High school students with disabilities face obstacles in their transition to adulthood and—compared with their peers without disabilities—typically underperform in postsecondary education and the workforce, with lower earnings, lower employment rates, and lower rates of postsecondary school enrollment. Young people with disabilities are also more likely to enroll in public welfare and disability programs to receive cash and other benefits, and a substantial proportion continue to receive disability benefits into adulthood. Fortunately, research suggests that coordinated education, training, and work-based-learning experiences could help youth with disabilities transition to adulthood and avoid negative outcomes later in life.
In 2016, the Rehabilitation Services Administration, part of the U.S. Department of Education, awarded grants to state vocational rehabilitation agencies to build on the body of knowledge about what works to help young people transition from high school to adulthood. States had to identify and demonstrate evidence-based practices for providing work-based learning experiences in integrated settings. Mathematica evaluated the resulting demonstration in Vermont called Linking Learning to Careers.
Under the demonstration, the Vermont Division of Vocational Rehabilitation enhanced and customized the education and employment services that it usually offers to students with disabilities. Under the demonstration, the agency offered students college exploration opportunities, dedicated assistive technology support, funding for transportation, and other supports that went beyond the typical work-based learning experiences the state provides.
On this episode of On the Evidence, guests from the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation and Mathematica reflect on successes and challenges in implementing the demonstration as well as lessons for other states interested in trying a similar program for transition-age youth with disabilities. Our guests for this episode are Rich Tulikangas, Emma Page, Diane Torres, and Purvi Sevak.
- Tulikangas is the director of Linking Learning to Careers for the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation.
- Page is a youth employment specialist for the Vermont Association of Business Industry and Rehabilitation in Addison County, Vermont.
- Torres is a senior transition counselor for the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation and the career consultant for Linking Learning to Careers in Bennington, Vermont.
- Sevak is a principal researcher at Mathematica who studies disability, health, and employment policy. She led the impact evaluation of the Linking Learning to Careers demonstration.
This episode was made possible through funding from the Vermont Division of Vocational Rehabilitation under a grant from the U.S. Department of Education.
Listen to the full episode.
Hi there. I’m J.B. Wogan from Mathematica, and welcome back to On the Evidence, a show that examines what we know about today’s most urgent challenges and how we can make progress in addressing them.
On this episode, we are going to focus on evidence from a five-year statewide initiative in Vermont to improve the college and career readiness of high school students with disabilities.
In general, high school students with disabilities face obstacles in their transition to adulthood and— compared with their peers without disabilities—typically underperform in both postsecondary education and the workforce.
In 2016, the Rehabilitation Services Administration, which is part of the U.S. Department of Education, awarded grants to state vocational rehabilitation agencies to identify and demonstrate evidence-based practices for providing work-based learning experiences in integrated settings.
One of the five states to receive a grant was Vermont, and my colleagues at Mathematica evaluated the resulting demonstration, which was called Linking Learning to Careers.
Under the demonstration, the Vermont Division of Vocational Rehabilitation sought to improve the college and career readiness of high school students with disabilities by enhancing and customizing the education and employment services that it usually offers to students.
This episode was made possible through funding from the Vermont Division of Vocational Rehabilitation under a grant from the U.S. Department of Education.
We’ll get into the impacts of the demonstration in greater depth during the interview, but Mathematica did find that, compared to a control group, the demonstration increased high school students’ use of services and increased college enrollment. The impacts on employment were less clear, but there were encouraging signs for the second half of students who enrolled in the demonstration.
My guests for this episode are Rich Tulikangas, Emma Page, Diane Torres, and Purvi Sevak.
Rich is the director of Linking Learning to Careers for the state of Vermont’s Division of Vocational Rehabilitation.
Emma is a youth employment specialist for the Vermont Association of Business Industry and Rehabilitation in Addison County, Vermont. She works with high school students and young adults in progressing along their career paths.
Diane is a senior transition counselor for the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation as well as the career consultant for Linking Learning to Careers in Bennington, Vermont.
Purvi is a principal researcher at Mathematica, where she studies disability, health, and employment policy. She also led the impact evaluation of the Linking Learning to Careers demonstration.
I hope you enjoy the episode.
So today we're going to be talking about a demonstration in Vermont funded by the U.S. Department of Education that involved evidence-based, work-based learning experiences. I thought we could start by just providing some definitions for audiences who may not be familiar with some of these terms.
Purvi, perhaps you can start us off. What is work-based learning, and why is it important for the transition of youth with disabilities to either college and/or a career?
Sure, I'll probably hand it over to our friends in Vermont to explain more. I can speak about it from a research point of view. Work-based learning experiences are one of the few services that the literature has shown are predictive of successful employment in young adulthood. And so the purpose of this demonstration was to test the model that included work-based learning experiences to see how it impacted transition-aged youth with disabilities.
Yeah, I think I would just add that work-based learning experiences -- an important distinction is that they directly engage students with community employers. There's a lot of different ways that that can happen, anywhere from informational interviews or doing a work site visit and tour to something like a job shadow or longer-term experiences that may be paid or unpaid and ultimately leading to competitive integrated employment, ideally.
Rich, how common or new is work-based learning as an approach practiced by state vocational rehab agencies?
Well, it's certainly an integral of our pre-employment transition services for youth that engage with Voc Rehab across the state. It, I think, has greater importance as a result of our Linking Learning to Careers initiative, which emphasized importance of students having these experiences. So it was an opportunity for us to expand those opportunities for students across Vermont.
Before we get into the demonstration and the evaluation that we'll be discussing today, I'm hoping you can give me a little bit of a sense of the stakes involved here. Why is it such a pressing issue for both federal, state, and local entities to try and improve the situation for students with disabilities for transitioning at this phase of their lives?
Well, I think there's a lot of evidence that when students during high school have the opportunity to have work-based learning experiences, there are much better outcomes in terms of their employment later on; their level of earnings; how they feel about their career pathways and the work that they're pursuing. And for students with disabilities, it's even more important and seems to have an even greater impact based on some of the research that's been done.
Okay. Before I move on, is there anything anyone would like to add about the stakes or the need to improve in this area?
I'll just add that while there's some evidence of the importance of work-based learning experiences while in high school, it has limited evidence. So part of the motivation for this demonstration was to generate more rigorous evidence. Some of the evidence out there – it's just been limited. So these demonstrations were funded to focus on youth with disabilities and to test the impact of work-based learning experiences in a more rigorous setting.
Is that, it's limited in the sense that it hasn't been studied much or that it's been studied but the evidence hasn't been strong, or both?
No, it just hasn't been studied much. There's one paper in particular that's cited over and over, and it's dated. For the field, it's important to have more recent evidence given policy changes and to have evidence that is less subject to concerns about selection bias or generalizability.
So as I mentioned before, there was a demonstration in Vermont that we'll be talking about today; and Mathematica evaluated the impacts of that demonstration. So I was hoping we could touch on the high-level takeaways from the impacts of work-based learning in Vermont from this demonstration.
So we examined the impacts of the Linking Learning to Careers Demonstration on outcomes in three broad areas – the use of services, VR services; education, including high school completion and postsecondary or college education; and employment. We found that the demonstration led to a large increase in service use; first and foremost, work-based learning experiences. More than two-thirds of the youth in the demonstration had a work-based learning experience; and that's a rate that was substantially higher than for youth in a control group that was very similar in characteristics to the demonstration group.
The demonstration also led to an increase in postsecondary education enrollment, college enrollment. Nearly one-third of the youth that were in the demonstration group had enrolled in college, again a rate that was significantly higher than for the control group.
We found that the demonstration led to an increase in employment rates for some youths, specifically those that enrolled in the demonstration in more recent months, but not for all of youths. Two-thirds of the youths in the full demonstration group had a paid job at some point after enrollment.
So beyond those quantifiable impacts from the evaluation, I'm curious how the demonstration went from kind of an on-the-ground perspective.
Emma or Diane, perhaps you could speak to that.
I think my biggest takeaway from the program is just how much it gave students a built-in network, which is super important especially in a rural state like Vermont. It gave them people, references, mentors – people that are in the working world that can show them what it takes to move up in a career. So that was definitely one of my biggest takeaways.
Also, being able to hold onto the students past high school – that's actually something we're implementing now in Voc Rehab in VABIR statewide because it just allowed for a continuity of services, sticking with the same people and helping them with that transition into adulthood was huge.
Yeah, and I would second that -- that continuity. In the past when they worked with us, they would transfer to an adult counselor upon graduation; and there was definitely a loss in contact. About 30% would continue to engage, and we'd lose the other 70%. With LLC, we noticed a much larger continuation of engagement. So I think that was a big piece of it. Just knowing that there was the same person that they were going to work with had a huge impact positively on them continuing engagement – and not just continuing to keep a case open but continuing to grow, continuing to access education that they may not have had opportunities for prior to this, and pursuing certifications or associates degrees or competitive employment, whatever their career goals were.
Rich, what about from your perspective? How do you think the demonstration went?
Well, I think it clearly engaged a lot more students in what we called our "enhanced services group," the ones who were randomly selected to participate in Linking Learning to Careers. Yeah, I just think that in my experience with the project that students who were in especially longer-term work-based learning experiences were just more engaged in a lot of ways. They, in some cases, were more engaged in school because they saw this as a connective experience. Yeah, I think it had a huge impact. Some of the things that Emma touched on around mentorship and building their own personal networks I think are extremely important.
So one thing that's worth noting is that the demonstration in Vermont was a specific take on work-based learning. The model was called Linking Learning to Careers. Perhaps we should talk a little bit about how that's different from the way it was implemented in other states. I know, for example, that there were other supports and services that students with disabilities benefitted from.
Sure, so in terms of the Linking Learning to Careers model, first of all each of the states took a little different approach to which kinds of work-based learning experiences they wanted to implement and test. In our case, we decided we wanted to give students ideally three distinct work-based learning experiences – job shadows, longer-term unpaid experiences, and competitive integrated employment. So that's what we wanted to measure.
In the process of implementing our work-based learning, we discovered a couple of things. One is that most students already had job shadowing experiences, either in middle school or earlier in school. So that became less of an emphasis for us as we moved forward and less important because students in general were ready for longer-term work-based learning experiences. So that became the focus of what we did.
In addition, the Vermont model, we really wanted to go beyond work-based learning and look at a couple of additional services and how they impact young people in high school. So for us, postsecondary exploration became very important. So we designed a number of different ways that students could learn more about and experience postsecondary education. We have a wonderful statewide partner in Community College of Vermont who we work very closely with; and there's a unique element Vermont circumstances also that supported this work, which is that CCV is the only community college in the state. It operates in 12 locations that align almost perfectly with our 12 district offices for Voc Rehab across Vermont.
So there's real natural alignments and partnership that we were able to build to support those postsecondary experiences. But they included everything from campuses and tours; getting some counseling and advice related to postsecondary options; taking dual enrollment courses while students were still in high school, and we funded some additional course opportunities for our students, as well as potentially enrolling in postsecondary programs. So as a lot of our students graduated, several of them stepped directly into postsecondary programs that they were ready for.
Then two other elements that were important to LLC – one was providing assistive technology supports. What we learned was schools have, in theory, a responsibility to provide AT supports for students to be successful basically in their courses in high school. We found that that level of support for assistive technology varied greatly from school district to school district, and we also were interested in wanting to provide that support outside the school building. So as students were having postsecondary experiences or on a worksite, we wanted to make sure that they had the AT supports necessary to be successful there as well.
We had two full-time assistive technology specialists who essentially each worked with half of the state, worked very closely with folks like Diane and Emma, our career consultants and our youth employment specialists, and worked individually with students to identify what AT needs they had. Roughly one-third of our students ultimately benefitted from some AT support that in some cases made an enormous difference in their lives.
And what were some challenges with implementing work-based supports or for offering students work experiences and other supports?
I think the biggest, maybe the biggest, maybe Diane will agree, was transportation. In this state, it's always going to be a challenge. Getting students to their job shadow or their work placement was a struggle for sure. We had to get creative, a lot of times partner with the bus systems and other community partners to get students where they needed to be. So we were able to find workarounds, but definitely a struggle for sure.
Can I just add real quickly that I didn't get to this, but the other unique element of our model was providing funds to support transportation as needed because it's always such a huge challenge as Emma had just pointed out. So that was kind of the additional enhanced service, if you will, that I didn't get to.
And without those funds, it would have been impossible in some instances because some of our students live way out in the boonies; and they've got to get down into town to work.
So that was a challenge that you anticipated. I mean it was still a challenge; but it was something you knew was going to be an issue going in, which makes sense. Vermont is a very rural state.
Diane, anything that you wanted to add in terms of challenges that you encountered for offering students work experiences and other supports?
Honestly, I think the transportation was the biggest barrier across the state no matter who you spoke to in whatever district – whether it was all the way up in Burlington, where the transportation is way better than it is anywhere else in the state, there were still challenges. So I appreciated the fact that we had a transportation fund and that we were allowed to get creative – things like paying family members mileage to transport students, using taxis, using bus systems, helping students get their driver's license and taking driver's ed so that they could become more independent. That made a huge difference and also helped, I think, in the success of a lot of students who may not have had the opportunity prior to this program.
Okay, so we've talked about challenges. What about successes? Any success stories that you all wanted to focus on, things that worked surprisingly well?
I would say assistive technology and the dual enrollment pieces were my biggest takeaways as far as successes go across the board. They made a huge impact. Some of the students who never would have considered college had the opportunity to not only use – in Vermont you get two dual enrollment vouchers for each student to use at any point in their high school career. LLC granted an extra two dual enrollment vouchers to be used. So a student could theoretically step out of high school at graduation with a full semester of college credits under their belt, which is pretty darn amazing – especially for some of our families who may not be able to have the funds to afford that.
So students that didn't have opportunity or never thought about college that way really took that opportunity and ran with it. The AT, assistive technology, made a huge difference as well. I had a pair of students, siblings, where the assistive technology was the most incredible blessing. Both students were on the autism spectrum at opposite ends. One was significantly disabled, could not communicate, had no verbal communication abilities, and didn't have a device to be able to communicate. Then the other one was more high functioning, was a mainstream student but still struggled academically.
With LLC, we were able to come in and offer assistive technology to both of them; but especially for the younger one, we were able to bring in this device called a DynaVox that's a communication device. All of a sudden, this student was able to communicate more effectively than he had ever communicated. His mother was ecstatic. She's a single mom. She wouldn't have been able to afford it; it was extremely expensive. Because of LLC, we were able to give him a voice quite literally. He's now doing really well. He's living in a group home and working and able to communicate his needs and his desires, and it's incredible.
Whereas his older brother is now in college full-time and was able to use assistive technology while he was engaging in dual enrollment courses so that he could be more successful. This was a student that wanted to go to college, but we weren't sure if he would be successful based on his academic history. With all of these wraparound supports, he is doing really well. He's like an "A" student in a local university in Vermont right now, and it's just an incredible story. It's an incredible testimony to what these wraparound supports can do and in different ways too.
So is assistive technology – is that pretty broadly construed? It can be tailored for the specific needs of that student? Ok, so it’s not Zoom. It might be DynaVox technology in that student’s case but it could be something completely different. Could it be like a wheelchair?
Yeah, and we always say it's low-tech to high-tech. So something as simple as like one of those little alligator grabbers to pick something up if you drop it to the most advanced technology you could imagine, like a DynaVox.
The great thing is that the AT specialist took the time to understand students' individual needs. Students were able to travel up to our facility and try out a couple of different AT devices and see what fit for them. So again, every single person on this student's team was invested in figuring out their barriers and figuring out a way around them.
Read Mathematica’s reports on the implementation and impacts of Vermont’s Linking Learning to Careers demonstration.