Postsecondary Pathways of High School Students with Special Education Needs

While the Ontario government is pushing for an even bigger increase in postsecondary enrollment, access to these institutions is still unequal. High school students with special education needs have more complicated pathways to postsecondary education.

McMaster Researcher


Robson, K., Anisef, P., Brown, R. S., & Parekh, G. (2014). The Intersectionality of Postsecondary Pathways: The Case of High School Students with Special Education Needs. Canadian Review of Sociology/Revue Canadienne De Sociologie,51(3), 193-215. doi:10.1111/cars.12044


Toronto District School Board

What is this research about?

Although the Ontario government is aiming to see 70% of all adults attaining postsecondary education in 2020, access to postsecondary education (PSE) is still unequal among marginalized populations. Researchers have also become interested in the outcomes of students with special education needs, who may have unequal access to postsecondary education as well. Students with learning disabilities or requiring an individualized education plan are considered to have special education needs.
Education pathways are the different choices available to students leading to the next step of their education. This research focuses on how high school students’ postsecondary education pathways are impacted by their status as a student with special education needs (SEN). Typical determinants - factors or characteristics which influence outcomes (e.g. family income, race, sex, attitudes, etc.) - that impact students’ future education choices may have a different effect depending on whether a student has been identified as having special education needs.

What did the researchers do?

The “Student Census” survey, conducted in 2006 in roughly 289 Toronto District School Board (TDSB) schools, was combined with other data sets for the purpose of analysis. These include data on household income from the 2001 Canadian Federal Census, and data on applications and acceptances to Canadian colleges and Universities from the Ontario University Applications Centre and the Ontario College Applications Centre.
The researchers considered three possible college and university pathways for SEN high school students in the TDSB:

  • 1) Confirmed university or 2) Confirmed college: the student applied to and received an offer of admission to at least one college or university, and accepted an offer of admission to college or university.
  • 3) Neither: this option refers to students who applied but were not accepted to PSE, those who graduated from high school but did not apply to PSE, and those who dropped out of high school or who were still in high school by the end of the survey period.

Several determinants were considered when assessing the impact of SEN status on PSE pathways, including external characteristics and personal characteristics. External characteristics included the family’s financial status, the educational attainment of the parents, and the size of the student’s school. Personal student characteristics included:

  • High school grades
  • Attitudes about education, where students identified how much they agreed with the statement “I enjoy school”
  • School stream, either “applied” or “academic”
  • Sex (male or female)
  • Immigrant status,which considered both the student’s and their parents’ place of birth
  • Race

What did the researchers find?

It was found that students who were identified as having special education needs were less likely to receive and accept an offer of admission to university, but were more likely to receive and accept an offer of admission to college.
Overall, the most important determinants to consider are the parents’ education, the average neighbourhood income, the students’ race, and their high school program stream. While it was found that the PSE outcomes of parents, and their neighbourhood incomes, increased the likelihood of SEN students receiving and accepting college confirmations, black SEN students who were also in an applied high school program were much less likely to confirm college.

How can you use this research?

This research highlights the impact of external factors on SEN students’ access to postsecondary education. It therefore can be used to help inform policy surrounding special education, and to better support special education needs students beyond the classroom.

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