Higher Education Leads to Higher Earnings for Students with Disabilities in North Carolina

<p>Individuals with disabilities earn considerably lower wages on average than their peers. In this article, we use data from the state&rsquo;s Common Follow-Up System (CFS) to show that much of this disparity can be traced to differences in higher education attainment between those with and without disabilities.</p>

Author: Andrew Berger-Gross

A mental or physical disability can be a barrier to success in the workforce. Adult workers with disabilities earn considerably lower wages on average than those without disabilities.1 In this article, we use data from the state’s Common Follow-Up System (CFS) to show that much of this disparity can be traced to differences in higher education attainment between those with and without disabilities.

We follow a cohort of 181,613 students who graduated from public high school in North Carolina during the 2003-2005 school years.2 Of this group of high school graduates, 10.5% (19,114) were reported by the state Department of Public Instruction (DPI) as having disabilities.3 The majority of these were reported as having a Specific Learning Disability, an umbrella category that includes dyslexia and dysgraphia [Figure 1].

Figure 1


Individuals with disabilities who found work in North Carolina tended to earn more than their peers without disabilities immediately after completing high school [Figure 2]. However, their wage earnings started to fall behind in the 5th year after high school, and we subsequently see a gap in earnings that grows larger with each passing year. By the 13th year, those with disabilities earned 21% less on average than their peers without disabilities.

Figure 2

Some of this disparity can be explained by differences in higher education attainment. To illustrate this point, here we compare individuals’ earnings outcomes by their highest credential earned from a public institution of higher learning within eight years following graduation from high school—regardless of their disability status.4

Students who attained at least a Bachelor’s degree from our state’s public universities earned less than others in the initial years following high school—possibly because they worked part-time while enrolled in college—but saw rapid wage gains in later years [Figure 3]. Those who attained a postsecondary credential below the Bachelor’s level from our state’s community colleges also saw healthy wage growth in the long run. Wage growth for workers without a credential was considerably weaker: by the 13th year after high school, they earned 41% less on average than their peers with a Bachelor’s degree and 17% less than those with a below-Bachelor’s credential.

Figure 3

Note that many who lack a higher education credential from a public institution in North Carolina may have attained a credential at a private or out-of-state institution; these credentials are not captured in our state’s CFS data. 

Individuals with disabilities tend to have lower levels of higher education attainment than those without disabilities. Students with disabilities were far less likely than their peers to enroll in a public university Bachelor’s program within two years after high school, but somewhat more likely to enroll in community college [Figure 4].5 By the eighth year after high school, only 17% of those with disabilities obtained any higher education credential, compared to 36% of their peers, and they were much less likely to have obtained a Bachelor’s degree.6

Figure 4

These differences in higher education attainment are important because higher levels of education are associated with higher wage earnings. However, this attainment gap cannot account for all of the wage gap observed in our cohort. High school graduates with disabilities earn less than their peers at every level of higher education attainment, even when they obtain a Bachelor’s degree [Figure 5].

Figure 5

Our analysis suggests that differences in higher education attainment account for 50% of the wage gap between those with and without disabilities in the 13th year after graduating from high school [Figure 6]. High school graduates with disabilities would earn around $4,200 more per year if they had the same level of higher education attainment as their peers without disabilities. However, this would not be enough to close the wage gap—half of the overall disparity would remain due to wage gaps between those with and without disabilities at the same education level.7

Figure 6

Note that this article examines a cohort of high school graduates and does not report the outcomes of students who do not graduate from high school. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that, during the 2017 school year, students with disabilities in North Carolina had a four-year high school graduation rate of only 70.3%, compared to 86.6% for all students. 

The findings in this article demonstrate that higher education is an important pathway to a high-paying career. Workers with disabilities tend to earn more in the long run when they attain a postsecondary credential, and higher education attainment explains half of the gap in earnings between high school graduates with and without a disability. However, differences in education levels cannot explain all of this disparity; our findings suggest that having a disability creates barriers to career progression even for those with a college education.

North Carolina offers numerous public supports to help individuals with disabilities succeed in school and their careers. DPI’s Exceptional Children Division serves public school students with disabilities, assuring that they are provided individualized education programs and appropriate services. For students with disabilities who want to pursue higher education, our state’s community colleges and public universities both offer accommodation and support services. In addition, our state’s Vocational Rehabilitation program provides services to help students and workers with disabilities achieve their goals for employment and independence.

Note: this article builds on research initiated by my former colleague, Sibyl Kleiner. Thank you, Sibyl!

General disclaimers:

Data sources cited in this article are derived from surveys and/or administrative records and are subject to sampling and/or non-sampling error. Any mistakes in data management, analysis, or presentation are the author’s.

1According to the U.S. Census Bureau, adult workers with disabilities in North Carolina earn 28% less on average than those without disabilities. Source: American Community Survey Public Use Microdata Sample, 2013-2017 data: average annual wages for workers in North Carolina age 25-64.

2This includes students who graduated between July 1, 2002 and June 30, 2005.

3We define students with disabilities as those reported as having a disability in any year between July 1, 1999 and June 30, 2005.

4We examine only curriculum programs—courses of study leading to the attainment of a postsecondary credential (a certificate, diploma, Associate degree, or Bachelor’s degree).

5This comparison includes students who enrolled in higher education through the state’s Career & College Promise program before graduating from high school.

6Throughout this article, we categorize individuals by the highest level of education enrolled in or attained from a public institution in North Carolina.

7This analysis is accomplished by decomposing the gap in average wages between those with and without disabilities into two components: 1) the gap accounted for by differences in educational attainment, and 2) the gap accounted for by differences in average wages at each level of educational attainment. We perform this analysis using Fisher’s “ideal” index, which permits a decomposition of percent differences without a residual.

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