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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
IN T R O D U C T IO N
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
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
L IT E R A T U R E R E V IE W
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,
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.
Each interview began w ith the interview er
showing a sample ?life map? (McPherson, Wang,
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
DATA AND METHODS
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
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,
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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