Explaining the Disability Gap in Access to Postsecondary Education: The Role of Social Factors
Villenas, Christian Villenas
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Recent changes in the U.S. economy have made access to postsecondary education a major factor in socioeconomic success. This has led to increasing rates of college attendance. However, this trend has masked major differences across demographic groups. While researchers have focused on income and racial gaps in college enrollment, students with disabilities have also struggled to enroll relative to other students. Research on students with disabilities has often attributed this disparity to the disability rather than the social forces that tend to influence other forms of social inequality in educational attainment. Using generalized linear latent and mixed models (gllamm) on the Education Longitudinal Study, a national sample of high school students, this research attempts to understand whether, and why, students with disabilities are at a disadvantage compared with other students in the postsecondary access process (application, admissions, and enrollment). While they are less likely to attend postsecondary education upon high school graduation, it is unclear whether that is due to their disability or other factors, such as socio-demographic and academic characteristics that resemble those of other students whose educational attainment prospects are also bleak, a lack of self-determination in creating their own trajectory, or as a result of the high schools they attend, which might not have the resources and environment (i.e. academic press and student demographics) needed to help students achieve postsecondary access. We also consider whether postsecondary access for students with disabilities is associated with their experience as special education students, an experience that is institutionally imposed on most students with disabilities. Results show that for students with disabilities and those who received special education services, the likelihood of postsecondary access is heavily contingent on completing the application stage. Furthermore, although disability and the receipt of special education services plays a significant and negative role in postsecondary access, these influences are explained by differences in the academic profiles of students with disabilities relative to other students. These findings support the notion that the disability gap in postsecondary access is not just a medical phenomenon but one rooted in the social processes of being a student with a disability.