Digest No. 09 - September 2021

Helping Students with Disabilities Persist in College

Newman, L., J. Madaus, A. Lalor, and H. Javitz. 2020. “Effect of Accessing Supports on Higher Education Persistence of Students with Disabilities.”Journal of Diversity in Higher Education.


How does access to support services help students with disabilities persist through college? Analyzing the National Longitudinal Study 2 (NSLT-2), a nationally representative longitudinal dataset that included a sample of 2,330 college students identified as having a disability in secondary school, the authors used a quasi-experimental study to find out. The authors discovered that the students who had accessed universally available (e.g., writing and math centers) and/or disability-related supports (e.g., disability services) were significantly more likely to persist through their college experience at either two- or four-year colleges. In addition, retention rates were higher for students who accessed services that were universally available (those that do not require disability disclosure).


Traditional success markers, including persistence and graduation rates, are grossly understudied among populations of students with disabilities. In addition, the studies that have addressed these important relationships often have critical flaws. For example, sample sizes are insufficient for making causal inferences, comparative frameworks that interrogate differences between students with and without disabilities are not used, and issues related to people with disabilities and related services are not addressed. The authors of this study, however, do a commendable job approaching the persistence of students with disabilities with rigor, nuance, and sensitivity.

The authors noted that nearly three in five students (almost 60 percent) with disabilities had accessed universally-available (tutors, writing and math centers) and/or disability-related support (disability services); 43 percent had accessed only universally-available but not disability-related support services; and 11 percent had accessed only disability-related support services and not universally-available services.

Overall, the study suggests that all services—those that require disclosure of disabilities and those that do not—helped students persist, at both two- and four-year colleges. Specifically, 75 percent of students who had accessed these services persisted, compared to the nearly 56 percent who did not access any services. Also, persistence rates for students who accessed universal supports reached 79 percent when compared to students who did not access any services and whose persistence rates reached only 51 percent.


Students with disabilities are rarely included in conversations about inclusion, equity, and belonging. The authors correctly point out that, “many campus administrators and staff do not receive disability-related knowledge in their graduate training and in their professional journals, and need additional professional development in order to support students with disabilities” (p. 8). Institutional leaders should examine their faculty development programs to be certain the programs prepare faculty to teach students with disabilities.

About the Authors

Lynn Newman is a principal researcher at the Center for Learning and Development at SRI International.

Joseph Madaus is a professor of educational psychology at the University of Connecticut.

Adam Lalor is the director of the Landmark College Institute for Research and Training.

Harold Javitz is a senior statistician at the Center for Learning and Development at SRI International.

Literature Readers May Wish to Consult

Duquette, C. 2000. “Experiences at University: Perceptions of Students with Disabilities.” Canadian Journal of Higher Education 30: 123–142.

Wagner, M., C. Marder, P. Levine, R. Cameto, T. Cadwallader, and J. Blackorby. 2003. The Individual and Household Characteristics of Youth with Disabilities: A Report from the National Longitudinal Transition Study-2 (NLTS2). Menlo Park, CA: SRI International.

Wessel, R., J. Jones, L. Markle, and C. Westfall. 2009. “Retention and Graduation of Students with Disabilities: Facilitating Student Success.” Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability 21: 116–125.