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Department of Education: Additional Data Collection Would Help Assess the Performance of a Program Supporting College Students with Disabilities

GAO-23-105551 Published: Feb 15, 2023. Publicly Released: Feb 17, 2023.
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Fast Facts

The Department of Education gives grants to schools and organizations to help disadvantaged students—including students with disabilities—prepare for, enroll in, and graduate from college. The Student Support Services program is its only college access program whose target population specifically includes students with disabilities.

But Education does not collect complete information about the disability status of the students helped through the program. As a result, it can't fully evaluate whether the program is reaching the students it was designed to serve. We recommended that Education collect complete information.

Students at a graduation ceremony

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What GAO Found

The Department of Education does not report on students with disabilities who participate in its Student Support Services (SSS) program, one of eight TRIO grant programs that promote achievement in postsecondary education among disadvantaged students. While none of the TRIO programs focuses exclusively on students with disabilities, the Higher Education Act of 1965, as amended (HEA), specifically states that part of the program design for the SSS program is to foster an institutional climate supportive of students with disabilities. Education collects information about whether SSS participants meet one of several possible eligibility criteria, but does not collect data on the disability status of each SSS participant. In addition, Education periodically reports on the performance of SSS, but does not include performance information for participants with disabilities. The HEA requires, and performance management best practices underpin the need for, reporting on SSS for participants with disabilities. GAO found that as a result of not collecting data on each SSS participant's disability status, Education cannot fully evaluate and report on the program's performance for this population.

Why GAO Did This Study

Through eight separate programs, Education gives grants to schools and organizations that provide disadvantaged students with services to help them attend college. These eight grant programs are collectively known as "TRIO," named for the original three programs. In recent years, Congress has provided over $1 billion annually for TRIO programs. The programs primarily serve low-income and first-generation college students, while some also target individuals with disabilities and veterans. Given that students with disabilities are less likely to complete a postsecondary education and that this disparity can have lifelong consequences, GAO was asked to examine questions related to students with disabilities and TRIO. This report examines the extent to which Education has collected and reported information on students with disabilities served through TRIO.

To examine this topic, GAO reviewed Education documents such as the most recent annual report for each TRIO program, and interviewed officials from Education as well as an organization representing TRIO grantees. GAO examined Education's performance reporting under certain requirements in the HEA, and assessed them against effective performance management practices that GAO identified in prior work.

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GAO recommends Education collect data from SSS grantees on each participant's disability status, and use this information to report on program performance for participants with disabilities. Education concurred with GAO's recommendation and described plans to collect and use this information to report on program performance for participants with disabilities.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Education
Priority Rec.
Education's Assistant Secretary for Postsecondary Education should collect data from SSS grantees on each participant's disability status and use this information to report on program performance for participants with disabilities. (Recommendation 1)
Education agreed with this recommendation. The agency plans to collect data from SSS grantees on participants' disability status and use this information to report on the TRIO program's performance for participants with disabilities. To fully implement this recommendation, Education needs to complete these efforts. Without collecting information on which SSS participants have a disability, Education cannot fully assess SSS's performance for individuals with disabilities, and any eventual plan to evaluate and report on the performance of TRIO programs will be incomplete.

Full Report

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College studentsData collectionEligibility criteriaFederal assistance programsGrant programsHigher educationPhysical disabilitiesStudentsStudents with disabilitiesLow-income students