Community Colleges Provide Invaluable Stepping Stone for Autistic Youth


Community colleges may provide a smoother transition to the academic and social challenges that can arise in a university setting. These institutions may be particularly appealing for students with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) to pursue postsecondary education while still remaining at home, where they have the continuity of family support and a consistent environment.

To understand the role of community colleges among students with ASDs, SRI Education’s Center for Education and Human Services analyzed data from the National Longitudinal Transition Study-2 (NLTS2) study that SRI Education conducted for the U.S. Department of Education. Researchers collected data in five two-year intervals from 2001 to 2009 from more than 11,000 high school students aged 13 through 16 (as of December 1, 2000) who were receiving special education services. Approximately 1,100 of the students in the survey received special education services in the ASD category.

Our findings in this largest national study of its kind paint a national picture of college pathways and persistence for college students with ASDs. It also provides empirical evidence that community colleges are an important alternate pathway for students with an ASD to pursue postsecondary education, allowing them to successfully complete college degrees.

Only 32 percent of young adults with ASDs enroll in college at all. We found that the majority of students with ASDs who attended college went to a community college at some point in their young adult lives, which is more than twice that of students in the general population. Those in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields were more likely to persist in a two-year community college and were twice as likely to transfer from a two-year community college to a four-year university as their peers in non-STEM fields.

Our research team found that 81 percent of college students with an ASD had enrolled in a two-year community college at some point in their postsecondary careers. In the general population, it is estimated that between 20 and 37 percent of college students attend two-year community college at some point during their post-secondary education.

Previous work from our group found that 34 percent of college students with ASDs, compared with 23 percent of college students in the general population, declare a STEM major. This new study indicates that students with ASDs in STEM fields were more likely to persist in a two-year community college and were twice as likely to transfer from a two-year community college to a four-year university as their peers in the non-STEM fields.

In the general population, national statistics show that for both STEM and non-STEM majors, 52 percent of bachelor’s degree candidates and 31 percent of associate’s degree candidates persist to complete their degrees. For students with ASDs, the community college persistence rate for STEM majors is much higher, at 81 percent, compared with 47 percent of non-STEM majors.

The ability of an individual with ASDs to pursue and persist with a STEM degree may be a reflection of an individual’s innate ability or drive to construct a rule-based system. Logical and deductive skills are particularly relevant to STEM-related fields.

Our study lends itself to policy implications that could enable students with ASDs to better navigate the college system, such as providing college outreach and retention programs targeted at students with ASDs and providing community college educators with training to provide services specifically for autistic learners.

Future research will determine what the specific barriers are to college graduation and how they vary depending on the specific field of study. The answers will begin to pave the way for determining the specific actions that can help students with ASDs pursue a college education and persist through graduation. My research team will continue to mine the rich data set provided by the NLTS2 for more insight into the education of students with disabilities.

In addition to Wei, the SRI researchers who conducted this study are Elizabeth Christiano, Jennifer Yu, Jose Blackorby and Lynn Newman. Paul Shattuck of the A. J. Drexel Autism Institute at Drexel University in Philadelphia also participated in the research.

SRI research was funded by Grant HRD-1130088 from the National Science Foundation; Grant R324A120012 from the U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences; and Grant R01 MH086489 from the National Institute of Mental Health.

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