US Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, & Pensions

Statement of Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) At the HELP Committee Hearing: “Promoting College Access and Success For Students With Disabilities”

Thursday, February 27, 2014

*As Prepared for Delivery*

“Today’s roundtable will focus on how students with disabilities are accessing and persisting throughout postsecondary education.  This roundtable marks our sixth in a series to examine issues we plan to address in the upcoming reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.  And our review of this topic couldn’t come at a better time.  According to just-released research by the Pew Research Center, the value of a college education has never been greater.  No matter how you measure it, young college graduates do significantly better than their less-educated peers.  College graduates earn higher salaries.  They are more likely to work full-time, and they are less likely to be unemployed than their peers who don’t attend college.  Today, the income disparity between college graduates and those with a high school diploma is wider than at any time since this comparison was first tracked in 1965. 

“As this Committee examines how to improve educational opportunities and outcomes for all Americans, we must remember to include our fellow citizens with disabilities to ensure they have access to post-secondary education and to succeed once enrolled in those programs.  To provide those opportunities, we need to understand the barriers students with disabilities face, and the services and supports that facilitate their success. 

“Postsecondary education is a primary goal for more than 80 percent of high school students with disabilities.  Sixty percent of young adults with disabilities enroll in postsecondary education, compared to 67 percent of young adults without a disability.  Among those who enroll in college, 41 percent graduate, compared to 52 percent of those without disabilities.  We must better understand why students with disabilities are more likely to drop out of post-secondary programs and what will attract them to enroll and keep them in programs so that they are successful.   

“There is a great deal of diversity in the population of college-age students with disabilities today, and the accommodations that are required to meet their needs are just as diverse.  A blind student may need printed materials in different formats.  A deaf student may need interpreters or captioning services.  A student with physical disabilities must be able to navigate the campus.  Students with psychiatric disabilities may need confidential counseling and flexible timelines for coursework completion to accommodate the often episodic nature of their disabilities.  And students with intellectual disabilities need inclusive, on-campus college programs to facilitate their continued learning, and their successful transition from high school to the world of work.

“We know there is much work to be done to meet President Obama’s goal of having the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by the year 2020.  A critical step toward meeting that goal is to make sure that we fully include students with disabilities in our efforts to promote college access and success among our young people.  We must have the highest expectations for all of our young people, including those with disabilities. 

“And once students with disabilities arrive on campuses, we need to ensure they have the supports and services necessary to succeed in their programs.  So what should the federal role be in promoting the success of college students with disabilities?  

“Our panel of experts who have joined us today will hopefully shed some light on that question. Today, we will hear from those closest to this question—program administrators and students themselves.  The students will share with us the barriers that they have faced, the successes they have achieved, and the supports and services that may have helped them along the way.  And I expect that all of our panelists will provide us with suggestions about how to both make post-secondary programs inviting to youth with disabilities and ways to make sure there are the opportunities to be successful.  

“The young people with disabilities who now are attending post-secondary programs are part of what I call the ‘ADA Generation.’  They have grown up with the Americans with Disabilities Act, which promises them the kind of access and opportunity denied to people with disabilities in the past.  They have been educated alongside their non-disabled peers. They know that postsecondary education can open doors for them, and they want their fair shot at the American dream. 

“I’m eager to hear from each of you about your experiences and how we can strengthen the Higher Education Act to support the success of students with disabilities.  I expect our participants to share their expertise, as well as their recommendations on how we can improve rates of college enrollment, retention and graduation of students with disabilities. Our goal is to have an open discussion that informs the ongoing bipartisan efforts to reauthorize the Higher Education Act.”  

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