Disability Policy and Completion and Retention Rates in Higher Education



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According to the National Council on Disability (2015), students with disabilities attend postsecondary education institutions at similar rates to students without disabilities. Among students that received special education services and had been out of high school for up to eight years, 59 percent enrolled in postsecondary education (Hinz, Arbeit, and Bentz 2017). However, their retention and completion rates are much lower. Only 35 percent of students with disabilities earned a four-year degree in eight years while 60 percent of students finished in six years (National Council on Disability 2015). The question this thesis investigates is, what explains why they experience lower retention and completion rates? Conceivably, lack access and accommodation should be a hindrance to completion and retention rates but federal laws guarantee students with disabilities sufficient means of access and accommodation (Hayes 2009; Bowman 2011; Rothstein 2008), Scholars recognize that while laws and policy adequately address reasonable accommodation and access, actions appear to be lacking when it comes to the inclusion of students with disabilities (Stone 2015; Kurth and Mellard 2006; Huger 2009). Studies show that one of the major factors that influence persistence and completion is student involvement in the academic and social life on campus with faculty, staff, and peers (Kurth and Mellard 2006; Mamiseishvili and Koch 2010). Meanwhile state and federal law are often silent on the topic of inclusion because they have to be reconciled with the universities’ academic freedom policies. To investigate the influence of inclusion on retention and completion rates, this study first considers federal disability policy in higher education and the laws and policy of three states - Texas, New York, and California - relating to access, accommodation, and inclusion. Second, it analyzes the applicability of the model of universal design of instruction (UDI) for the field of disability theory. The UDI includes principles of access, accommodation, and inclusion. Third, the study analyzes the disability policy of one university in three states – University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA), University of Buffalo in New York (UBNY), and University of Houston (UH) and compares their policies to the model of universal design. Of the three states studied, only New York and California, have a law explicitly requiring the inclusion of students with disabilities in the university setting. All three states are active in adopting policies that address inclusion of students with disabilities in higher education. UBNY met the most principles in the UDI model by providing faculty, staff, students, and the overall campus community with the most guidelines, mandates, and trainings. Although UCLA and UH met the same amount of principles, UCLA met each principle to higher degree than UH. UCLA provided faculty and staff training on the principles of UDI whereas UH offered none. Overall, both UCLA and UH offered very few policy guidelines and mandates for the model of UDI and emphasized reasonable accommodation over full inclusion. Overall, full inclusion must be emphasized more in order to improve retention and completion rates among students with disabilities in higher education institutions.



Disability Policy, Higher Education