As indicated, the project investigators began with five topic areas and created an extensive question set to address them: (a) Transition from high school to postsecondary; (b) Postsecondary student demographics and service use; (c) Satisfaction regarding accessibility in postsecondary institutions (d) learning and employment outcomes following participation in postsecondary institutions and (5) institutional disability services structures in postsecondary institutions.
Focus group participants identified a sixth topic area: campus climate related to participation and attitudes of students, instructors, and staff. Participants considered these six areas essential to developing a rich understanding of issues related to disabilities in higher education.
Focus group participants deemed the majority of questions to be of critical importance and validity. This finding represents a triangulation of perspectives between the principal investigators, concepts within the literature base, and stakeholders in the field. Such triangulation is critical to validating the direction of research. Differences in the priorities assigned to specific questions emerged, and several participants suggested that ranking the questions was difficult. One of the respondents commented, “I feel at this stage ranking these questions is arbitrary. Each is pertinent to address and should definitely be included.” Some suggested specific modifications to certain questions and identified additional questions as well. The final list of questions included addressed the six areas identified in the research process (see Tables 2-7).
Discussion Critical Information
The study began with an analysis of the existing literature on students with disabilities in higher education. This revealed a paucity of information that seriously hinders any efforts to effectively serve students and design policy. The team took a first step in addressing this gap by seeking to identify consensus on key areas on which it would be critical to gather information. Six areas emerged: student demographics and service use, satisfaction and access, climate, learning and employment outcomes, and institutional disability services structures and characteristics.
Recognizing that information on students can be difficult to obtain, the MDPE team sought to identify challenges and barriers that would have to be addressed to achieve a viable and useful systemic model. The process of implementing any new policy raises suspicions and concerns among all the various stakeholders in a system, so careful planning and attention to detail in the design is critical.
The challenges and barriers raised by participants can be categorized primarily as falling within two camps, institutional idiosyncrasies and data collection complexities. What follows are the specific issues raised by participants.
One theme that emerged from the focus groups was the importance of context, specifically regarding the differences among each unique institution and between types of institutions. With respect to transition from high school to postsecondary institutions, participants pointed out the significance of the different philosophies embedded within IDEA vs. ADA/504 policies. Specifically, they insisted that this translates into very different expectations for students and attitudes towards them. Stodden and his colleagues (2002) pointed to this as well:
[Secondary schools] are responsible for identifying and assessing students with disabilities, and with developing an Individual Education Program (IEP), that outlines each student’s assistance needs. … secondary schools [tend] to place students with disabilities in special classrooms for all or part of their curricula, [this is] deemed a ‘direct service.’ … At the postsecondary level, students are no longer covered under IDEA and must identify themselves… Postsecondary schools … [provide] “accommodations” based on their type of disability … [and] a minimalist interpretation of the concept of ‘reasonableness’. (p. 3)
Participants also mentioned several issues related to the unique characteristics of postsecondary institutions that can compound this shift in culture, including institutional resources, including personnel, time, and money; institutional mission, especially regarding differences between community colleges and baccalaureate institutions; and structural factors, such as academic scheduling with respect to the length of courses and academic programs, and so on. For example, several participants asserted that transition from high school is a particularly complex issue for community colleges. That is open-enrollment policies of community colleges translate into a student population that is considerably more heterogeneous than that of the majority of baccalaureate institutions with respect to student academic backgrounds and educational goals.
Table 2 Topics 1 and 2 Combined: Transition From High School and Demographics & Services
How many students who had Individual Educational Plans (IEPs) matriculate to your institution?
How many students who had 504 Plans matriculate to your institution?
How many students with disabilities enter your institution through conventional admissions processes?
How many students with disabilities enter your institution through an alternative admissions process?
How many students with disabilities enter your institution annually?
What is the total enrollment of students with disabilities in your institution?
How many students with disabilities enter your institution from home-schooling programs?
How many students with disabilities enrolled full-time? Part-time?
How many students with disabilities are participating in dual/concurrent programs?
How many students with disabilities participate in distance learning programs?
What are the reasons identified by students with disabilities for choosing an institution (e.g. financial support offered, specific program, perceived supportive environment, other)?
How many students receive support from the Illinois Division of Rehabilitation Services?
How do students with disabilities finance their education (e.g. grants, athletic scholarships, other)?
How many students received disability support services over a given year?
What support services are provided (in total and specific to each students with disabilities)?
How often do students with disabilities participate in transition preparation (career fairs, internships, interview training, etc.)?
Table 2 Topics 1 and 2 combined: Transition from High School and Demographics & Services (Cont.)
How many students with disabilities attend the various non-disability specific skills trainings offered by the institution (e.g. information technology use, computer technology use (software/hardware), study skills)?
How do withdrawal rates compare for students with disabilities and cohorts without disabilities?
How many switch enrollment from one community/junior college to another (horizontal transfer)?
How many enroll in a community college after having been at a baccalaureate institution (reverse transfer)?
How many engage in conventional transfer (from a community college to a baccalaureate institution)?
To what extent is architectural inaccessibility a barrier for students with disabilities?
To what extent are design factors in IT barriers to students with disabilities?
What did students with disabilities report as unmet disability service needs?
What did students with disabilities recommend to enhance disability access and support?
Further, some cultural differences relate to the different missions of the general types of institutions. In addition, individual school factors make for unique environments. For example, one respondent indicated that her school has an unusually large number of students who use wheelchairs. This demographic characteristic is both a result of cultural factors and an influence on culture. The primary implication of these institutional differences is that context is a critical component of any attempt to design a model for understanding the experiences and outcomes of students with disabilities in higher education.
Table 3 Topic 3: Satisfaction
How satisfied were students with disabilities with non-academic campus programs related to climate (fraternities/sororities, campus rec., athletics, student govt., music/art/cultural events, etc)?
How satisfied were students with disabilities with the disability support services received?
How satisfied were students with disabilities with the accessibility of admissions processes?
How satisfied were students with disabilities with the accessibility of the new student orientation?
How satisfied were students with disabilities with access in their chosen field of study/major?
How satisfied were students with disabilities with access outside their chosen field of study/major?
How satisfied were students with disabilities with the knowledge of instructors regarding disability support services, and willingness to implement supports?
How satisfied were students with disabilities with ancillary student service programs (e.g., housing, counseling services, career services, health services, financial aid, community/campus transportation, etc)?
Table 4 Topic 4: Learning Outcomes
What were the self-reported learning outcomes of students with disabilities? (regarding disability-specific, academic, and non-academic skills/knowledge)
Did graduating/completing students with disabilities assess their skills as adequate in the following areas: self-management, self-advocacy, use of information technology use of computer technology, other?
How many times did students with disabilities change majors/programs of study?
What were the exiting academic demographics of students with disabilities (program of study, GPA, etc.)?
How many students with disabilities (specifically those with developmental delay) failed to meet the minimum performance requirements of academic courses?
What is the graduation/completion rate of students with disabilities who enroll at your institution?
How many years did students with disabilities require to complete their programs/degrees?
Table 5 Topic 5: Employment Outcomes
How many students with disabilities received a job offer prior to graduation?
How many students with disabilities accepted a job offer prior to graduation?
On average, how soon after graduation do your alumni with disabilities obtain their first job?
How many graduates/completers with disabilities pursue additional education within a year of graduation?
How many graduates/completers with disabilities obtain employment within a year of graduation?
Of students with disabilities graduates/completers who obtain employment within a year of graduation, how many are employed full-time for pay; part-time for pay; not employed for pay? Of those, how many are employed in fields related to their programs/majors?
What were the average salaries of alumni with disabilities (of those employed after one year)?
How satisfied are alumni with disabilities with their current employment?
Table 6 Topic 6: Climate & Accessibility
What number of faculty attend trainings/workshops on disability issues and accommodations yearly?
How often are faculty trainings/workshops on disability issues/accommodations held?
How often do faculty/staff request information/consultation on student accommodation issues?
How many faculty made accessibility related curricular/instructional changes over the past year?
What percent of faculty are informed of responsibilities regarding disability issues in the classroom?
How many internal/external grievances on disability issues have been filed over the past year?
How many of these filings were upheld? Dismissed? under review?
Table 7 Additional Data Interests: Institutional Commitment to Disability Access and Supports
What is the annual expenditure for each institution for disability support services?
What are the income sources for disability services at each institution?
How many personnel are employed in disability support services and what is their expertise or function?
What is the full time equivalent of professional staff and nonacademic staff by area of expertise/function?
How many volunteers are utilized in the coordination and provision of services?
How many students are employed in disability services? How many of these are students with disabilities?
Meaning-Interpretation of Questions
The diversity of Illinois institutions presents significant benefits for students with disabilities; however, that same diversity can serve as an impediment to gathering meaningful data about students. For example, participants pointed out that their institutions differ in the terms used to categorize disabilities. Institutions often arrive at these different terms reactively or in an ad hoc fashion as the need arises. While this practice serves the immediate needs of the institution, the cumulative result is that the educational system at large is crowded with idiosyncrasies that make systematic research and policy-making difficult and limit researchers’ abilities to make accurate observations about the populations are limited. The significance of this diversity in terminology for this project is that the model must include processes to account for diversity without losing the ability to make meaningful analyses of large-scale trends/issues.
Diversity of Student Populations
While any model must account for diversity of terminology to ensure validity in data collection and interpretation, this diversity is something of a byproduct of the autonomy of educational systems. There is another area in which diversity is perhaps a more fundamental characteristic inherent in the subject itself: the population of students with disabilities. In this case, diversity is not an element to manage through development of a common language or some other method of conceptual alignment. Instead, we must explore diversity in the population to develop a rich and comprehensive understanding. Meaningful research of disability issues requires comparisons across and within disability types (including analysis of those who register for services and those who do not), and between the population of students with disabilities and those without. Past data collection efforts have tended to report on all students with disabilities; however, the issues relevant to students with muscular dystrophy, for example, are likely to be quite different from those of students with dyslexia. Therefore, without disaggregation of disability types, it would be difficult, perhaps impossible, to make informed policy decisions and assist in accountability efforts regarding outcomes of students with disabilities.
Data to address the six areas of interest fall primarily within two categories: student information and institutional information. For effective and comprehensive information, we must design the MDPE model to gather data from multiple sources. Some information will come directly from students with and without disabilities to support comparative analyses. Other information will result from mining existing institutional sources.
Though participants agreed that the questions target relevant and high-priority information, the majority raised concerns about the feasibility of obtaining answers. Challenges revolved around issues of logistics, resources and capacity, confidentiality, accountability, and institutional willingness to collect such data. Informants frequently strayed from the task of determining the priority of a given question due to concerns regarding pragmatics and politics of data collection. They had considerable difficulty imagining an ideal situation in which they could have access to whatever information they deemed most important to the needs of students with disabilities.
Unpacking the issue of feasibility by linking it to issues raised by participants helped identify areas the metrics model must address. Though there is considerable overlap and inter-contextuality among issues, examining each individually allows for a design that is more effective.
Many focus group participants raised the issue of logistics. Typical questions included the following:
• Where would information come from?
• Who would do the collecting; who would know the “answers” to different types of questions?
• How would answers be obtained?
• How often would data be collected?
• Where would data be stored?
• Who would have access to the data?
• How would the data be used?
Several pointed out that some information would only be available directly from the students whereas other data would have to come from high school counselors, college admissions departments, and direct service providers. The multiple sources of data would require multiple methods for data collection. For example, admissions and records offices in postsecondary institutions could answer some questions regarding secondary student demographics; however, there is no uniform model for what information is currently available. Institutions design their own admissions applications and set their own requirements. Furthermore, the general categories of data collected also vary across institutional types. To gather information on service use at the secondary level some agreement would need to be established between secondary and postsecondary institutions. This would be challenging enough without taking into consideration confidentiality requirements and data system compatibility. Tracking students from secondary to postsecondary settings is also problematic.
The task of collecting data on postsecondary student demographics and service use is perhaps less daunting in many respects because there are some common models/variables in place; however, the process is still quite involved. Information is readily available on what services are offered at an institution, but accurate data on actual use is less easily obtained.Many disability service units have summative information on service use and anecdotal insights into differences in use across and between disability types and the significance of differences. In-depth understandings are rare.
The reports of disability service providers and their staff can inform questions of satisfaction; however, detailed information and understandings can only come directly from students. The same is true of issues related to institutional climate and attitudes. On the other hand, information regarding institutional disability services structures and characteristics in postsecondary institutions would come from disability services staff and other institutional offices with very little input from students.
Some learning and employment outcomes are available via existing structures to fulfill reporting requirements for IBHE. Other outcomes are more subjective, though no less important, and only students can assess them. This is especially true of outcomes relating to advocacy skills and personal development. In addition, assessments of achievement may vary depending on the perspective of the respondents; that is, students may give quite different answers than staff.
The challenges related to who can provide data are joined with those encountered in simply trying to reach the various informants. Gaining access to those who have left a given institution can be difficult, simply with respect to tracking them down to a valid address or email. Furthermore, such efforts become even more complicated when the informants have disabilities related to communication. The nature of the population exacerbates the difficulties of obtaining meaningful response rates.
Tracking students. Questions and insights regarding where data would come from raised additional considerations. One of the significant challenges highlighted by participants was the complicated and interrelated issues inherent in trying to track down and contact students. Participants noted that there is currently no systematic method in place for tracking students across the K-20 system. The student identifiers used before postsecondary enrollment differ from those used post enrollment. Colleges and universities are moving away from relying on social security numbers for a number of reasons and have begun to use unique identifiers created upon a student’s entry to the institution. Legal and ethical constraints regarding confidentiality further complicate the process. Institutions cannot require students to identify themselves as having a disability. They can only offer the option of self-reporting. The mobility of the student population while in school (both in place of residence and transferring across institutions), the (likely) higher rates of temporary and permanent withdrawal among students with disabilities, and the general mobility of students upon exiting postsecondary institutions adds to the difficulties of any data collection efforts.4
Resources and capacity. Any effort to collect data, much less to analyze it, requires resources, namely time, money, and personnel (including specific needs regarding technical skills for such an undertaking). Focus group participants pointed out that in the current climate of limited resources and belt-tightening, such resources may be hard to come by. One participant addressed this head-on suggesting: “IBHE needs to designate funding and staff if this data is to be obtained.” Of course, resources include much beyond dollars and cents. Personnel, technical expertise, research infrastructure, and time all represent critical necessities for successful empirical research. In light of the differing availability of resources, focus group participants suggested that instruments be developed outside individual institutions and that researchers take advantage of existing resources such as the shared enrollment database and the high school transition forms mandated yearly for students with disabilities from the age of 14.5.
Institutional will and accountability. On top of the challenges mentioned above, institutions may resist efforts to track the experiences and outcomes of their students with disabilities for many reasons. As the previous issues imply, this type of effort would be quite complex and involve considerable investment of university resources. Any effort requiring additional resources in the current fiscal climate raises concern. The small size of the population of students with disabilities might also raise questions regarding the relative efficiency of taking on such a complicated effort.
Participants viewed the complexities and difficulties of data collection efforts as only part of the rationale for resistance, noting that institutions may view data collection efforts as inherently threatening because they can be used to pressure institutions to make changes. Though not suggesting any overt bias against such changes, participants suggested that all institutions resist change, especially when it will require a redistribution of resources.