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Does a college degree influence the occupational attainments of deaf adults? An examination of the initial and long term impact of college.

The purpose of this paper was to examine the effect of a college degree on occupational attainments of deaf adults. The paper is related to, and contains certain elements of, several studies already completed by the authors, as well as an examination of data collected but not fully analyzed. Quantitative data are presented, including results of survey research and of accessing data banks of the internal Revenue Service. These data describe the influence of college on labor force status, type of job, and earnings. Qualitative data are also included that pertain to job satisfaction. Results indicated that a college degree usually meant lower unemployment, better jobs, and higher earnings. However, data also showed that many college graduates were dissatisfied with elements of their work experience, especially those involving communication and social interaction with coworkers.

Throughout this century, and probably long before that, deaf adults have had major problems in the work place. Welsh and Walter (1988) note that they have been too often employed in blue collar occupations; even among those who attained white collar status, career options have been generally confined to education and social services. Moreover, deaf workers have long been paid considerably less than their hearing counterparts, and have been measurably less mobile. This is substantiated by other research conducted over many decades (Best, 1914, 1943; Martens, 1937; Lunde and Bigman, 1959; Weinrich, 1972; Schein and Delk, 1974; Schroedel, 1976; Walter, MacLeod-Gallinger and Stuckless, 1987). Coincident with these problems was the fact that deaf people had severely limited access to a college education.

Between 1965 and 1986, the number of postsecondary programs for the deaf has grown from five to 146 (Rawlings and King, 1987). Recent research Schroedel, 1976; Lauritsen, 1973; Welsh and Schroedel, 1982; Rawlings et al., 1984; MacLeodGallinger, 1986; Welsh and Walter, 1988; Welsh, Walter, and Riley, 1988) has provided evidence that college education makes more and better jobs accessible to deaf people.

Exactly what are the effects of a college degree on the work life of a deaf adult? This paper represents an attempt to synthesize large data bases used to produce a number of previous studies conducted by the authors and their colleagues especially Welsh and Walter, 1988; Welsh, Walter, and Riley, 1988; Foster, 1987; and Foster, 1988) in order to determine more completely the impact of a college degree on the lives of deaf adults.


The effect of postsecondary education on the careers of deaf adults is judged by comparing changes in labor force status, occupation, and earnings of college graduates and non-graduates over time. Available data necessitated a cross-sectional, rather than a longitudinal analysis(1) Additionally, the job satisfaction of deaf college graduates is examined.

Labor force status and occupation

All data on the labor force participation, employment status, and occupations of college graduates were collected via the Alumni Feedback Questionnaire (AFQ) (Welsh, 1986, 1988), a survey sent annually to all deaf RIT graduates. Data were extracted from the most recent response (since 1982) to each graduate for whom data were available (N=1419). Comparable data on 2658 noncollege graduates were collected via the 1982 through 1988 iterations of the Secondary School Follow-up Questionnaire (SSFP) (Walter, MacLeod-Gallinger, and Stuckless, 1987), a survey generally comparable to the AFQ which is sent to graduates of 27 secondary schools for the deaf from around the country. These survey data were used to examine the extent to which a degree helps deaf college graduates become competitive in the work place. The authors compared the accomplishments over time of the degreed deaf adults with their counterparts who had no college degree. Graduates and non-graduates were compared shortly after graduation and over time in the areas of labor force participation, employment rate, and type of occupation.

Laborforce status. Labor force participation is assessed by measuring the percentage of the total population that is in the labor force, i.e., either employed or actively seeking employment. Employment rate is the percentage of persons in the labor force who are employed.

Occupation. The occupational groupings used in this study are the broad categories employed by the U.S. Bureau of the Census, and are as follows: Managerial/Professional; Technical, Sales, and Administrative Support; Farming, Forestry, & Fishing; Service; Precision Production, Craft, & Repair; and Operatives, Fabricators, & Laborers. The former two generally comprise those occupations commonly thought of as white collar; the latter four groups consist principally of blue collar occupations.


Information on earnings was obtained from the data banks of the United States Internal Revenue Service (Welsh, Walter, and Riley, 1988). A computer tape, containing the social security numbers of 2028 deaf students who had applied for admission to NTID between 1972 and 1977, was sent to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). Included were data on three groups: (1) persons not known to have a degree, including those who were accepted but declined to attend and those who attended but withdrew without receiving a degree; (2) those who graduated with sub-Bachelor degrees; and (3) Bachelor degree graduates. The IRS provided NTID selected 1983(2) grouped earnings of persons in all three groups for each year of application, 1972 through 1977. Their earnings at entry into the work force, and over a twenty year period were then estimated.

Job Satisfaction

Information in this area was collected by a method distinctly different from both survey research and administrative record analysis, which are generally included in the category of quantitative analysis. Data that focus on the extent to which graduates find their jobs fulfilling were collected using qualitative methods (Bogdan and Taylor, 1975; Spradley, 1979). Qualitative methods are grounded in symbolic interactionist theory (Park, 1915; Thomas, 1951; Becker, 1970), and involve the use of methods fashioned to solicit subjects' interpretations of events, such as in-depth interviews with a comparatively small numbers of persons. Information on job satisfaction was obtained through open-ended, in-depth interviews with 25 deaf RIT graduates. Interview topics included employment history, how jobs were found, communication on the job, relationships at work, responses to difficult situations, and mobility. Comparisons between college graduates and non-graduates could not be made, as parallel data on non-college graduates are not yet available.

A comprehensive report has been completed which includes all interview topics (Foster, 1987) and a second which focuses on responses to difficult situations at work (Foster, 1988). The analysis presented in this paper focuses on two central elements of the work experience which graduates described as particularly challenging and often frustrating; these are communication and social interaction.


Labor Force Status

Measures of successful adaptation to the world of work include the increased ability and willingness to join that world with the passage of time, as measured by elevated labor force participation and employment rates. The quality of our work life is a powerful determinant of the quality of our entire life. And, as the people who hawk the state lotteries tell us, "To win, you gotta play". Likewise, you have to join the work force and find a job before you can be successful in the world of work. To what extent will additional education improve the ability of deaf people to join the work force and to find work? A comparison of labor force participation by degree and year of graduation is shown in Figure 1.

Data show that high school graduates show the greatest change in labor force participation rate, due no doubt to the fact that they begin at such a depressed level. One year from graduation, about one-half the graduates are out of the labor force, in spite of the fact that only 25-30 percent of those graduates will even attempt college (Walter 1988). Participation increases to over 75 percent after five years, and remains relatively steady thereafter. SubBachelor graduates show quite a stable labor force participation over time, i.e., approximately 90 percent. The rate for the Bachelor alumni grows significantly and swiftly, from just over 80 to near 100 percent over time. As measured by willingness/ability to join the labor force, it appears that the initial transition from school to work is more difficult for those without degrees than those who have them, especially in the early stages after graduation.

Data comparing employment rate by degree and year of graduation are shown in Figure 2.

Data indicate that deaf adults without college degrees experience severe difficulties in finding employment for a number of years. Over half are unemployed in the first year after graduation, and even after five years, more than 25 percent are out of work. Those with college degrees experience some unemployment early, but both sub-Bachelor and Bachelor recipients move fairly rapidly to employment rates of over 90 percent. Eventually, high school graduate employment approaches 90 percent, but even after 20 years does not reach the level of college alumni. These data also support the view that adaptation to the world of work is made measurable easier by a college degree.


Another measure of successful accommodation into the world of work is the ability to enter a variety of careers. The more choices available, the more likely it is that individuals will find satisfying jobs. Who among us could choose a wardrobe that would please us given only one kind of shirt, or their ideal mate from only three or four members of the opposite sex?

To what extent does a college degree open additional career paths? This is perhaps best measured by the effect of degree on the numbers of persons employed in Managerial/Professional and Technical/Sales/Administrative Support occupations. Persons employed in these areas could generally find jobs in many blue collar fields if they so chose (with some exceptions, e.g., in the case of special union rules and/or long apprenticeships). Persons in Managerial/Professional occupations, especially, have nearly the whole spectrum of jobs open to them. Those employed in blue collar occupations usually find it comparatively much more difficult to obtain Technical, Professional, or Managerial jobs (again, there are exceptions). The percentage of those employed in the two aforementioned job classes is a general measure of the percentage who have the widest range of jobs available to them.

Data in Figures 3-5 show the kinds of jobs people with high school diplomas and college degrees are able to obtain.

A college education makes career options possible that simply are not available to many deaf high school graduates. Those persons with sub-Bachelor degrees are employed a good deal more often in Managerial/Professional occupations than are those with no degree. Those holding Bachelors degrees are much more frequently in these professions than are persons with sub-bachelor degrees. Equally important, most of the difference made by a college degree is evident shortly after graduation. There are some changes over time (e.g., sub-Bachelor graduates show some tendency to move from Technical/Sales/Administrative Support into Managerial/ Professional), but the greatest differences are apparent at entry into the first job.


Although not everyone works for a wage above all else, money certainly is important, and surely a larger salary is generally better than a smaller one. As James Baldwin (1968) said, "..... you thought of nothing else if you didn't have [money], and thought of other things if you did." Money makes it possible to buy life's necessities, and by doing this frees one from preoccupation with obtaining it. It also expands one's options in many areas: additional education, creative use of leisure time, a variety of avocations, etc. An increase in earnings is normally a very positive occurrence. To what extent does a degree influence earnings? Presented in Figure six are 1983 earnings of graduates, both at sub-Bachelor and Bachelor level. By way of comparison, averaged earnings of withdrawals from NTID, and persons who were accepted but who did not register are included, because these are persons of comparable ability with a much lower percentage of college degrees.

It cannot be assumed, of course, that none of the no-shows or withdrawals received a college degree. However, what can be assumed is that, at the very least, they received fewer degrees. Moreover, in the case of withdrawals and no-shows, their abilities are comparable (they all qualified for admission to college). Given these conditions, the above data provide a very conservative estimate of the additional earnings that graduates attain, both in the early years, and over the first $2500-6800 annually at entry into work, and that this difference will grow to $10,000 - $38,000 per year after 20 years. As measured by its role in augmenting earnings, a college degree certainly is related to success in the world of work.

Job Satisfaction

Based on data presented thus far, it appears safe to say that a college education is of great help to deaf adults in their efforts to adapt to the world of work. Data presented to this point consist of relatively tangible phenomena (whether the person has a job or not, what their salary is, etc.), comparatively easy concepts to quantify and measure.

The importance of satisfaction with one's work is and has long been of obvious, paramount importance. As important as it is, it certainly is a difficult thing to measure. The very things that allow one individual to feel fulfilled may well prompt the person at the next work station to begin reading the want-ads. The list of conditions that influence satisfaction is lengthy; there really is a multitude of possibilities, requiring many studies to examine comprehensively. Only a few variables are examined in this study, principally having to do with the general areas of communication and social interaction.

These variables were chosen because communication and interaction with co-workers are issues of great importance to the deaf worker in a hearing environment, and the graduates interviewed said they frequently experienced barriers in these areas. For these reasons, it seemed a logical place to begin examining job satisfaction. No pretense is made that this is a complete description of all components of job satisfaction.

Graduates reported that they were usually able to communicate with co-workers in one- to- one situations well enough to perform routine job tasks. Even with this limited success, they indicated that communication with hearing co-workers was generally somewhat stressful. A combination of the necessity for totally visual communication, frequent anxiety over whether a message is communicated or received accurately, and the endless sense of reliance on hearing co-workers all contribute to the pressure. Moreover, they were still excluded from informal conversations at work, such as the office grapevine, and frequently missed information which others picked up through overhearing the casual conversations of others. In the following illustration, a graduate describes her exclusion from these informal communication networks:

Graduate: It's not like they never talk to me. They do talk to me, but... I do notice that they don't tell me some of the things that they tell other workers. Like I've noticed that... about a year and a half ago we had new people into the department, and they know more than I do now. And it's because they have favoritism... Or maybe [because] other people are curious and ask questions about what they're doing, so naturally they get the information. I've tried that myself, but they say, Well, you're not supposed to know it," or "It's not important." It's not fair to me, you know. I understand maybe some things they can't teach me because I can't answer the phone. I understand that. That's no problem with me, but there are other things that doesn't require the telephone, and I should know. Like the other people know about.

Interviewer: Why did they not teach you the same things?

Graduate: Because it's not required.

Interviewer: But, why only you? Why are you put on the side? What's your opinion [about that]?

Graduate: Maybe they don't feel close to me, you know, because I'm deaf. Maybe, I feel it's [because it's] hard to communicate. But really, you're not supposed to know - only the people who are advancing should know, but other people are just like me, but they know more than I do. Maybe because they also hear the different... things that they're always talking about that I don't hear all the time, you know what I mean? It's just like if you ask me, "Do you remember so and so?" I would say, Who?" You know, I wouldn't know because I don't hear it. But if you explain to me who that person is, I'd say, "Yeah, I know." You know the different things that you commonly use, which they're probably able to ask the different questions, where... I don't know what to ask sometimes...

And another example:

"... I noticed that I am working and working... I'll [see]... Jeff or Sid, they would be sitting and talking about the news and stuff, and it's like, Hey, I want to be able to talk to you, too.' And then my other [deaf] friends, they want to have the same kind of opportunity to communicate with the bosses [as the hearing workers]... but they don't. They say, well, because they are deaf they just ignore us."

Implicit in the comments above is the idea that exclusion from informal communication networks can limit mobility within the work place. In the following quotation, a graduate makes this connection explicit:

Graduate: I don't have that ability as the management. I don't have it... I don't want to... be a manager or anything.

Interviewer: Why not?

Graduate: I don't want responsibility. I don't want any problems with communication with hearing people. If I become a boss, it's gonna be a problem. I think it's better if you're hearing and you hear what's going on before you fall off the top. I don't know. I'm afraid of losing power... If you want to get up to the top, you have to stay in power, defend yourself from falling off. You have to hear what's going on or you have some trusty persons by your side. Hearing people can hear what's going on. I'm deaf. I can't hear. Even somebody talking behind my back, I can't hear. And so the chance is you can be beat out easily.

Communication on the telephone often represents a barrier to deaf employees, one which graduate saw as having direct impact on their ability to perform their job and move up within the company. It is important to note that although deaf people can use telephones which are equipped with a Telecommunications Device for the Deaf (TDD), only one graduate said his company provides a TDD for deaf employees.

Similarly, communication at meetings was often restricted by the lack of adequate support services and other special accommodations. Interpreters were rare, and other less costly accommodations such as insuring that the meeting room is adequate lit, having participants take turns and speak clearly, and providing written agendas and summary notes, were seldom made consistently or comprehensively enough to permit complete access to communication at meetings. Not surprisingly, graduates said they sometimes avoided meetings at work, or attended without participating:

Interviewer: Were there meetings at that job?

Graduate: Yes, they had meetings, but no interpreter there. I'd just sit there and twiddle my fingers. They would write short notes as to say what was happening. Still, I couldn't understand sometimes... I didn't refuse [to go to the meetings]. I went, because they did write notes, not long notes, just short ones that would say, "They're talking about business," etc. ... just a short note.

Interviewer: Did you ever feel that you missed some important information?

Graduate: Oh yes, a lot.

Participation in meetings is not always expected or important. However, the lack of appropriate accommodations can become critical when participation in group discussions is seen as a sign of team spirit, productivity, or commitment. The following story takes on even greater significance when interviewed in light of the fact that the graduate had been with the company almost six years at the time of the interview.

Interviewer: Are meetings a problem for you?

Graduate: Yes, only because there are so many people talking at one time... the way I've gone around that is I just wait for a status report. I go to the meeting anyway, hoping that someday I'll pick up something and I'll contribute. The head of my department said to me, "You don't seem to participate that much in meetings," and I tell him, "I'm listening. I'm spending more time listening than I am being able to say something." I told them that if I have any questions, I'll wait until after we have the status report and I'll read it' and if I can contribute something significant, I will contribute to it then... I miss out on a lot but I don't consider it to be a big problem as long as I am able to get some kind of literature about that meeting.

Interviewer: Have you ever asked people to speak one at a time or to slow down?

Graduate: No, Because I think that will slow down the meeting. It's the company's time, and time is precious to individuals and I don't want to slow down their time for any inconvenience, unless I thought that there was something that I think I can contribute to and [then] I would say, "Wait a minute, could you repeat that please." I've never really had to do that because I've not been able to pick up well enough yet in the meetings... I think with practice I'll learn what the dialogue is and eventually I will pick that up... So yeah, it's a problem, but it's not something that I can't cope with just by waiting until I get the report and hopefully maybe someday I'll be able to contribute something into a meeting if I pick up on something.

Communication barriers often lead to social isolation for the deaf person in the workplace. Coffee break, lunch time, going out together for a drink after work - all the informal interactions which lead to friendships at work, were often times of loneliness and boredom for the deaf person. Some examples:

..... a lot of people at work may laugh a lot and I don't because I can't hear what they are saying. You know, they form their own groups. I feel left out.

..... many times, a lot of people would not talk to me about things, even personal life of themselves, like say... [tell me that], "My sister had a baby girl." They don't tell me any of those things. You know, that's not that personal, but, I mean, it's nice. It'd be nice for them to share that with me... but they're not open to that. A lot of people won't open themselves. So really it's frustrating. All you do is talk about the job. I'm really lonely at work."

Graduate: ... mostly what I would do during lunch break ... is just sit and read the newspaper.

Interviewer: Ah, so you didn't feel comfortable writing back and forth and stuff at lunch with the hearing people?

Graduate: I really didn't think of anything to say. You know, the hearing people, they would be talking and again, I felt limited with what conversation could be made. You couldn't have much in-depth conversations, it would be very limited anyway.

Sometimes hearing co-workers did invite the deaf person to join them. However, unless they were willing to extend themselves to the point of changing communication styles by writing, speaking clearly and taking turns, the invitation was little more than a token gesture.

Interviewer: When work's finished, do you go out with the other people for drinks?

Graduate: No, I go home...

Interviewer: Do they invite you?...

Graduate: Sometimes. Like I go to the bar, and they say, "Hey, come on over to the bar," and I go over there, and they all sit there talking anyhow. There's nothing for me to do. I'm still locked out. So the next time I said, "Naw, uh-uh." They say, "Come on, lets go drinking and stuff." And I go, "No." And off I go. I'm going home...

Social isolation clearly reduces overall job satisfaction in the sense that nobody enjoys being lonely or left out. Sometimes, however, the implications of being an outsider at work go beyond questions of loneliness to issues of whether one is seen as part of the team or group, as in the following story:

"To know people right now in my company, they don't know me very well. They only know me as a guy from Chicago. This is the fifth year I've been working and normally, we are supposed to.... treat each other as family. I'm one person most people don't talk to me, because I made it that way. Not intentionally, but the handicap I got - not [a] physical handicap, [not a] hearing handicap, [but] my social handicap. To them, I'm being anti-social. To me, I am a social handicap."

In sum, it may be said conservatively that there is room for improvement in the amount of fulfillment the graduates interviewed for this project derive from their careers. Communication problems sometimes have serious repercussions. Although the graduates usually can communicate enough for most routine job tasks, they report trouble in meetings, and their informal communication with co-workers is limited. They often feel isolated and lonely at work, unable to join in social activities and other informal gatherings. Sometimes these areas of dissatisfaction are seen as simply affecting the degree to which the deaf person is happy in their job. In other cases, limited access to communication and social networks places clear limitations on the deaf employee's ability to perform their job well, and, over time, may restrict their mobility within the company.



College graduates studied are all alumni of one institution. They may not be representative of all deaf college graduates. Likewise, high school graduates studied are almost exclusively graduates of schools for the deaf, and findings may not be generalizable to all deaf high school graduates.

Interview data were collected from only 25 students, all of whom live in New York state. Data are not necessarily generalizable to other deaf college alumni. The interview portion of the study must be viewed as exploratory.

Finally, successful adaptation to the work place can be measured in many ways. There are no doubt many components of success that are not examined here. In this sense also, the study should be regarded as preliminary.

Summary of Findings

Findings of the study indicate that there are areas in which a college degree facilitates initial and continued success in the world of work. A college graduate is more likely to join the labor force, for example, and once, in the labor force, is considerably more likely to be employed. Labor force participation and employment rates of college graduates remain higher than for non-graduates, even after the passage of considerable time.

Additionally, a deaf college graduate can exercise more career options than a non-graduate. Graduates are employed at all occupational levels, principally Managefial/Professional and Technical/ Sales/Administrative Support. A majority of non-graduates are employed in Craft, Operative, or Service occupations. Whereas college graduates could move to most of the latter categories should they chose, non-degreed persons generally have more difficulty moving into Managerial, Professional, or Technical areas; they typically lack the necessary credentials.

Deaf college graduates earn more money than do non-graduates, and those with higher degrees earn more than those having lower degrees. Differences exist at entry into the world of work, and increase greatly over time.

The benefits of a college degree in these rather tangible, measurable areas are not mirrored in the area of j ob satisfaction. There is evidence that significant problems concerning access to communication and social networks caused many of those interviewed to be dissatisfied with their assimilation into the work place in spite of the fact that they held a college degree. The change from school to work is difficult enough when communication and interaction with colleagues is easy; when these activities are difficult, other problems can be magnified several times.

Graduates say they are able to communicate one-on-one well enough to perform daily job functions. However, they report significant trouble with communication in meetings. Even more devastating, they are generally left out of the office grapevine. Personal conversations with their hearing co-workers, when they do occur, are often perfunctory. Graduates indicate that they are sometimes lonely, and very often feel isolated. The negative impact of these conditions on job satisfaction is clear. Failure to access communication and social networks at work may also significantly limit the productivity and mobility of deaf people.

Implications for Policy and Practice

The data offer clear, strong support for making post-secondary education as accessible as possible to deaf persons, and for support systems to keep attrition rates as low as possible. College educated deaf people find better jobs, find them more easily, and earn more money. They enjoy a substantially higher socioeconomic status than do their counterparts who have no degree.

College graduates have an advantage in all these areas, not only immediately after graduation, but after the passage of many years as well.

Data also suggest that there are areas in which deaf college graduates have considerable difficulty, especially those areas related to communication. Post-secondary institutions need to work diligently with students to maximize their ability to access communication and social networks involving hearing people. Additionally, these schools need to work as closely as possible with prospective employers to sensitize them to the needs of deaf workers and provide them with the information and technology to fully include their deaf employees in communication and interaction.

Further Research

It is recommended that all components of this study be replicated on deaf graduates of other colleges. All college graduates in this study were graduates of the Rochester Institute of Technology, and may not be representative of all deaf college alumni. Also recommended is research that includes a greater percentage of mainstreamed deaf secondary school alumni. Nearly all non-degreed persons included in this study were graduates of schools for the deaf, and they may be significantly different in some respects from mainstreamed students. Finally, in order that the perceptions of deaf people in different employment environments can be determined, the interview portion of the study needs to be pursued with persons with a variety of backgrounds, in different jobs, and in other pans of the country.


1 A cross-sectional analysis involves the study of different cohorts at the same point in time; a longitudinal analysis, a study of the same cohort at different points in time. For example, a cross-sectional analysis of changes in employment rate might involve studying the 1988 employment rate of persons who graduated 1,3,5,10 and 15 years ago. Changes in employment rate by age could then be noted. A longitudinal analysis would involve following graduates of the same class over a period of time, and noting their unemployment rate 1,3,5, 10 and 15 years after college.

2 The most recent IRS data available was for tax year 1983.


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Author:Foster, Susan B.
Publication:The Journal of Rehabilitation
Date:Jan 1, 1991
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