Career, technical education provides pathway for students with disabilities, U-M study shows

May 18, 2021

ANN ARBOR—Career and technical education programs could offer one way of bolstering educational attainment among and providing valuable job skills to students with disabilities, according to a new University of Michigan study.

The research from the Youth Policy Lab looks at career and technical education participation among students with disabilities in Michigan, and shows numerous tangible benefits. Those students who enroll in such programs graduate high school at higher rates compared to observably similar students who do not, and can develop skills that align with in-demand jobs.

The brief, authored by Brian Jacob and Jeremy Guardiola, finds students with disabilities participate in career and technical education at roughly the same rate as other students. Both boys and girls with disabilities are more likely to participate in agriculture and skilled trades programs and less likely to enroll in business and communications programs.

That may not be a bad result, as the skilled trades offer promising labor market prospects in Michigan, they say. This trend holds across genders and most disability types.

The authors find that students with disabilities who ultimately complete a career and technical education program are 48% more likely to graduate high school relative to observably similar students who never enroll in a program. These benefits appear greater for students with disabilities than those without.

Still, the study shows that students with disabilities are less likely to complete the career and technical programs compared to students without disabilities. About half of this gap can be explained by other characteristics, such as socioeconomic status and prior academic achievement. Girls with disabilities are less likely to participate compared to observably similar girls without disabilities.

“This study emphasizes that supporting students with disabilities throughout their educational pathways is a critical policy imperative,” said Guardiola, project manager for the Youth Policy Lab. “Students with disabilities are less likely to graduate high school and enroll in college. It’s important that we look for ways of strengthening these types of academic outcomes that we know influence socioeconomic opportunity.”

Individuals with disabilities face challenges in the labor market as well. Seventy-three percent of working-age adults with disabilities are either not in the labor force—meaning they do not have a job and are not looking for work—or are unemployed. The same is true for just 23% of individuals without disabilities.

“We see that employment levels rise with educational attainment among individuals with disabilities,” said Jacob, professor of public policy, education and economics. “The data suggest that increased educational attainment may provide a buffer against economic insecurity for this population. Considering poverty rates among individuals with disabilities are more than double the rates for individuals without disabilities, this is an important policy objective.”

The analysis is based on datasets from the Michigan Education Data Center housed at the U-M Education Policy Initiative research center in the Ford School of Public Policy. The underlying data come from the Michigan Department of Education’s Michigan Student Data System, the Graduation and Dropout Application, the National Student Clearinghouse, the state Office of Career and Technical Education, and the Department of Education’s Common Core of Data.

More research will be done to dig deeper into the reasons why students with disabilities are less likely to complete career and technical programs once enrolled.

“Given that people with disabilities are more than twice as likely to live in poverty compared to those without disabilities, this is an area where policymakers and practitioners should seek to develop support systems,” Guardiola said.

The study offers two practices that could improve the student retainment:

  • Ensuring career and technical education instructors participate in Individualized Education Program team meetings. These are important conversations where school personnel identify the specialized instruction and support services students with disabilities need to achieve their annual goals.
  • Providing career and technical education instructors with additional training for teaching students with disabilities. Researchers have found that many of these instructors report having received no special needs in-service training at all or had not received any within the previous two years. These same researchers suggest providing ongoing professional development at the local level and working with regional postsecondary institutions to offer special education coursework opportunities.
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