition process could help alleviate complexities.

 Given the new finding from the GAO report, Rep. Miller and Senator Harkin, Chairman of the HELP committee and a leader on increasing education and employment opportunities for students with disabilities, sent a letter to the agencies to the three federal agencies with jurisdiction over transition services – the Departments of Education (ED), Health and Human Services (HHS), and Labor (Labor), and the Social Security Administration (SSA) – to address coordination issues and encourage strategic planning to make the complex system work for students and parents.  The letter calls for the agencies to better utilize an existing workgroup focused on coordination of transition programs, the Federal Partners in Transition Workgroup. The letter requests that the workgroup examine the following information:

  • How each agency will share pertinent data across programs and a plan for that data-sharing;
  • How each agency will develop compatible outcome goals for transition service programs and a plan to develop those outcome goals;
  • How each agency will develop and use a single system for the assessment of the effectiveness transition service programs within each agency, and the impact of transition services at the local level and a plan to implement such a system; and
  • Any statutory or regulatory barriers to effectively implementing transition services.

The full text of the letter to ED, HHS, Labor and SSA can be found here.

Read the GAO report.