Pathways to Success After High School for Deaf Students

The Issue

Deaf students are graduating from high school at record levels and pursuing college or training programs at rates comparable to their hearing peers. Laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act ensure that deaf students have rights to access a range of postsecondary options and receive accommodations that work for them. However, National Deaf Center analysis of U.S. Census data reveals a substantial gap in college completion between deaf and hearing people–a gap that widens for deaf people from marginalized communities.

Deaf students account for over 200,000 students nationwide. Yet, colleges and technical schools may not have experience working with deaf students, knowledge of accommodations, or the capacity to create accessible programs that must also extend beyond the classroom. Inexperienced professionals is one of several root causes identified by NDC as contributing to the achievement gap for deaf individuals. Successful enrollment in college and degree completion of a degree requires both institutional readiness and student readiness. If access is the key, readiness is the lock. With degrees and advanced training, more professions and careers will be available to deaf young adults, and then educational, economic, and social equity will be achieved.

What We Know

From the family to society, everyone plays a significant role in reducing barriers to deaf success. The following are barriers for deaf students after high school: limited access to language and communication, reduced social opportunities, negative attitudes and biases, and lack of qualified professionals. Five key areas to maximize opportunities for deaf students:

  1. Promote High Expectations. Success during and after high school is shaped by beliefs about one’s capability to succeed. High expectations from families, teachers, and professionals make a significant contribution to how those expectations and beliefs are formed. Capitalizing on the strengths of deaf individuals is key to attaining future goals.
  2. Design Accessible Environments. Because there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach, have a range of accommodation strategies and options, plan thoughtfully, and provide coordination to help deaf students achieve access in various settings.
  3. Leverage Community Resources. Community and social networks provide deaf people with access, information, and resources that can help successfully navigate systems that become increasingly complex after high school, like college. Opportunities to initiate, build, and make community connections can have a positive impact on postsecondary success.
  4. Collect and Use Data for Decision Making. MTracking and capturing accurate data is essential for making informed decisions about programs and services that deaf people can benefit from.
  5. Develop Collaborative and Integrated Systems. Organizations and agencies that serve deaf people are siloed. Increasing collaborative efforts makes it easier to coordinate a successful transition out of the K-12 system. Working collaboratively is one strategy to use of resources, funds, and personnel that are often scarce.


A multidimensional approach is needed for success after high school. Both, postsecondary schools and students need to be ready. Institutional commitment to equal access is not just classroom accommodations. Institutional readiness includes:
  • Training staff about the diverse range of deaf students and accommodations
  • Committing resources to providing appropriate accommodations
  • Encouraging the inclusion of deaf students across campus, programs, and services

Likewise, deaf students need to be prepared to navigate barriers after high school. Knowledge of legal rights and responsibilities, familiarity and experience with a range of accommodations, and the ability to self-advocate are fundamental to postsecondary success. Deaf student readiness includes:

  • Learning about the range of accommodations and practice requesting services.
  • Developing and expressing advocacy skills in a student-led IEP process.
  • Understanding which communication strategies work best for them.
  • Planning for the future by setting goals and communicating those goals and desires with others in decision-making.

Encouraging student involvement in educational and transition plans lead to more positive transition outcomes. As students enroll in colleges and training programs, they will need to know what is available, what services or accommodations they prefer, and how to ask for what they need. Opportunities to practice having these discussions before graduation will positively contribute to the student’s ability to self-advocate for effective communication access. The National Deaf Center on Postsecondary Outcomes is available to support deaf students, families, professionals, and institutions. We seek to create conditions that promote success for deaf people in a way that recognizes and honors their identities and experiences.
The National Deaf Center offers hundreds of free resources, several training courses, and personalized one-on-one assistance to support deaf success. For more information visit,

* This resource was developed under a jointly-funded grant through the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) and the Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA) #H326D160001. However, the contents do not necessarily represent the positions or policies of the federal government.

Posted on Oct. 4, 2019 by
Tia Ivanko
National Deaf Center on Postsecondary Outcomes


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