Students With Disabilities in Higher Education: Facts and Statistics

Students with disabilities make up 19% of the undergraduate population. Find data about disability and inclusion on college campuses in our report.
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Data Summary

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    Nearly 1 in 5 undergraduate college students reported having a disability in 2015-2016.[1]
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    12% of graduate students reported having a disability.Note Reference [1]
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    In 2022, 15% of college students reported having ADD or ADHD.[2]
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    Trans and gender-nonconforming students report having autism at rates 5-8 times as high as cis students.Note Reference [2]
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    The six-year graduation rate of students with disabilities at four-year colleges is 49.5%, compared to roughly 68% for students without disabilities.[3]
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    Just 37% of students report their disability to their college.[4]
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    15-43% of students who report their disability don't receive accommodations from their school.Note Reference [4]

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 1 in 4 adults in the U.S. (24.8%) has a disability.[5] Despite how common disabilities are, society and institutions — like higher education — sometimes fail to provide adequate accommodations or truly inclusive spaces for all to participate equally.

College students with disabilities have a variety of experiences. This report shares statistics about students with disabilities in higher education to better understand the prevalence of disabilities and the state of disability inclusion on college campuses.

Students With Disabilities Make Up One-Fifth of College Enrollment

According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), 19% of undergraduate and 12% of graduate students reported having a disability in the 2015-2016 school year. Students' veteran status and age correlated to higher rates of reported disability.Note Reference [1]

  • 26% of undergraduates who were veterans reported having a disability versus 19% of non-veteran undergraduates.
  • 23% of undergraduates ages 30 and over reported having a disability versus 18% of students aged 15-23 years old.

NCES' count of students with disabilities includes those who reported being Deaf or hard of hearing; being blind or having low vision; having a learning disability; having a physical, mental, or emotional condition; or having difficulty walking or climbing stairs.

Common Disabilities Reported by College Students

In 2022, the American College Health Association (ACHA) surveyed 54,000 undergraduates. It found:Note Reference [2]

  • 15% of students reported having attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADD or ADHD).
  • 5% had a learning disability.
  • 4% were blind or had low vision.
  • 3% were autistic.
  • 2% were Deaf or hard of hearing.
  • About 1% had a mobility or dexterity disability.
  • About 1% had a speech or language disability.

Though not reported here, the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) also covers psychiatric disabilities, such as anxiety, addiction, and PTSD. You can learn more about the prevalence of these and other mental health conditions in our report, College Student Mental Health Statistics.

Did You Know…

Dyslexia is the most common learning disability.

According to The Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity, dyslexia makes up 80-90% of all learning disabilities and affects 20% of the population.[6]

College students with dyslexia may have difficulty reading, writing, spelling, or recalling words. However, dyslexia surfaces in many different ways, and not all students have the same experiences.

Students With Disabilities by Gender

Transgender and gender-nonconforming college students report experiencing disabilities at higher rates than their cisgender peers.Note Reference [2]

  • Trans and gender-nonconforming students are more than 5-8 times as likely as their cis peers to have autism (17% vs. 2-3%).
  • Trans and gender-nonconforming students are five times as likely as cis students to have a mobility or dexterity disability (5% vs. 1%).

Did You Know…

Disabilities are more prevalent among LGBTQ+ adults than in their cis, straight peers.

According to Census Bureau data analyzed by the Human Rights Campaign in 2022, 36% of LGBTQ+ adults reported having a disability versus 24% of non-LGBTQ+ adults. Additionally, 52% of trans adults reported having a disability.[7]

It's important to recognize how overlapping identities affect how students experience inclusion — or don't. For example, a 2013 GLSEN study of over 8,000 students ages 13-21 found that LGBTQ+ students with disabilities were more likely than those without disabilities to be disciplined at school, involved with the justice system, or drop out.[8]

Graduation Rates of Students With Disabilities

People with disabilities tend to graduate high school and college at lower rates than people without disabilities. However, the number of people with disabilities earning bachelor's degrees has increased substantially over the years.

High School Graduation

Among students served under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act who left school in 2019-2020:[9]

  • 72% graduated with a diploma.
  • 10% received an alternative certificate.
  • 16% dropped out.

For reference, the high school graduation rate among all 18-24-year-olds was about 94% in 2019, according to NCES.[10]

College Graduation

About half (49.5%) of students with disabilities who enrolled at a four-year college in 2011 completed a bachelor's degree within six years versus roughly 68% of students without disabilities.Note Reference [3]

According to the 2023 Annual Disability Statistics Compendium report analyzing U.S. census data:[11]

  • Nearly 20% of 25-34-year-olds with a disability had a bachelor's degree or higher.
  • 41% of 25-34-year-olds without a disability held a bachelor's degree or higher.
  • The percentage of people with disabilities earning a bachelor's degree doubled between 2008 and 2021.

What About After Graduating College?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the unemployment rate for people with disabilities is about double that for people without disabilities (7.6% vs. 3.5%).[12]

The unemployment rate for people with disabilities drops with higher levels of education. Even so, bachelor's degree-holders with disabilities face higher unemployment rates than those without disabilities.

People with disabilities who are employed are more likely to be self-employed than people without disabilities (9.5% vs. 6.1%). They're also almost twice as likely to work part time, reports the BLS. (30% vs. 16%).Note Reference [12]

Disability, Financial Aid, and Student Loan Forgiveness

Like all students, students with disabilities can receive free financial aid for college, such as scholarships and grants. Sometimes, people with disabilities that impact their ability to work can qualify for student loan forgiveness.

Scholarships and Grants

NCES survey data from the 2015-2016 school year shows that college undergraduates with a disability report receiving similar levels of federal grant funding as other students. However, they receive less financial aid from their schools on average and less grant funding overall.

Average Grant Amounts Awarded to Students, 2015-2016
Type of Student Federal Pell Grant Amount Institutional Grant Amount Total Grant Amount
Students With Disabilities $1,510 $1,524 $4,096
Students Without Disabilities $1,448 $2,130 $4,847
Source: NCES[13]

If you're planning to pay for college, you have options. Complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid to see if you qualify for certain grants.

Also, check out our list of scholarships for students with disabilities. These scholarships are sponsored by various organizations and are specifically for students with different disabilities.

Disability Student Loan Forgiveness

If you have a disability that prevents you from working and you have student loan debt, you could qualify for loan forgiveness through a Total and Permanent Disability Discharge (TPD).

You could be eligible for a TPD if:

  • The Department of Veterans Affairs has awarded you a disability determination.
  • You receive Social Security Disability Insurance or Supplemental Security Income benefits.
  • A doctor certifies that you can't financially support yourself due to a serious, lasting condition.

Disability Inclusion on College Campuses

Colleges have work to do when it comes to access and inclusion for students with disabilities. Here's some of the latest research on disability inclusion in higher education.

Colleges Can Do Better When It Comes to Inclusion

In a peer-reviewed 2022 study, researchers graded 50 top-funded undergraduate programs on an A-F letter scale measuring accessibility, accommodations, and reputation for inclusion.

Just 6% received an A. Sixty percent received a D.[14]

Students With Disabilities Report Less Belonging, More Discrimination on Campus

A 2021 research brief published by the National Center for College Students With Disabilities analyzed survey data from 54,000 students. The analysis showed that compared to peers without disabilities, students with disabilities had a significantly lower sense of belonging at their schools. They also reported higher rates of discrimination on campus.

Students who reported experiencing the most discrimination were students with speech, language, neurological, and learning conditions.[15]

Most Students Don't Report Their Disability to Colleges

Department of Education (ED) research found that only 37% of students with a disability reported their disability to their college.Note Reference [4]

Additionally, a Mental Health America survey of 471 college students with mental health disabilities found that 70% didn't register for accommodations from their school. These students reported not believing they were sick enough (41%), not knowing accommodations existed (33%), and being afraid to talk to professors about accommodations (26%).[16]

Many Don't Receive Accommodations

The same ED study as above found that even when students do report their disability, many don't receive accommodations. Just 85% of students at four-year colleges and 57% of students at two-year schools received accommodations after reporting their disability.Note Reference [4]

Students Recommend More Training, Education, and Outreach

Students in Mental Health America's survey suggested the following to improve accessibility for students with mental health disabilities:Note Reference [16]

  • Train professors about disability accommodations (73%).
  • Provide education and outreach about available disability support services (69%).
  • Dedicate staff to helping students remove financial barriers to registering for accommodations (58%).
  • Provide staff and peer supporters to students in the registration process (42%).

Did You Know…

…about the social model of disability?

The social model of disability is a framework for understanding disability. It holds that people's conditions aren't what make them disabled. Instead, society's conditions — like exclusion, ignorance, and lack of access — disable them.[17]

Learn more about students' accessibility rights and resources in our College Guide for Students With Disabilities and in the section below.

Resources and Accommodations for College Students With Disabilities

We've designed several guides with resources for college students navigating accommodations at their colleges. Find them listed below. Then, learn how to register for accommodations through your school's disability services.