A 30 year old white male with short brown hair is wearing a gray suit with pink tie in front of a soft backdrop featuring the branches of a tree and a building
John Andresen is a graduate assistant at the Indiana Institute on Disability and Community and a 3rd year PhD Student studying special education at Indiana University – Bloomington. John is also the current Doctoral Student Intern for the Higher Education Consortium for Special Education (HECSE). John’s research interests include postsecondary programs for students with intellectual disabilities, increasing accessibility in higher education spaces, and federal policymaking regarding teacher education.

Finding and retaining employment is a frustrating pursuit for many individuals with disabilities. One of the impediments is the wage gap between those with and without disabilities. However, research has indicated that in some forms of employment these margins disappear. In a recent U.S. Census Bureau report examining US employment trends, Day and Taylor (2019) found that for some occupations which required 2- or 4- year degrees, there was limited difference between workers with or without disabilities. It would appear that providing more postsecondary educational options has the potential to decrease earnings inequities experienced by individuals with disabilities.

This revelation is not innovative. It has long been acknowledged that postsecondary education is an avenue for increasing personal earnings. While this is true for the population at large, researchers in higher education unfortunately often fail to properly identify individuals with disabilities in their studies. While campuses are increasingly accepting individuals with disabilities, the research community continues to trail behind practice. This is highlighted by a study by Leake and Stodden (2014) that examined higher education journal articles and found that only 11 (1.2%) of the articles explicitly focused on students with disabilities. It is apparent that research on this population is necessary.

For many years, the lack of disability research in higher education could be attributed to the absence of individuals with disabilities on campuses, as many higher education employees believed that educating students with disabilities would not be worth the time and effort to educate these individuals. However, changes began to occur in the 1960’s. Many consider the postsecondary inclusion movement to have begun with Edward V. Roberts, who was admitted into Berkeley and successfully advocated for the supports he needed from the California Department of Rehabilitation. Upon learning of his acceptance, 12 other students with varying disabilities applied to and were accepted into the university and this group lived together on campus. Building upon this achievement, Mr. Roberts and his advisor were awarded grant funding by the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare to facilitate a program to improve services for students with disabilities. Since this time, advancements made via advocacy have guided legislation such as the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Vocational Rehabilitation Act. More recently, the latest reauthorization of the Higher Education Act in 2008 included individuals with intellectual disabilities for the very first time, signaling another major advancement of the inclusion movement in postsecondary education.

Speaking specifically of cognitive limitations, this subpopulation are only beginning to access 2- and 4- year institutions. This is an interesting change, as many students with cognitive disabilities were and still are discouraged from pursuing higher education because of public perceptions and outdated stereotypes. However, research has indicated that the most disadvantaged students in higher education (in terms of social background, achievements, and abilities) are often the most likely individuals to benefit from the experiences of postsecondary education (Brand & Xie, 2010). It is imperative that we, as a field, do a better job of studying the specific impacts of postsecondary education on the employment outcomes of individuals with disabilities, including those with cognitive limitations.

When defining the population of individuals with “cognitive limitations” in postsecondary education, it is useful to rely on the International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health model (ICF) from the World Health Organization (WHO) in order to steer clear of a strict medical model of disability. The ICF model is an ecological framework which classifies disability as a product of the interactions between individuals, the functions to be performed and the surrounding environment. In the example of postsecondary education, disability is considered a product of the interaction between the individual (a collegiate student) the functions to be performed (the intellectually rigorous demands of higher education), and the surrounding environment (the classrooms of campus). By utilizing this framework, we place more emphasis on the environment and functioning, instead of simply relying on strict disability labels such as intellectual disability or autism, allowing for increased generalizability.

A few researchers have begun to study this population and the impacts of postsecondary education on their earnings potential. Unfortunately, many researchers focus their work on specific populations within service providers such as vocational rehabilitation, which provides limited generalizability to the majority of individuals with cognitive limitations. This issue is complex, because few national data sets exist which longitudinally track individuals with cognitive limitations and their experiences in postsecondary education and employment. Still, the research is intriguing and provides the basis for future studies when data sets improve.

What researchers, policymakers, and practitioners need consider now is how to determine the extent of the impacts that postsecondary education can have on the earnings potential for individuals with cognitive limitations. This broad category would include a range of disabilities, including but not limited to learning disabilities, traumatic brain injuries, and intellectual disabilities. All of these groups are increasingly accessing colleges and universities in pursuit of better employment outcomes, and research is needed to determine the extent of the impact on earnings potential.

These students constitute a new frontier for postsecondary education, and research highlighting postsecondary educations impacts on individuals’ earnings potential could provide policymakers and family members the information they need to make decisions about pursuing more postsecondary opportunities for individuals with cognitive limitations. Additionally, there is a specific need for nationally representative data sets that include more disability indicators to ensure that researchers are able to make broad, easily generalizable claims about the impact of postsecondary education on this population. Simply put, it is time to determine the extent of the financial impacts that postsecondary education has on this population, so that we can successfully advocate for expanding postsecondary programs and services for individuals with disabilities.


Brand, J. E., & Xie, Y. (2010). Who benefits most from college? Evidence for negative selection in heterogeneous economic returns to higher education. Am Sociol Rev, 75(2), 273-302.

Day, J. C., & Taylor, D. (2019). Do people with disabilities earn equal pay? Retrieved from https://www.census.gov/library/stories/2019/03/do-people-with-disabilities-earn-equal-pay.html

Leake, D. W., & Stodden, R. A. (2014). Higher Education and DIsability: Past and Future of Underrepresented Populations. Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability, 27(4), 399-408.