Longitudinal postschool outcomes of youth with disabilities: findings from the National Longitudinal Transition Study.
This article describes findings from the National Longitudinal Transition Study (NLTS) of Special Education Students regarding trends in the employment, wages, postsecondary education, and residential independence of youth with disabilities in their first 5 years after high school Data from the NLTS indicated strong gains in all four outcome areas over time. In all areas, however, youth with disabilities continued to lag behind their peers in the general population. Several differences between youth in certain disability categories were found regarding employment, postsecondary education, and movement toward independence over time. Longitudinal outcomes also differed widely by gender, ethnicity, and high school completion status.

Exceptional children (Social aspects)
Disability evaluation (Reports)
Employment surveys (Social aspects)
Disabled persons (Social aspects)
Blackorby, Jose
Wagner, Mary
Pub Date:
Name: Exceptional Children Publisher: Council for Exceptional Children Audience: Academic; Professional Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Education; Family and marriage Copyright: COPYRIGHT 1996 Council for Exceptional Children ISSN: 0014-4029
Date: March-April, 1996 Source Volume: v62 Source Issue: n5
Accession Number:
Full Text:
It has been nearly a decade since the transition from school to work for young adults with disabilities became a major focus of debate among advocates, policymakers, parents, researchers, and practitioners. These 10 years have spawned many transition-related programs, as well as substantial follow-up research on the local, state, and national levels. We have learned a great deal. These lessons are especially important and timely for two reasons: (a) the growing emphasis on the measurement of outcomes to assess the effectiveness of school programs and (b) the current policy agenda embodied in the School-to-work Opportunity Act of 1994. We must make the most of what we have learned, so that we understand the results produced by current educational systems and programs and have a baseline against which to compare the effectiveness of future efforts.

The National Longitudinal Transition Study (NLTS) offers a unique opportunity to examine postschool outcomes from a longitudinal perspective for a nationally representative sample of youth with disabilities. Given that the early years after high school have been described as a floundering period for many youth (Halpern, 1992), a view past the first few postschool years is essential to have an accurate picture of youth accomplishments. The NLTS also enables us to examine a diverse set of postschool outcomes. Although, in the past decade, leaders in the transition field have broadened the focus on outcomes to include comprehensive notions of quality of life (Halpern, 1993) and self-determination (Schloss, Alper, & Jayne, 1994), it remains important to measure the component outcomes of such broad constructs. In this article, we describe results from the NLTS regarding the changes over time in three key postschool outcomes of youth with disabilities: employment, postsecondary education, and residential independence.


The postschool employment status of youth with disabilities has been one of the primary concerns of the transition movement, and some measure of employment is found in virtually every example of postschool follow-up research involving people with disabilities. Although success in employment does not necessarily correlate with success in other facets of life (Halpern, 1985), it clearly is a major factor in youths' chances to achieve economic and residential independence. Research suggests that early employment experiences can be influential in the success that youth with disabilities ultimately-achieve in the labor market. Further, early experiences can influence work-related behaviors that may stay with people throughout their working lives (Freeman & Wise, 1982).

Of course, not all jobs are created equal. They differ in terms of wages, challenges, psychological fulfillment, and opportunities for advancement. Indeed, jobs created in the U.S. economy during the 1980s and 1990s have been largely in the low-paying service sector. Thus, it is important to understand not just whether youth with disabilities were able to obtain employment, but something about their jobs, particularly the financial support garnered from them.


In the United States, we have traditionally looked to the educational system to solve social problems, to redress inequality, and to provide opportunity. Most U.S. high school seniors expect to attend at least some college, and almost half of youth expect to complete at least a bachelor's degree (Gardner, 1987).

These beliefs and expectations are well grounded in the reality of modern life. A good education is becoming increasingly important for simply getting and keeping a job. In recent years, the unemployment rate of adult dropouts was almost twice that of high school graduates, whose rate, in turn, was more than twice that of college graduates (Mincer, 1989). Among those who have jobs, the average wage gap between people with various levels of education has grown and promises to continue to grow (Murphy & Welch, 1989).

Postsecondary education, including vocational training, may be particularly important for students with disabilities, who often leave school poorly prepared for work. Students with disabilities drop out of high school in large numbers (Wagner, Blackorby, & Hebbeler, 1993).

Even among those who remain in school through graduation, only about one third have a concentration of vocational courses in a particular skill area; and only slightly more have work experience as part of their vocational training (Blackorby, 1993).


Residential independence, another important focus of the transition movement, implies an assortment of self-sustaining activities and competencies that indicate successful adjustment to adulthood (e.g., Affleck, Edgar, Levine, & Kortering, 1990). Young adults in the United States increasingly are deferring establishing independent households and are remaining longer in their parents' homes (U.S. Department of Commerce, 1991). NLTS data can illuminate the extent to which this trend is apparent for youth with disabilities.

This article describes a national longitudinal perspective on employment, postsecondary education, and residential independence by comparing the postschool experiences of youth with disabilities when they had been out of school up to 2 years with their accomplishments 3 years later. It describes variations in these outcomes by disability category, gender, ethnicity, and high school completion status, factors hypothesized to illuminate important distinctions in the postschool experiences of youth. Where comparable data exist, we compare the finding? for youth with disabilities to those of peers in the general population.


In this article, we focus on selected results from the National Longitudinal Transition Study of Special Education Students (NLTS), conducted by SRI International. This study, congressionally mandated in 1983, was sponsored by the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) of the U.S. Department of Education. The NLTS includes more than 8,000 youth who were ages 13 to 21 and in special education in secondary school in 1985. The NLTS employed a weighted sample that generalizes not only to youth with disabilities nationally as a whole, but separately to each of the 11 federal special education disability categories that were in use in 1985. Within a two-wave longitudinal design (data were collected for the full sample in 1987 and 1990), the NLTS used multiple data-collection strategies (e.g., telephone interviews, analysis of high school transcripts, surveys of teachers and principals) to shed light on the characteristics of youth and their educational experiences, social activities, postschool employment, independence, and use of adult services. Because the NLTS is longitudinal in design, it has tracked changes in outcomes as the youth became young adults.

NLTS Subsample

Because we focus on trends in the experiences of youth after secondary school, findings refer only to the subset of NLTS sample members who already had left secondary school by the initial NLTS data collection (summer/fall 1987). That cohort of youth had been out of secondary school from a few months (e.g., graduates from high school in June 1987) to 2 years (e.g., dropouts from early in the 1985-86 school year) when data first were collected. Data were collected again in 1990 for the same youth, when they had been out of secondary school between 3 and 5 years. Our analyses include only youth for whom data were collected at both points in time so that trends over time can be tracked (although missing data for some items can result in slightly different sample sizes at the two time points).

Specifically, students in this subsample were required to satisfy four conditions: (1) They were enrolled in special education at a secondary school in the 1985-86 school year; (2) they had left secondary school by September 1987; (3) their parent or guardian completed an interview in the first wave of NLTS data collection (summer/fall of 1987); and (4) either the parent or youth completed a telephone interview or mail questionnaire in the second wave of NLTS data-collection (fall/winter of 1990). A sample of 1,990 students met these criteria.

Weighting the NLTS Data

In describing the postschool experiences of students with disabilities over time, we report percentages of students with a particular status or experience (e.g., the percentage achieving competitive employment). Percentages have been weighted to represent youth nationally; they are not percentages of the sample, but estimates for the population of youth with disabilities as a whole and for those in each of 11 federal special education disability categories in use in 1985. For example, values for youth with learning disabilities were weighted more heavily than those for youth with visual impairments when discussing youth as a group because of the significantly greater number of those with learning disabilities in the population as a whole. Factors involved in the weighting algorithm include the geographic area, size, and resources of the school district from which the youth was sample, and the age and primary disability category identified by the school district for each individual in the sample. More than 300 school districts across the United States were sampled and provided the student rosters from which individual students were randomly selected. A more detailed description of the sampling and weighting procedures can be found in Javitz and Wagner (1990, 1993).

Data Sources

Data reported here came from telephone interviews, which focused on many aspects of families and youth, their services, and their in-school and postschool experiences, including employment status, wages, postsecondary education, and residential independence, as discussed here. (Detailed descriptions of the data collection protocols are found in Wagner, Newman, & Shaver, 1989 and Marder, Habina, & Prince, 1992.) The first wave of interviews was conducted entirely with parents because the interview included many family background questions, for which parents were the most appropriate respondents. By 1990, the majority of youth had left secondary school, and many no longer were living with parents. For this reason, youth were considered the desired respondents for the 1990 interview regarding many aspects of their transition experiences. However, pretesting of interview items revealed that youth generally were not accurate respondents about issues related to receipt of services, items for which parents reported more accurately. Further, the nature or severity of many youths' disabilities prevented them from completing telephone interviews for themselves.

To maximize the accuracy of responses regarding services and yet satisfy the desire to have youth report on their own transition experiences if they were able, the 1990 interview was divided into two parts. The first part of the interview focused largely on experiences with services and was conducted with parents. Parents then were asked whether their child could respond accurately for himself or herself by telephone to questions about outcomes. If parents indicated that the youth could respond for himself or herself, the rest of the interview was conducted with the youth. If-parents indicated that a hearing impairment precluded the youth from responding in a telephone interview, the interview was completed with the parent, but a brief mail questionnaire with similar items was sent to the youth. In other cases in which the youth could not respond for himself or herself, interviews were completed with the parent, without a mail questionnaire supplement. Analyses of a subset of items that were answered by both parents and youth suggest that there was no systematic bias attributable to differences in respondent (Wagner, 1992b).

Data Analysis

Findings are presented for youth with disabilities overall and for subgroups that differed in their primary disability category, gender, ethnicity, and high school completion status. Further, we created a comparison group from the general population of youth to use as a benchmark against which to interpret trends in the outcomes of youth with disabilities. The comparison group was drawn from the U.S. Department of Labor's National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY, Center for Human Resource Research, 1988), which contains data for more than 12,000 noninstitutionalized youth who were between the ages of 13 and 21 in 1979 and who have been interviewed annually since 1979 concerning many topics. For comparison purposes, data from the 1979-1983 interviews were used; after those years, youth in the NLSY were generally older than youth in the NLTS.

Significance tests between percentages were performed by taking the squared difference between two proportions divided by the sum of the two squared standard errors and evaluated against critical values associated with the t distribution. We believe that we have sufficiently guarded against Type I error through the use of the increased standard error.



Although the rate of competitive employment rose 11 percentage points for youth with disabilities between the time they had been out of high school up to 2 years and 3 years later (p < .01), it lagged significantly behind the employment rate of youth in the general population, both less than 2 years (46% vs. 59%, p < .001) and 3 to 5 years out of school (57% vs. 69%, p < .001). These NLTS findings are consistent with employment outcomes reported in other follow-up/follow-along studies of youth with disabilities (Affleck et al., 1990; D'Amico, 1991; Edgar, 1987; Hasazi, Gordon, & Roe, 1985; Mithaug, Horiuchi, Fanning, 1985; Sitlington & Frauk, 1990).

Table 1 illustrates the trend over time in the employment status of youth with disabilities. As time passed after high school, many more youth with disabilities had found competitive jobs; and those jobs largely were full-time positions. However, this generally positive trend is contrasted by the finding that nearly 1 in 5 youth with disabilities out of school 3 to 5 years still was not employed and was not looking for work.


Competitive Employment. Table 2 demonstrates that the gap between youth with disabilities and the general population of youth was much less apparent for some youth than for others. For example, increases in the proportion of employed youth were pronounced for those classified as having learning disabilities or mental retardation (12 percentage points, p < .10). Youth classified as having speech impairments also reported a substantial 15 percentage point increase. With these gains, youth with learning disabilities or speech impairments were employed at rates virtually equivalent to the general population of youth 3 to 5 years after high school (70% and 65% vs. 69% for youth in general).


Although the pattern for youth in nearly all of the remaining categories is for more to be employed 3 to 5 years after school than earlier (those classified as hard-of-hearing or deaf/blind are the exceptions), the gains generally were no more than a few percentage points, and none attained statistical significance. Three to 5 years after secondary school, only 17% of youth with multiple disabilities reported being competitively employed, and 22% and 29% of their peers with orthopedic or visual impairments were competitively employed, respectively.

Other youth characteristics also relate to variations in employment experiences. For example, among youth who had been out of school less than 2 years, males were more likely to be competitively employed than females. Further, males found increased success over the 3 years, evidenced by a significant 12 percentage point increase in employment (52% to 64%, p < .01), while the 9 percentage point increase for females failed to attain statistical significance. These relative increases for males and females with disabilities are almost opposite of those observed in the general population, in which young men showed a 9 percentage point gain in employment, compared with 12 points for young women (NLSY).

African-American youth with disabilities were nearly twice as likely to be employed in 1990 as they were in 1987 (p < .01). The increase in the number of whites finding employment was much smaller (53% to 61%, p < .10), and quite similar to the 10 point increase noted for whites in the general population, as measured in the NLSY. However, overall, white youth with disabilities still had greater success in employment than did their African-American peers 3 to 5 years after secondary school (61% vs. 47%, p <.10). Hispanics, had similar levels of employment at both points in time. Finally, completing secondary school appears to have paid off for high school graduates with disabilities. They showed 12 percentage point increase over the 3-year period (65% vs. 53%, p < .05), whereas the gain among dropouts and ageouts (students who stay in school through the maximum age allowable) were not statistically significant. Three to 5 years after high school, graduates were significantly more likely to be employed than were peers who had either dropped out (65% vs. 47%, p < .05) or aged out (65% vs. 37%, p < .001). Although this advantage of graduates over dropouts is similar to that in the general population, the gap separating graduates and dropouts in the general population actually decreased over the same period of time.

Hourly Wages. Although poverty-level wages were quite common for youth with disabilities who were employed in their first 2 years after leaving high school (D'Amico, 1991), their wages were comparable to those earned by noncollege youth of similar ages in the general population. However, Table 3 demonstrates that wage advancement over, time was pronounced for young people with disabilities. The proportion of youth earning more than $6 per hour increased fourfold, from 9% to nearly 40% (p < .001).


Although increases in employment occurred for youth in just a few disability categories, sharp wage increases were realized by working youth in each category. For example, among youth classified as having serious emotional disturbances, 40 percentage points more youth earned more than $6 per hour 3 to 5 years after high school than had earned that wage 3 years earlier (p < .001).

Moreover, the increase in median wages more than kept pace with the rate of inflation, suggesting that a real increase in earning power occurred. The Consumer Price Index, the U.S. government's most closely watched measure of inflation, rose about 13% from 1987 to 1990.

Meanwhile, the median wages of employed youth with disabilities rose about 43% overall and by not less than 31% for youth in any disability category. By this standard, working youth were making substantial progress in their careers.

Males and females both realized sizable increases in earnings, from 11% to 44% earning more than $6 per hour (p < .001) for males and from 1% to 23% for females (p <.01). However, males were significantly more likely than females to be high-wage earners 3 to 5 years after secondary school (44% vs. 23%, p < .05), suggesting that the wage gap between genders was widening.

Both whites (9% vs. 46%, p < .001) and Hispanics (1% vs. 25%, p < .01) saw the percentage of high-wage earners jump substantially, although African-American youth did not experience the same increase. Three to 5 years out of high school, whites were more likely than others to be high-wage earners, significantly so when compared with African Americans (46% vs. 14%, p < .01). High school graduates (7% vs. 42%, p < .001) and dropouts (11% vs. 38%, p < .05) had strong increases in wages over the 3-year period. Youth who aged out, on the other hand, did not experience such growth in wages.

Postsecondary Education

When youth with disabilities had been out of school up to 2 years, only 14% were reported to have attended some type of postsecondary school during the preceding year, compared with 53% for youth in the general population who had been out of school about the same length of time (p < .001). Three years later, an additional 13% of youth with disabilities were reported to have attended postsecondary schools at some time after leaving secondary school. (See Table 4). This increase in enrollment suggests that almost as many youth with disabilities delayed entry into postsecondary schools for several years as began their postsecondary studies immediately after secondary school.


Large increases in enrollment were not unique to youth with disabilities, however. About 15% of youth in the general population also appear to have begun their postsecondary studies after a delay. Thus, the gap between youth with disabilities and youth in general that existed when they had been out of school less than 2 years persisted when they had been out of school 3 to 5 years. At that time, only 27% of youth with disabilities had ever attended postsecondary school, compared with 68% of youth in general (p < .001). Even when data for the general population of youth are adjusted to match youth with disabilities for gender, ethnic background, and head of household's educational level, youth in the general population show a significantly higher enrollment rate in postsecondary schools than do youth with disabilities (47%, p < .001).

Despite the fact that enrollment rates for youth with disabilities as a group were lower than those of youth in general, youth in some disability categories were significantly more likely than others to have been postsecondary students. When youth had been out of secondary school up to 2 years, enrollment gates ranged from 4% of youth classified with multiple disabilities to more than 30% of youth classified with speech or visual impairments or deafness. There were significant increases in cumulative enrollment rates for youth in many disability categories, ranging from 15 percentage points for youth with speech impairments (p < .10) to 32 percentage points for youth classified with hearing impairments (p < .01). Among youth classified with learning disabilities, serious emotional disturbance, mental retardation, or multiple disabilities, the percentage of youth ever enrolled did not increase significantly. Thus, 3 to 5 years after leaving secondary school, the frequency with which youth had ever attended, postsecondary schools ranged from 9% of youth classified with multiple disabilities to 60% of youth classified with hearing impairments or
Gale Copyright:
Copyright 1996 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.