Differences between Hearing and Deaf or Hard of Hearing Individuals in Educational Attainment and Field of Study

The issue


The data available on deaf and hard-of-hearing (DHH) students is quite informative. With hearing loss often perceived as an ideal disability relative to those that are more severe, there still exists a real difference in educational attainment when DHH individuals are compared to same-aged hearing individuals. In other words, DHH students, who perform better than any other group of students considered disabled by the U.S. Government, do not experience the same academic success as hearing peers, despite the fact that an increasing number of DHH students are mainstreamed in the early years of education and are thought to have access to comparable levels of educational opportunity.

What we know

On an annual basis, the American Community Survey (ACS) administered by the Census Bureau releases files that provide communities with data that helps them to plan investments and services. This data from this survey assist with the determination of how more than $400 billion dollars in state and federal funds are distributed annually.

The ACS files allow analyses that are quite informative with respect to educational attainment, as defined by successful completion of academic levels. When considering the entire population of DHH individuals in the US, the disparity associated with attaining any college degree is 6%, in favor of the hearing. This, however, does not provide a clear picture of the working population, usually defined as those 22 to 59 years of age. Limiting the focus to the working population, the above disparity exceeds 15%. Removing associate degrees and only considering bachelor degrees and above, the gap remains consistent, but analyses indicate that hearing individuals are twice as likely to attain a bachelor degree or above as compared  to DHH individuals.

While the above paragraph highlights the difference in educational outcomes comparing DHH to hearing students, there is another gap when one considers their fields of study. A brief look into the primary fields of study of students earning bachelor degrees or above shows a clear separation between those who are DHH and hearing. Generally, the top ten fields of study in which there are more hearing individuals than DHH individuals are a combination of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), business, and behavioral sciences. This contrasts with fields of study in which there are proportionally more DHH individuals. These fields are contained within the domain of liberal studies, including, for example, sociology, history, and social work. This combination of educational attainment and specialization leads to a lower percentage of DHH workers, proportionally, in so-called “professional employment” areas (e.g. technical, managerial).  It is clear, then, that DHH students must be provided with appropriate information and informed of strategies associated with educational attainment and entry into certain fields.

Earning power is a related issue. A recent study by the National Technical Institute for the Deaf revealed that alumni who had earned associate (2-year) and bachelor (4-year) degrees had very different levels of income. Regardless of field studied, the earnings difference between associate and bachelor degree graduates exceeded 40% at the age of 50, which can be argued to be the peak of a worker’s career.

What we don’t know

What is unknown from the ACS data is the degree of cognitive-academic-intellectual functioning for those workers who report that they are DHH. In particular, we do not know about individuals’ literacy skills related to the general ability to communicate with others (e.g., in the workplace).  With communication most important to success in school and subsequent working environments, a more complete comparison between DHH and hearing students and workers would include the control of reading and writing ability. Additionally, the general loss of hearing in the later stages of life may begin during the 50s, leading to questions of the number of individuals in the age range of 22 to 59 who have less hearing losses compared to those who have severe to profound hearing losses.


In an educational climate that is moving towards individuals having more information available for decision-making, it will become important for DHH students and their families to use data in such a way that the likelihood of success rises, both in terms of educational attainment and subsequent earnings in the workforce. Researchers focusing on the education of DHH learners should explore ways in which data sources can be used to provide a richer information base, leading to greater academic and workplace equality between DHH and hearing individuals. Beyond current possibilities, exploration of better ways to use available information may influence policy makers at the national level to require specific reporting mechanisms that can contribute to such equality.

Posted on July 1, 2015 by
Richard Dirmyer
Director of Institutional Research and Assessment
National Technical Institute for the Deaf
Rochester Institute of Technology
Richard.Dirmyer {at} rit.edu

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

Jones, D. D. (2004). Relative earnings of deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 9, 459-461. view details

Schley, S., Walter, G. G., Weathers II, R. R., Hemmeter, J., Hennessey, J. C., & Burkhauser, R. V. (2011). Effect of postsecondary education on the economic status of persons who are deaf or hard of hearing. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 16, 524-536. view details