Are students with disabilities getting lower quality jobs than their peers?

Students with learning needs who graduated in the last five years work fewer hours and are employed in lower paying jobs than graduates without disabilities, survey says
By: | July 6, 2020
Higher ed needs to improve their university career services and STEM access for students with disabilities since a survey recently found that students with special needs who graduated from college are getting lower quality jobs than their peers without disabilities.Getty Images/SDI Productions

Students with disabilities who graduated from college work in lower paying jobs that offer fewer hours than their peers without disabilities.

A survey of nearly 5,000 graduates, half of whom have at least one disability, revealed that students with special needs were just as likely to find employment five years after college as their peers, but their jobs were either part of the gig economy or lower in quality than the careers that students without disabilities found during the same timeframe.

The survey was conducted by the Kessler Foundation, a nonprofit organization that specializes in rehabilitation research and employment funding. While the current report differentiated disabilities, future analyses will provide insights in regards to whether students with certain disabilities outperformed those with others.

“Even though students with and without disabilities had used college services and university career services to an equal degree in our study, there could be a disparity between the quality of jobs because more students with disabilities said they weren’t as satisfied with the career services at their college than those without,” says Director of Employment and Disability Research John O’Neill at the Kessler Foundation. “It would be worthwhile for colleges to address this by identifying if there are accessibility issues in their university career services going forward.”


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Schools can also emulate a New York state program that involved hiring vocational rehabilitation counselors at the college level. The state education department assigned a counselor at every school in the City University of New York system.

Improving STEM access for students with disabilities

The types of courses that students with learning needs enroll in could also potentially affect their career path, the study found. Fewer of these students majored in or took STEM courses which led to fewer getting jobs in STEM as opposed to their peers.

“The National Science Foundation has offered grants to universities that facilitate STEM access in education and careers among students with disabilities but once those grants are over, many universities, to my knowledge, don’t pick up the services that the grant funds provided,” says O’Neill. “Oftentimes, the pay and quality of the jobs that these services help students achieve are often superior to those that don’t.”

Students with special needs and community colleges

The survey found that students with disabilities were more likely to attend or to have obtained their primary degree from a community college than those without disabilities. Additionally, more students with learning needs took community college courses during high school and while attending a four-year school than their peers.

“Historically, associate’s degrees have held a stigma,” says O’Neill, “but there are more students both with and without disabilities who are using community colleges as a first step before moving on to attain a four-year degree and beyond.”