Transition to Postsecondary Education

The issue


The transition from high school to postsecondary education has become a developmental expectation for most U.S. adolescents. Although exact numbers are not known, an increasing proportion of U.S. deaf and hard-of-hearing (DHH) high school students pursues Associate’s or Bachelor’s degrees. College graduation rates for DHH students, however, are significantly lower than for hearing students. Why? For many DHH college students, the educational and social gaps present in high school continue to be obstacles in college.  Many are underprepared for basic college level courses, practical life skills, and college-level social interactions.

What we know

Much of what we know about the learning challenges of DHH high school students also pertains to postsecondary educational settings. Limited incidental learning experiences contribute to metacognitive (executive functioning) differences, conceptual gaps, and limited world knowledge. Deaf college learners have less well-developed automaticity in activating prior knowledge during reading and problem solving, and some have difficulty generalizing from previously learned knowledge and making connections that allow them to use all their cognitive resources. In addition, self-monitoring difficulties can lead to overestimations of how they are doing on tasks, and thus they may be less likely to know when they have made errors.

Metacognitive differences between DHH and hearing learners that have been studied in the academic realm may help explain the findings in the career planning realm. For example, preliminary data suggest that college upperclassmen’s selections of their ideal jobs often do not match their self-reported career skills, interests, and aptitudes.  Having a variety of hands-on work experiences contributes to a better understanding of career choices, and there is evidence that programs that include work experience or co-ops better prepare students for the world of work.

Even with high quality support services such as interpreters, note takers, and extended time for test-taking, DHH college students often require much longer than hearing peers to complete their educational programs. Those with cochlear implants may have some advantages, but they are not necessarily different in their academic performance from DHH students without cochlear implants.

Participating in the college social experience is an important part of the transition from high school. When DHH students attend colleges with deaf cohorts such as Rochester Institute of Technology, Gallaudet University, or California State University – Northridge, they report more possibilities to socially interact and enjoy satisfying friendships. DHH students who attend predominantly “hearing colleges” report feeling more socially isolated and have more difficulty developing intimate friendships. When there is a larger college cohort of DHH students, however, the social aspect of college life can compete with the academic demands. Further, the challenges seen in problem solving related to academic material are also evidenced in dating and social interactions. A significantly higher number of deaf college students (compared to hearing peers) have reported experiencing inappropriate sexual contact. Parents who frequently check-in with the deaf college student during this transition offer a valuable social resource.

What we don’t know

We do not know the best strategies for academic and social interventions for DHH students at transition to college. What are the critical variables that support deaf students’ learning and development of self-monitoring skills? We do not know whether DHH students who attend postsecondary education with a larger social group do better with regard to academic outcomes, career success, or life skills than students who attend predominantly hearing colleges.

Social integration is critical for both hearing and DHH students. DHH students, however, have less practice in this area than hearing peers.  Perhaps some of the differences in social learning (e.g., social cognition) are delays rather than enduring differences. We do not know whether extensive scaffolding and supports in secondary schools hinder the development of executive functioning skills (e.g., taking initiative, planning, problem solving). Perhaps the postsecondary education setting is the first time that DHH students have been “allowed” to develop these skills. We also do not have long-term data that systematically tracks and compares students who graduate versus those who do not graduate in order to differentiate the life pathways. Finally, we do not know how prepared DHH college graduates are in basic independent life skills (e.g., budgeting/managing money, understanding apartment leases, paying bills).


Academic integration, commitment to college, and social interactions are all important aspects of the transition to postsecondary education.  The large individual differences in the DHH population hold true for the deaf cohort that attends college. The deaf college student’s individual characteristics and unique life experiences that influence academic success and social adjustment need to be more critically examined.  The expectation is that applied job skills and practical life skills will be a byproduct of a college degree.  For deaf college students this expectation may need to be more explicitly determined.

Posted on January 12, 2015 by
Jennifer Lukomski
Department of Psychology
Rochester Institute of Technology
jennifer.lukomski {at}

Further reading

Convertino, C. M.,  Marschark, M., Sapere, P., Sarchet, T., & Zupan, M., (2009). Predicting academic success among deaf college students. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 14, 324 – 343. view details

Michael, R., Most, T., & Cinamon, R.G., (2013). The contribution of perceived support to the career self-efficacy of deaf, hard-of-hearing, and hearing adolescents. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 18, 329 – 343. view details

Powell, D., Hyde, M., & Punch, R., (2014). Inclusion in postsecondary institutions with small numbers of deaf and hard-of-hearing students: Highlights and challenges. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 19, 126 – 140. view details