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Transition of Students with Disabilities from School to College

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Transitions are scary. As a college student, I realize that I am a creature of habit. I am comfortable with the idea of having a routine and knowing what to expect. But, as for everyone, life is full of transitions. One transition in particular that is challenging for most young people is the transition from high school to adulthood, and for students living with a disability, this is especially difficult. During these years of transition, there are a lot of expectations. Society expects all young people to acquire the skills needed in maturing and developing a social identity. But, what happens for students with disabilities when they leave high school? How do we compare the obstacles students with disabilities face in order for a successful transition, to students without disabilities?

Since 1975, students with disabilities were provided educational rights by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, also referred to as IDEA. The main purpose of IDEA is “to ensure that all children with disabilities have available to them a free appropriate public education that emphasizes special education and related services designed to meet their unique needs and prepare them for further education, employment, and independent living.” When the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act is implemented correctly, students with disabilities are guaranteed a more productive and functioning transition process. It is critical that this act be taken seriously; unfortunately, recent studies have shown that not all students with disabilities are getting the appropriate transition services as mandated in IDEA. This has resulted in many students leaving high school unprepared to meet the challenges of adulthood.

Transition Process

Far too many students with disabilities are facing disadvantages. As written in Exceptional Children: An Introduction to Special Education, “the graduation rate for students with disabilities is approximately 60%, significantly lower than the 80% graduation rate for the general population”. This statistic shows one of the many obstacles that students with disabilities face. Other obstacles include: limited opportunities created by low expectations or discrimination, the absence of needed supports, and loss of self worth. Recognizing these challenges, along with considering other factors like post-secondary education, and the development of career and independence skills, is the first step to ensuring a successful transition for students with disabilities. But, the transition process does not just start there. With any process, there must be a plan.

Transition Plan

It is apparent that in order to promote a healthy and productive transition, it is helpful to plan ahead. For students with disabilities, the first step in planning is developing a transition plan. As described in “Special Education Transition Predictors for Post-School Success: Findings From the Field,” a transition plan is a section in a student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) that outlines a student’s transition goals and services needed.

An effective transition plan will not only take into consideration a student’s goals, needs, and preferences, but also consideration of post-secondary education, and adult living. This takes team effort as students, members of the family, teachers, and school administration must work together to guide a student through the transition process.

The first step to the transition plan is an age-appropriate assessment. The intention of this assessment is to increase the student’s self worth, confidence and success while keeping the student’s strengths and interests in mind. Some questions asked during this assessment may include: “What are my unique talents and interests?” “What do I want in life, now and in the future?” and, “What are some of life’s demands that I can meet now?”. We can ask this in a number of ways, whether it be informal assessments such as interviews, and anecdotal records or formal measures including: assessments of the students academic skills, and adaptive behavior. This assessment is to be updated annually, as it is tied to the student’s goals and needs that are represented in the student’s Individualized Education Program.

Post-Secondary Goals

Once this assessment is done is when measurable post secondary goals can be formed. This is where the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act plays another substantial role. According to research by Sprunger, Harvey, and Quick the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act mandates “coordinated activities designed with an outcome-oriented process, which would include employment, continuing education, adult services, and independent living as a part of transition so as to support the movement from school to post-school activities”.

This requirement allows students with disabilities to prosper and be able to identify their future goals. The goals must be realistic to where the student is in life; this is not about being pursued toward a certain decision. The IEP team members must allow the student to demonstrate self-determination and decision-making by allowing the student to share their vision for the future. This goal is to be rewritten and remeasured annually.

Summary of Performance

After developing a student’s Individualized Education Program with their annual goals and services needed, IDEA requires a summary of performance. A summary of performance basically takes all data collected on the student and compiles it into one section. This will include the student’s academic achievement, and performance, while making recommendations for what the student should do to reach their goals. The intent of this summary is to provide assistance to the student and ultimately enhance their post-school outcomes. This is to be completed in the final year of the student’s high school education, so that it includes the most updated information. Just with any other step, engaging students in the development of the summary of performance allows the student to speak freely and comfortably.


Many studies show that there are a number of opportunities and programs available post- graduation for students with disabilities. Programs include ‘two- and four-year colleges and universities, trade and vocational schools, adult education programs, and employment outcomes in competitive integrated employment or supported employment”. If a student is planning on attending college there are a number of steps to be taken in order to choose the right college. Steps that students with disabilities are encouraged to take are provided in “A Transition Guide; To Post Secondary Education and Employment For Students and Youth With Disabilities”. Steps include: taking interesting and challenging courses to prepare for college, being involved in school or community based activities, and being an active member in IEP programs. It is also really important to consider a college environment that provides students with disabilities with support services and programs, so that those students can perform to the best of their ability.

For a student with disabilities it is important to obtain as much work experience as possible, in order to be more prepared for adult life. Obtaining and holding a job is a major challenge for young adults with disabilities. In Exceptional Children: An Introduction to Special Education, author’s state that young adults with disabilities typically have fewer employment options, as their abilities may be limited. This fact must be acknowledged because when a young adult with disabilities does manage to hold a job, it serves as a confidence booster. It provides the young adult with a new sense of pride and satisfaction. This should evoke a sense of respect for young adults with disabilities.


Put simply, the awareness that students with disabilities need guidance to transition successfully from high school to young adulthood is not enough. Teachers, family members, and school professionals must form together to make a plan of action and guide students into and through preparation. Without guidance and respect for the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, we will be failing at helping our students flourish through adulthood.  

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Transition of Students With Disabilities from School to College. (2022, May 24). GradesFixer. Retrieved June 29, 2022, from
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