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Abouth The Author
Cathy W. Hall received her BA degree in psychology from Emory University and Ph.D. from University of Georgia. Her experience includes working as a school psychologist for Oconee County Schools, and serving in a split appointment position at Fort Hays State University as director of the school psychology program and psychologist in Kelly Psychological Service Center. She is currently a professor in the Department of Psychology at East Carolina University. Her research interest include resiliency in relation to adjustment and metacognitive factors. She can be reached by email at:
Developing Accountability Metrics for Students with Disabilities in Higher Education:

Determining Critical Questions

Marya Burke,

Bradley Hedrick

University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign

Sue Ouelette

Northern Illinois University

Thomas Thompson

Harper College

In order to address the significant gap in the availability of information on postsecondary students with disabilities in Illinois, the Illinois Board of Higher Education funded a three-year project to develop a disability metrics model to improve accountability efforts and strategic policy development. The Metrics on Disability and Postsecondary Education (MDPE) team designed the model to determine the extent to which the needs of students with disabilities were being met throughout their educational careers. The project consists of three phases. Phase I sought to identify the critical questions/issues related to disability access that the model needed to address. Phase II focused on instrument development, data collection methods, and implementation of a pilot study. Phase III was dedicated to dissemination across institutions of higher education in Illinois and finalizing the model. This paper reports the activities and findings of Phase I.
The Illinois Board of Higher Education (IBHE) report Gateway to Success: Rethinking Access and Success for a New Century (2002) revealed significant gaps in existing information on students with disabilities in postsecondary education. While national surveys indicated that over 9% of postsecondary students report disabilities (Henderson, 2001), the IBHE report showed a range from less than 1% to 4%. Furthermore, existing data resources and practices were found frequently to be incomplete and difficult to analyze on a system-wide basis, because institutions varied widely in their methods of counting students with disabilities and assessing service provision and quality. Institutions lacked reliable comparative data on the experiences in and benefits of postsecondary education for students with and without disabilities. IBHE determined that to effectively respond to public need, a comprehensive and continuous approach to this issue was needed.

The discrepancies in expected versus reported representation of people with disabilities revealed in comparisons between national surveys and the IBHE report, sent up red flags. Several explanations for the discrepancies might apply; however, identifying a cause was not possible given existing data resources. This dearth of information is not limited to Illinois. As Lex Frieden (2004) of the National Council on Disability points out, “the amount of rigorous, evidence-based research on programs that promote positive outcomes for students with disabilities is severely limited” (p. 6). Furthermore, most existing research has focused on the elementary and secondary levels and on the initial transition period/process from high school to work or postsecondary education.

Demographics on Disability in the United States

Examining the data on people with disabilities provided by the U.S. Census Bureau helps establish a general context. Thus, 2005 American Community Survey found that 12.1% of the population between the ages of 16 and 65 had some type of disability (the relative impact of the disability is not known). When we move beyond “how many” to examine issues such as life experiences, findings of considerable importance emerge. For example, according to the Census Bureau Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP), poverty rates are heavily skewed in relation to disability. In a sample of 149,031 individuals aged 25 to 64 years old, 16.33% had some form of disability and of those, 20.9% were living in poverty. Of those with a “severe” disability (66.25% of all with a disability) 25.9% were in poverty. By comparison, among those with no disability (83.66%), only 7.7% were in poverty (National Center for Education Statistics; 2002). Individuals with disabilities are also less likely to be employed (Frieden, 2004), When they are, they earn less than nondisabled peers. (Stodden, Conway & Chang, 2003).

In addition, persons with disabilities are for example, likely to endure a “layering” of disadvantages due to other demographic characteristics. For example, research suggests that minorities (other than Asians) and people with low incomes are more likely to have a disability. A “catch 22” scenario emerges whereby persons with disabilities are perpetually confronted with challenge and adversity (Horn & Berktold, 1999; Wolanin & Steele, 2004). It is likely that people with disabilities experience similar layering of challenges within the educational system.

Characteristics of Students With Disabilities in Postsecondary Education

Students with disabilities are less likely to pursue postsecondary education (Frieden, 2004). When they do, they are often less well prepared. They are also more likely to enroll in community colleges rather than baccalaureate institutions. This varies somewhat by disability type; however, we know little about what contributes to this trend (Stodden et al., 2003). Many enroll in community colleges with intentions of transferring to baccalaureate institutions1, but the majority (with and without disabilities) do not get there (Horn & Berktold, 1999).

According to the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS, 2000), approximately 9% of all undergraduates reported having a disability (Frieden, 2004). These students tend to be older than their counterparts without disabilities, delay enrollment, and are likely to have more dependents (Wolanin & Steele, 2004). Further, they are more likely to enroll on a half-time basis (George Washington University HEATH Center, 2000 and have lower overall retention rates and take longer to obtain their degrees. (Freiden, 2004; Stodden et al., 2003).2 Finally, though many of the post-graduation experiences of students with and without disabilities are similar, there are troubling differences, including the following:

Those who earn a bachelor's degree appear to have relatively similar early labor market outcomes and graduate school enrollment rates as their counterparts without disabilities ...Students with disabilities however, were more likely to be unemployed. (Horn & Berktold, 1999, p. vii)

Many policies attempt to assist students with disabilities in confronting these challenges. However, the effects of such policies differ by disability type, both within and across education levels (Stodden, Jones, & Chang, 2002).Though we are becoming aware of these differences, we know very little about the consequences they may have for students. As is the case with many underrepresented and underserved groups, complex and overlapping factors that affect student success.

The postsecondary outcomes of students with disabilities, however, may not be directly comparable to those students without disabilities… in addition to the obstacles they may have experienced related to their disabilities, [they] were also more likely to have other experiences and circumstances that potentially conflicted with their schooling. (Horn & Berktold, 1999, p. 41)

As Horn and Berktold suggest, these differences can add to the barriers to success students with disabilities face.
Accommodations and Assessment

The NCSPES provided a broad-stroke picture of the services provided to undergraduates, illuminating some of the differences between baccalaureate and community college institutions.

One of the findings that stand out is that undergraduates “reported much higher use of all types of accommodations at the postsecondary level” (Stodden et al., 2003, p.33). This and other findings suggest that institutional culture has a powerful impact on services provision:

… four-year institutions surveyed are more likely to provide … [services that are] adaptations… such as making on-campus transportation accessible; or, they are services offered to all students, such as career counseling and work study. [two-year institutions] are more likely to [provide services that are] specialized, varied, and focused on serving students with disabilities specifically. (Stodden, p. 34).

Community colleges provided more interpreter services and baccalaureates provided more meta-cognitive, study-skills, and memory-skills training. Impetuses for differences in some service provision are less clear; for example, two-year institutions provided linkages to outside organizations and personnel more often than baccalaureates (Chang & Logan, 2002).

We also know little about postsecondary students’ qualitative experiences with services and the effects of services on outcomes. The counts and comparisons of services offered are often generalized and simply address what might be available, not what students actively use and benefit from (Frieden, 2004). As Stodden and his colleagues point out, “there is very little empirical evidence that actually matches the provision of specific types of assistance with any type of outcome at the postsecondary level” (2003, p. 39).

Problems With Existing Data Collection Methods

Some data collection challenges are inherent in conditions regarding students with disabilities. As Wolanin and Steele (2004) pointed out:

One cannot simply look at the figures of students with disability who have graduated and examine who enrolls in college … every student with a disability who completes high school is not college qualified; many … with a disability delay entry to college, and data … do not adequately capture this delay … students with disabilities may not [self-identify or] seek disability services; … some students are diagnosed … for the first time when they begin college, while others are diagnosed while enrolled … (p. 7)

Such demographic characteristics increase the likelihood of students with disabilities being left out in standard data collection practices of institutions. Many students with disabilities require specific accommodations relating to the format in which information is being presented in order to be able to access it. Researchers often construct surveys and other data collection mechanisms without attention to accessibility and response rates thereby artificially reducing the sample of an already small population.

Other research design elements negatively affect data collection on students with disabilities. Wolanin and Steele (2004) examined the National Longitudinal Transition Study of Special Education (NLTS), the National Educational Longitudinal Survey (NELS), the NPSAS (already mentioned), the Harris Survey of Americans with Disabilities, and the Cooperative Institutional Research Program (CIRP). The construction of these otherwise valuable sources of information is problematic. Specifically, the authors found that, “none of these data sources use the categories of disability outlined in the Americans with Disabilities Act … They also fail to account for those who have a ‘record of such an impairment’ and those who are ‘regarded as having an impairment” (p. 2).3These surveys also lack information on how long the students have lived with their disability and whether the disability has been officially documented. Students may have the option of selecting among a list of disability types; however, the options are often limited and constrain critical information. Thus, respondents with multiple disabilities can select only one category or must prioritize (perhaps arbitrarily) using primary, secondary, and tertiary categorizations.
Statement of Purpose
The MDPE project seeks to address the paucity of information available about students with disabilities in higher education revealed in reviews of the existing literature. A first step in addressing the gap involved reaching a consensus on the focal areas to address. We needed to identify the critical areas where information about students with disabilities and higher education was needed. Recognizing that such information can be difficult to obtain, we also needed to identify the barriers to obtaining information.

The project consisted of three phases. Phase I was to identify the critical questions/issues related to disability access, to assess the extent to which postsecondary institutions in Illinois were collecting such data, and to determine their existing capacity to do so. Phase II involved designing instruments and methods to gather data and pilot test them. Finally, during Phase III, the findings of the pilot as well as additional feedback were used to design a disability metrics model that could be implemented statewide. The remainder of this article will focus on the activities and findings of Phase I.

Preliminary Questions

The literature review highlighted five areas that are critical to effectively address the goals of the project. The MDPE team used these as a template for instrument development.

In addition to these core areas, the team included specific questions drawn directly from the existing literature. Further, project investigators drafted additional questions out of their own knowledge of postsecondary disability services and underrepresented student data metrics.

Focus Groups

Participants. In spring 2005, the MDPE team invited postsecondary disability service providers, ADA coordinators and other institutional liaisons to the IBHE, students with disabilities, parents of students with disabilities, and high school transition specialists to participate in focus groups. The choice of such a wide range of stakeholders attempted to maximize diversity of perspectives. The focus groups were hosted at institutions across Illinois in an effort to reach a geographically representative mix. The MDPE team paid particular attention to institutional type, size, and location. Members of the Association on Higher Education and Disability and the Illinois Advisory Council on the Education of Children with Disabilities recommended specific participants. Disability service directors recommended students for participation. All participants were contacted by phone and via email.

A total of 28 individuals participated in the three focus groups (see Table 1). This sample included representatives from 8 of the 11 public universities and 6 of the 48 public community colleges in Illinois. Each session was to include the following: 2 disability service providers from community colleges and 2 from baccalaureates, 1 parent, 1 student, 1 director of special education. In addition, the three co-principal investigators as well, and group facilitators attend. In actual practice, slightly different combinations were present.

Table 1 Question Development Focus Groups

Position of Participants

Number of Participants

Disability Services Staff


Directors of Disability Services


Student Services Personnel


Directors of Special Education


Institutional Research Personnel








Logistics. Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, and the University of Illinois at Springfield hosted meetings scheduled for two-hour timeframes. Sign language interpreters and computer-assisted real-time transcription services were provided when requested.

Process. The facilitator informed participants that the intent of the focus group was threefold: (a) to review the preliminary set of questions, (b) to solicit comments on the importance of the questions/issues identified and identify questions and/or issues deemed to be of equal or greater importance, and (c) to generate consensus recommendation regarding the final set of questions that the model instruments and methods should be designed to address.

The focus groups encourage three types of interaction. The first two stages were highly structured and directive. First, principal investigators presented a summary of the project goals and design. Participants identified (privately and independently) information/questions they considered most important with respect to students with disabilities in high schools, community colleges, and universities. Next, they shared these ideas and voted for the three questions they found most important in each category.

In the second stage, the facilitator read aloud the set of questions generated by the project investigators. Participants rated questions from highest to lowest priority. They identified questions for elimination or modification, and suggested questions to address issues they felt had been left out. They completed this process independently, and the facilitator limited discussion to obtain a maximum of individual responses.

In the final stage, participants had a more open-ended opportunity to engage in shared discourse about the questions and issues, including potential barriers/challenges related to the development and implementation of a postsecondary disability metrics model.

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