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The Post-High School Outcomes of Youth With Disabilities up to 4 Years After High School
NCSER 2009-3017
April 2009

Executive Summary

At various times in history, changes in economic and social conditions have generated a reconsideration of how best to characterize the life stages through which most individuals in a society progress. Increasingly, researchers contend that changes in the latter part of the 20th century and the early 21st century have brought us to another such time of reconsideration (e.g., Fussell and Furstenberg 2005). They suggest that, among other social shifts, an increasing emphasis on postsecondary education and the growing struggles postadolescents face in becoming economically self-sufficient elongate or postpone the transitions usually associated with adulthood—"completion of schooling, movement from the parental household, entrance into the labor force, formation of partnerships, and the onset of childbearing and parenting" (Furstenberg, Rumbaut, and Settersten 2005, p. 7). Recognizing this reality, a growing body of research focuses on the period of "early adulthood" as distinct from adolescence and full adulthood (e.g., Arnett 2002; 2001).

The National Longitudinal Transition Study-2 (NLTS2), funded by the National Center for Special Education Research at the Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education, provides a unique source of information to help in developing an understanding of the experiences of secondary school students with disabilities nationally as they go through their early adult years. NLTS2 is a 10-year-long study of the characteristics, experiences, and outcomes of a nationally representative sample of youth with disabilities who were 13 to 16 years old and receiving special education services in grade 7 or above, under the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in the 200001 school year. NLTS2 findings generalize to youth with disabilities nationally and to youth in each of the 12 federal special education disability categories in use for students in the NLTS2 age range. The study is designed to collect data on sample members from multiple sources in five waves, beginning in 2001 and ending in 2009.

Much of the information reported in this document comes from youth with disabilities themselves in the form of responses to either a telephone interview or a self-administered mail survey with a subset of key items from the telephone interview1 conducted in 2005, as part of NLTS2's third wave of what will eventually be five waves of data collection, referred to as Wave 3. Data for youth who were reported by parents to be unable to respond to an interview or complete a questionnaire or who did not respond to interview or survey attempts were provided by parents. Data from the three sources were combined for the analyses reported here and subsetted to include only data for out-of-high school youth. In constructing variables that describe youth's experiences since leaving high school, data from the Wave 2 youth telephone interview and mail survey or the Wave 2 parent telephone interview (conducted in 2003) also were used for youth who were out of high school at that time. When similar data are available, comparisons are made between youth with disabilities and the same-age youth in the general population. General population comparison data were taken from The National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, 1997 (NLSY97), 2001 data collection, and from The National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health), Wave 3. Both sets of general population data were collected in 2001 and comparison analyses of these weighted data include a subset of respondents who were out of high school at the time and were 17 to 21 years old in NLSY97 or 18 to 21 years old in Add Health.2

This report focuses on the subset of youth with disabilities who were out of secondary school and 17 to 21 years old when telephone interviews were conducted with their parents and, whenever possible, with youth themselves in 2005. Youth included in this report varied in the length of time they were out of high school, ranging from less than 1 month to 4 years post-high school. NLTS2 findings reported in this document use information collected from these youth or parents to describe the experiences of youth with disabilities in the postsecondary education, employment, independence, and social domains in their first 4 years out of high school. Findings are presented for youth with disabilities as a whole and for those who differ in disability category, length of time out of high school, high school completion status, age, gender, parent's household income, and race/ethnicity.

This report is organized to provide information on out-of-high school youth with disabilities in several key domains, including the following:

  • Postsecondary education enrollment and educational experiences, such as major field of study and support services received.
  • Employment status and characteristics of youth's current or most recent job.
  • Productive engagement in school, work, or preparation for work.
  • Residential independence; the prevalence of marriage, parenting, and sexual behavior; and aspects of their financial independence.
  • Social and community involvement, including friendship activities and community participation in both positive and negative ways.

This executive summary presents all findings related to these key domains that are included in the full report for out-of-high school youth with disabilities as a group as well as all differences between youth who differ in their high-school leaving and demographic characteristics that are significantly different at at least the p < .01 level. Patterns of significant differences between disability categories are noted and illustrated by specific examples of significant findings.


1 Only a subset of items was included in the mail survey because the full set of items was considered too lengthy to be feasible for a mail questionnaire format.
2 Youth with disabilities are included in the general population comparison sample because excluding them would require using self-reported disability data, which frequently are not an accurate indicator of disability, resulting in both over- and underestimations of disability.