The vast majority of students with disabilities don’t get a college degree

Adam Salomon at his high school graduation. Salomon’s mother, Karen, says he was not prepared for life after high school.

About a third of the students with disabilities who enroll in a four-year college or university graduate within eight years. For those that enroll in two-year schools, the outcomes aren’t much better: 41 percent, according to federal data.

The dismal outcomes aren’t because students with disabilities can’t handle the coursework. The vast majority of special education students can grasp rigorous academic content. Experts estimate that up to 90 percent should be able to graduate high school meeting the same standards as general education students, ready to succeed in college and careers. But high schools often neglect to teach these students the soft skills that will help them in higher education — like how to study, manage their time and self-advocate.

These skills can make the difference between getting a degree or not at a time when America expects a large number of jobs requiring postsecondary education to go unfilled.

A 2011 federal study that followed students for several years after high school graduation found that special education students are less likely to go to and complete college and, if they joined the workforce, earned nearly $4 an hour less than former general education students.

Students with disabilities process information differently, so they need more explicit instruction to develop and use these skills than general education students do. Students with attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD) or specific learning disabilities often have weaknesses with executive function, which makes it harder to organize their time and problem solve. Students with other disabilities, such as autism, may have trouble knowing how to act in social situations. All students with disabilities need to develop strong self-advocacy and communication skills to make sure they’re getting the supports they’re due, especially in the sink-or-swim real world.

Soft skills are “a hugely important thing,” said Robert Tudisco, a New York-based attorney who was diagnosed with ADHD at age 34 He now organizes parent-information sessions to help students with disabilities prepare for life after high school.

Skills like knowing how to ask…

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