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Post-GED-Credential College Prospects


for Adults with Special Needs


D r. M a r g a r e t B e c k e r P a tte rs o n



Research Allies for Lifelong Learning






Many adults with special needs, who did not finish


high school, complete a GED® credential to go to


college. As they prepare to transition, they may


encounter barriers and likely require supports to









oung adults with special needs who leave


high school early face numerous challenges


in adulthood. Those interested in college



may com plete a GED® credential, thus joining



succeed in college. The purpose of this qualitative



approximately 65% of GED test-takers who endorse



research paper is to describe the college prospects



further education as a reason for testing (GED®



of transitioning adults with a GED credential and



Testing Service, 2013). As they transition, they may



special needs, in terms of characteristics, challenges,



encounter barriers (Quigley & Uhland, 2000; Quigley,



attributes, and supports. Findings emerged from



Patterson, & Zhang, 2011; Roffman, 2000), which



qualitative interviews of GED passers in the recent



leads to the following questions: what added supports



Perceptions and Pathways research project. Tenacity



might they need for a successful transition; and how



m otivated m any interviewees toward resilience.



do they understand their prospects for college?



Enrollees with special needs valued encouragement



The purpose of this qualitative research paper



from a family m em ber or an instructor during



is to describe the college prospects of transitioning



their college experience. The article concludes with



adults with a GED credential and special needs in



interviewee and researcher recommendations for



terms of characteristics, challenges, attributes, and



adult education programs and colleges to support



supports. By employing a rich qualitative dataset from



transitioning adults.



the Perceptions and Pathways project of the American


Council on Education and GED® Testing Service in


2011, the paper considers a subset of interviewee data


on adults with special needs and their educational


experiences five years after GED credentialing. The


paper considers the seldom-researched relationship


of passing the GED test with the college prospects


of adults with special needs.



22 Journal of Research and Practice for Adult Literacy, Secondary, and Basic Education






Volume 3, Number 3, Fall 2014



Post-GED-Credential College Prospects






Adults with disabilities may perceive educational



Students not completing high school may have



choices as limited (Rocco 8c Fornes, 2010). Generally,



physical, mental, or learning disabilities-or other



they less frequently enter college (D uquette 8c



special needs. These term s are not synonymous.



Fullarton, 2009; Mellard 8c Patterson, 2008; Payne,



D isability is defined as ?a physical or m ental



2010) or ten d to pursue sh o rt-term program s.



im pairm ent that substantially limits a major life



More specifically, adults with LD gravitate toward



activity? (USDOE, Office of Civil Rights, 2013).



career-tech n ical p ro g ram s an d achieve low er



Corley and Taymans (2002) defined one type of



com pletion rates than adults without disabilities



disability, learning disabilities (LD), as a ?broad array



(Corley 8cTaymans, 2002). Adults with LD in GED



of disorders in information processing? and note



preparation seldom access transition planning (Payne,



that adults with LD may ?experience problems that



2010). Despite the challenges they face, receiving a



significantly affect their academic achievement? (p.



GED® credential can be a pivotal event as adults



46). ?Special needs? more broadly includes people



close ?the door on a history of defeat and failure? to



with health conditions presenting substantial life



move on to college (LDA of Minnesota, 2006, p. 1).



barriers without meeting the narrower definition of


disability (Patterson, 2013).


M any adults w ith special needs enter adult



S k ills a n d C h a ra c te ris tic s o f A d u lts w ith


S p e c ia l N e e d s



ed u ca tio n (AE) p ro g ram s to p rep are for the



The literature on GED test-takers with disabilities



GED test. While prevalence data are not collected



indicated they have literacy skill levels comparable



consistently (National Research Council, 2012), the



to high school graduates with disabilities and go to



prevalence of disabilities in AE programs is pervasive



college at a higher rate than the latter group does



(KET, 2008; Mellard, Patterson, & Prewett, 2007;



(Hsu 8c George-Ezzelle, 2008; Lohman, Lyons, 8c



Patterson, 2013; Tamassia, Lennon, Yamamoto, 8c



Dunham, 2008; Patterson, 2013). Of first-year college



Kirsch, 2007). AE programs are also charged with



enrollees in the NCES Beginning Postsecondary



preparing learners to transition and to effectively face



Students survey, G uison-D ow dy and Patterson



challenges after AE completion.



(2011) found that nearly 17% of entering college


students with disabilities had a GED credential vs.



T ra n s itio n a l C h a lle n g e s fo r A d u lts w it h



10% holding traditional high school diplomas. Also,



S p e c ia l N e e d s



in a study of transitioning adults with LD, 7 of 10



Transitioning adults with special needs face



interviewees participated in GED preparation; three



numerous challenges. Multiple studies have found



simply took the test. Most interviewees were enrolled



that these adults struggle with confidence, motivation,



in college and one had completed a bachelor degree



or persistence (Duquette 8c Fullarton, 2009; Payne,



(Payne, 2010).



2010; Roffman, 2000). Some research further suggests


that high school dropouts may resist further formal



R e s ilie n c e o f T ra n s itio n in g A d u lts w ith



schooling as adults and may encounter dispositional,



S p e c ia l N e e d s



situational, or institutional barriers (Quigley, 1997;


Quigley et al., 2011).



The theory of educational resilience provides a


framework for addressing supports and attributes











of transitioning adults (Patterson, 2013; Quigley



experiences was apparent. The Perceptions and



et al., 2011). Resilience boosts chances for ?life



Pathways project was the first major qualitative



accomplishments despite environmental adversities



follow-up study o f GED passers on th eir later



b ro u g h t about by early traits, conditions, and



educational experiences (Quigley et al., 2011).



experiences? (Wang, Haertel, & Walberg, 1997, p.



Interviewee data for this paper came from a



46). Factors such as social and academic competence,



subset of Perceptions and Pathways data. Details



autonomy, or self-efficacy strengthen resilience



on state selection, data collection, and coding are



(Patterson, 2013). Educational resilience implies



offered in this journal (Patterson, 2013). O f the 85



adult action and self-advocacy as well as response



adults interviewed in the full study, 20 adult learners



to the support of family and mentors (Duquette &



reported having a disability or other special need.



Fullarton, 2009).



Each interview began w ith the interview er


showing a sample ?life map? (McPherson, Wang,



Research Questions



Hsu, 8c Tsuei, 2007). The interviewer then asked



W ith this background from the literature on



the interviewee to draw a one-page life map of



transition, four sets of research questions were



educational events and situations. On the life map,



developed to further investigate the attributes and



interviewees drew or wrote about leaving school,



challenges facing transitioning adults with special



taking the GED® test, and either going to college



needs and GED? credentials.



or not going (see Appendix for a sample life map).



1. What are the characteristics and educational


background of interviewees with special




2. What challenges did interviewees face as they


consider their college prospects?



The life map started the story of the interviewee?s


education and framed the interview conversation.


Interviewers then reviewed the life map and asked


open-ended questions about the adult?s educational


perceptions and pathways since leaving school.



3. W hat attributes related to resilience were



Interviewees typically were eager to share their



evident among college-bound interviewees?



experiences and addressed most issues of interest



4. W hat was the length of time to enrollment



in simply relating their story, with interviewers



and completion and how many completed?



following up as needed. Examples of clarifying



What supports did interviewees describe and



questions included, ?I see you wrote about Mr. T



recommend when deciding about college and



in school. So what happened there?? or ?Could you



during their college experience?



tell me more about this diploma picture you drew??


O ther open-ended follow-up questions included






how they valued education, what triggered them to



Following the American Council on Education?s



consider college, how their first m onth of college



series of reports on transitions using two cohorts of



went, whether they ever thought of dropping out,



a million GED' test-takers (Patterson, Zhang, Song,



whether they would pursue further education after



& Guison-Dowdy, 2010; Patterson, 2010; Zhang,



completion, and if they had any advice for peers,



Guison-Dowdy, Patterson, & Song, 2011), a need for



adult educators, or colleges.



qualitative investigation of GED passers? educational



Interview ees were no t asked initially about



24 Journal of Research and Practice for Adult Literacy, Secondary, and Basic Education ? Volume 3, Number 3, Fall 2014



Post-GED-Credential College Prospects



disabilities or special needs. If the interview ee



testing, seven interviewees endorsed testing to enter



disclosed voluntarily, the interview ee had the



a 2-year college and five to enter a 4-year college1.



opportunity to continue speaking about the disability



When interviewed, two were enrolled in college for



or special need if desired. The status was identified



the first time, six had never enrolled, and three had



later during data coding. Data were analyzed using an



stopped out after enrolling. Nine interviewees had



inductive content analysis. Initial analysis categories



graduated from college.



were created following coding, with multiple, iterative


categories leading to abstract themes (Patterson,







Challenges facing interviewees inform ed the


second research question. C hallenges fell into






two m ajor categories: barriers at hom e and in


attending college. Often facing steep barriers, 14



Characteristics and Experiences



interviewees, who later enrolled, described college



Demographics and the educational background



choices positively or neutrally. Not surprisingly, many



of interviewees supply information to address the first



interviewees dealt with the effects of illness, pain, or



research question. They reflect diverse backgrounds,



disabling conditions. These effects appear to threaten



geographic locations, and educational experiences.



the balance of physical and mental well-being, as one



The rem ainder of this paper reports only on 20



interviewee observed: ?I?m not in a place where I can



interviewees with special needs (of the original 85).



[physically] keep up with school...Because when I?m



Interviewees were 22 to 56 years old when interviewed.



physically not right, mentally I can?t push myself...?



Interviewees came from six states and DC. Eleven



If that balance is off, barriers seem insurmountable



were women and nine were men; 19 were native



to the adult learner.



English speakers. Interviewees disclosed physical



Challenges a t hom e. The first category



disabilities, LD, and chronic health conditions;



reflects challenges at home, including chronic pain



five interviewees identified multiple special needs.



and intergenerational needs. Seven interviewees



Physical disabilities were vision impairments and



related dealing with chronic pain, which challenged



other disabilities resulting from injuries or accidents.



one interviewee to sit through class: ?...I said I?m



Learning disabilities included dyslexia, attention



not going to be able to [stay in class], I had to get up



disorder, and memory impairment. Disclosed chronic



and move around, I start hurting real bad... I have



health conditions were lupus, cancer, migraines, and



to sit down a while, stand up for a while.? For this



asthma (Patterson, 2013).



interviewee changing positions regularly made the



F ifteen p re p a red before GED testing . O n



difference between staying in class and leaving.



average interview ees com pleted n in th grade.



An interviewee with chronic head pain struggled



Nineteen dropped out of high school, and four were



with studying and was disappointed with her doctor?s



homeschooled1. Interviewees? total GED test scores1



advice not to overdo it: ?W hen I study hard... I



ranged from 2,260 to 3,560 (median = 2,660). When



have a pain in my head, very hard. I stopped, and



?Three interviewees from West Virginia and one from Washington, DC, participated in a pilot and lacked complete demographic


and background data.











then I went to see the doctor, and he said, ?You cant



commonly for adult learners, they intensified for



do anything very hard to you [sic].?? The pain she



interviewees. Some could only attend classes part



experienced interfered with her learning.



time or at certain times. An interviewee discussed



In addition to their own special needs, several



scheduling as she balanced parenting, coping with



in te rv ie w e e s c o p e d w ith in te r-g e n e ra tio n a l



lupus, and seeking a degree in psychiatry: ?I?m



challenges - caring for parents, siblings, or children.



going to be responsible for picking [my daughter]



The caregiving role can be potentially debilitating



up from school... so I won?t be able to go to school



when the caregiver also has a special need (Patterson,



at nighttime. I may have to go in the summertime.?



2013). A middle-aged interviewee reporting chronic



With her physical limitations, scheduling challenges



asthma cared for her father: ?My father passed away



implied delay in continuing college.



the last year [of college]. He died of cancer and that



Financial barriers were a third type of challenge;



semester that he was in the hospital, I still got As in



some interviewees struggled financially. The cost of



my studies. I was doing it for him.? While struggling



college, even part time, was often overwhelming.



with family and personal health needs, these adult



One interviewee with LD explained, ?I can?t come



learners were educationally resilient.



here [to college] because if I come part time, they



C h allen g e s g e ttin g to co lleg e. A second



won?t cover all my class [financially]... Because I



major category of challenges interviewees described



can?t go to full time ... I could not physically and



experiencing revolved around getting to college,



mentally keep up and work to support myself.? For



including tra n sp o rta tio n to class, scheduling



this interviewee, who was self-supporting, college



issues, and finances. For interviewees with physical



costs without financial aid tipped the scales against



limitations, chronic illnesses, or other impairments



attending college.



that prohibited driving, transportation was a frequent


barrier (Patterson, 2013). Many relied on family,



A ttr ib u te s a n d R e s ilie n c e



friends, or classmates to get to class. ?I just wished



Interviewee attributes relating to educational



I?d had a ride, but I got here because me and the



resilience are considered in the th ird research



girl [sic] were in the same class,? explained one



question. As they reflected on college decisions,



interviewee with a chronic illness. A few interviewees



interviewees identified multiple attributes associated



had never learned to drive or could no longer drive



with resilience (Patterson, 2013). Being persistent



because of physical impairments. One interviewee



or simply yearning to learn motivated them to be



with two injured knees described what followed her



resilient. They spoke about positive attributes of the



first surgery: ?I probably could?ve taken a class ...



self: self-acceptance and self-reliance.



[but] I couldn?t drive. I had this brace from here to



T e n a c it y . T he a ttrib u te m o st freq u en tly



the ankle. I didn?t [take a class].? The transportation



m entioned in interviews was tenacity (Patterson,



barrier was not lack of a vehicle; these interviewees



2013). A college enrollee in her 30?s affirmed: ?I?m



couldn?t drive. For these adults, having a dependable



determined once I set my m ind and I do it, if at all



ride allowed them to keep going, literally.



possible. I?m not a quitter.? Interviewees discussing



A nother challenge in getting to college



tenacity tended to be college enrollees or graduates.



was scheduling. W hile scheduling issues occur



Tenacity did not imply a lack of barriers; in fact,



26 Journal of Research and Practice for Adult Literacy, Secondary, and Basic Education ? Volume 3, Number3, Fall 2014



Post-GED-Credential College Prospects



several interviewees talked about how persistence



about their prospects.



helped them through challenges. O ne college



S e lf-a c c e p ta n c e . Interviewees described



graduate with LD, when asked if she had thought



positive attributes of the self: self-acceptance and



of dropping out of college, replied,



self-reliance (Patterson, 2013). A middle-aged male



Oh, no. I wasn?t going to drop out! No. That?s



interviewee, disabled in an accident, learned to



one thing I am not, is a quitter. So I may



accept himself in college psychology classes. ?Taking



get discouraged and draw back, because I



psychology as an elective later on, I found out why I



don?t think something?s going to happen. Or



did a lot of the things I did,? he explained, ?I turned



financially, or there are certain things I just



out to be a free spirit.. .You know, [free spirits] want



can?t change. Then I?ll back off. But if I?m in



to do things how they want to do it... it does make



it, then I?ll go. I?ll finish it.



sense when you figure out what kind of person you



Even when faced with financial difficulties and life



are.? Understanding himself led to self-acceptance.



stressors beyond her control, she perceived her



Self-reliance. A second theme was self-reliance



tenacity as contributing to educational resilience.



(Patterson, 2013). Self-reliance and self-efficacy



Another college graduate, with lupus, admitted how



were often coupled in interviewee descriptions of



a relative?s advice inspired tenacity:



learning. After a truck accident broke her back, a



I got a whole bunch of other circumstances?



female interviewee, who described her early life as



medical, things that are not going to be



a series of distractions by peers who persuaded her



curable?holding me back. One thing my



to leave school, relied on herself to keep learning:



aunt always said is, ?Let me tell you some­



[Going for the postsecondary certificate] was



thing. You say you?re a fighter. You?re in the



a really good experience. It helped me with



hospital for a month. You come home, you



self-esteem... After I got in the wheelchair,



go back to work, you go back to school...



I went away from everybody... I work pretty



You do not give up.? It taught me not to [give



well on my ow n... Yes. If I?m left alone from



up], even with [low] self-esteem that I felt.



any distractions I can stay on track pretty



No, no quitting.






In fighting against lupus, tenacity gave her resilience



She persevered alone through a computer certificate



to complete college.



and perceived herself as self-reliant and persistent,



Yearning fo r learning. A yearning for learning



even though she thought learning was ?really tough.?



was another attribute of multiple interviewees, who



A middle-aged female interviewee, who earned



were generally young. A young female interviewee



a master?s degree, relayed how she had learned self-



who ?wanted to know everything? and completed two



reliance as a child of an alcoholic (Patterson, 2013):



degrees believed she has ?always loved learning... I



?I had to pretty much learn for myself and rely on



am very happy with myself for having accomplished



myself to go in the right direction...? Later, after



everything that I have.? A young male college graduate



passing the GED® test, she decided to go to college.



remarked about his college experience: ?I stuck with



She added, ?I knew that I had the ability to make my



it because I like to learn...My life is about studying....?



own destiny.? She relied on herself and believed she



These young adults were eager to learn and confident



could achieve her goals.











E n c o u ra g e m e n t a n d S u p p o rts



postsecondary program s. Six o f the graduates



The fourth set of research questions addresses



completed postsecondary certificates, three earned



the time span from GED® testing to enrollment and



an associate degree, and one each had a bachelor



completion, as well as encouragement and supports



or master degree. A few interviewees earned two



interviewees described while deciding about college,



postsecondary credentials.



and during their college experience.



Nearly all completed within a standard amount



Length o f tim e to decide. Deciding to enroll



of time for the degree or program. Five receiving



in college takes time. M ost enrollees m ade the



certificates did so within a few months; one took



decision immediately after or within a few months



12 m onths. Two interviewees w ith an associate



of GED® testing. Two young interviewees waited



degree completed in two years, and the interviewee



a year to enroll, and another waited three years.



continuing on for a bachelor degree completed it



One interviewee reporting dyslexia and memory



after an additional two years.



challenges described his sudden realization a year



F a m ily



e n c o u ra g e m e n t.



D eciding to



after testing: ?I just said, ?I?m going to college.? ...Well,



enroll and completing college may be related to



I had to go somewhere... I wanted to get a degree....



encouragement. Interviewees with encouragement,



I was, like, ?You know what? I?m going to go attend



especially from parents and family, tended to enroll



the community college.??



in college, while those lacking encouragement tended



A n interview ee w ho w aited three years to



not to enroll. Enrollees with encouragement, however,



enroll had to sift through a plethora of advice. This



tended to stop out of their college programs almost as



homeschooled young woman experienced cancer



often as they graduated. Interviewees who stopped out



at 14 and aspired to a doctorate in psychology. She



may have just as much, if not more, encouragement



described needing help choosing an undergraduate



than those who graduated, yet seemed overwhelmed.



program and ?finding which colleges are best? for



Having encouragers in their lives appears to offer



her. She sought guidance from peers and professors:



strong motivation to continue education.



There were plenty of people around to give



Ten interviewees described their mothers and six



me advice, but the advice I sought most were



their fathers as encouraging them to decide about



(sic) from those who had been in my shoes or



college. Although it did not guarantee graduation,



professors at college...I got a lot of opinions,



family encouragement was particularly apparent for



but they weren?t all helpful....



interviewees who later graduated from college. Seven



Ultimately she got help from a brother. ?My brother



of nine graduates reported having encouragement



who was already attending a college was what you



from family during decision-making.



might consider a college counselor for me and guided



After enrolling in college, 13 of 14 interviewees



me through the process.? W ith his assistance she



who enrolled discussed family encouragem ent.






A total o f seven m others, five fathers, and one



C o m p le tin g c o lle g e . Also inform ative is



grandmother encouraged them throughout college.



understanding how many interviewees completed



Just as parents influenced m aking th e college



college programs and how long it took. Nine of 14



decision, they also encouraged interviewees during



interviewees who enrolled graduated from their



college. The young male interviewee reporting



28 Journal of Research and Practice for Adult Literacy, Secondary, and Basic Education






Volume 3, Number 3, Fall 2014



Post-GED-CredentiaI College Prospects



dyslexia and memory challenges relied heavily on



Two interviewees reported that an instru...


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