Introduction to Post-Secondary Education

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College and other postsecondary education options are becoming more available for students with disabilities, including students with intellectual and/or developmental disabilities (I/DD). Because a college degree or vocational certificate is increasingly important in finding and maintaining competitive jobs, this is good news for students with disabilities. However, post-secondary education can be a big change for any student, and can be especially difficult for students with I/DD who may need more academic, social, and daily living supports than other students.

As students with disabilities think about whether and where to continue their education after high school, it is important to remember that post-secondary education programs vary in both their overall quality and in the quality of supports they provide. Some schools may be a much better fit than others. Before making a decision, students and their families should learn about the kinds of supports the school provides to students with disabilities. It may also be helpful to learn about the experiences of other students with disabilities at the school.

Taking extra steps to prepare for post-secondary education and understand what supports are available and how to ask for those supports can help students with disabilities be more successful.

How is post-secondary education different from high school for students with disabilities?

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Some of the main differences between high school and post-secondary education are:

  • Student’s rights
  • Advocacy for services and supports
  • Expectations of student independence

In high school, the law requires schools to figure out which students have disabilities and what supports they need to actually make educational progress. In post-secondary education, the school doesn’t have to provide any supports unless a student tells the school that he or she has a disability and asks for reasonable accommodations. In addition, the school is only required to provide the accommodations that give the student equal “access” to an education at that school; there is no guarantee that the student actually experiences academic or social success.

Another difference is that parents and teachers are expected to help students ask for help in high school. In post-secondary education, students are expected to ask for the help they need largely by themselves. Although their parents can provide the same level of financial or emotional support that any parent can provide to a student in college, the parents of students with disabilities do not have a right to advocate for the student’s services and supports in post-secondary education without their child’s permission. In fact, colleges and other training programs may not even talk to a student’s parent without permission from the student.

Finally, high school students with disabilities are often provided extra help with creating and managing their schedule, writing down assignments and remembering to turn in work, and navigating complicated social situations. Plus, their parents still largely make or help make daily living, financial, and health care decisions. Though some supports may be available in these areas in post-secondary education, they vary widely based on the school, and students will mostly be expected to manage their day, get their work done, and interact with other students on their own. This will require time management, studying, and social skills. Students usually need travel, money management, and health management skills as well, so that they can get to, from, and around campus, pay bills, and manage their hygiene and healthcare needs, mostly on their own. These independent living skills are very important to practice when students are still at home and have a safety net.

What post-secondary education options are available for students with disabilities?

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Students with disabilities have the same post-secondary education options as students without disabilities, and even more. However, the level of disability-related supports offered will differ greatly by school, so it is important that students research the supports available at each school they are considering and whether the school is a good fit for them.

Which option students choose largely depends on their academic interests, what kind of job they want, and the amount of supports they need. People can work in most fields with anything from a trade certificate to a PhD; it just depends on the job they want and the amount of school they can and want to take. Students should research what level of education is needed for the job they want before deciding what kind of school to attend. Options include:

  • Vocational and technical schools where students can earn a certification, and typically get hands-on training, in a specific trade.
  • Traditional two- and four-year colleges where students can earn an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in their chosen field, typically taking a broader range of academic subjects, in addition to those in their chosen field.
  • Traditional graduate-level programs where students can earn a master’s degree or doctorate degree, after earning their bachelor’s degree, in their chosen field.
  • Programs within traditional two- and four-year colleges and entire colleges that are only for students with disabilities. These are very limited and typically more expensive than traditional college programs. The K&W Guide to Colleges for Students with Learning Differences provides detailed information about college programs for students with disabilities and is available in libraries or for purchase online. The book is updated every two years so be sure to look for the most recent edition.
  • College programs specifically for students with intellectual disabilities who may not have earned a high school diploma. These programs typically include academic courses, campus-wide social activities, and employment-related activities. Some, but not all, have a campus-based residential program as well. These programs are also limited and typically more expensive than traditional college programs. For more information, visit Think College.

All post-secondary education programs must provide accommodations to ensure that students with disabilities have access to their programs and buildings, but whether that means as little as offering extra time to take tests or as much as providing small classrooms with tutoring and assistive technology supports is very different at each school. Again, it is really important that students and their families understand the specific supports that the student will need and research the supports that each school provides before deciding which schools might be a good fit for them.

How do students with disabilities plan for post-secondary education?

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Students with disabilities need to do many of the same things that students without disabilities do to prepare for post-secondary education. However, they will also need to research and ask about services and supports available for students with disabilities.

Take Admissions Tests
Not all programs require scores from an admissions test to apply. For example, many trade schools, community colleges, and programs specifically for students with disabilities do not require an admissions test. Fewer traditional four-year colleges are requiring admissions test scores as well. However, many still do, so it is important to find out what the requirements are for the schools the student is considering.

The ACT and the SAT are the two admissions tests offered for college. They are given several times a year. Most colleges are willing to accept either test. Some colleges also require additional tests. Students need to register for the test they want to take. Students can take a free practice test online to see which test suits them better. Most students take the test in their junior year, so they can take it again early in their senior year if they want to do more practice and try to get a higher score. Students can look at the average scores for students who are accepted to the schools they are thinking about to see whether they should try to get a higher score.

Students with disabilities may also need to apply for accommodations on the test. Examples of accommodations are extra time to complete the test, special testing rooms, ability to take breaks, providing verbal responses, marking directly in the test booklet, use of a computer for essay sections, sign language or written instructions, and large-print materials. Students with disabilities must apply for accommodations and be approved. They do not automatically get accommodations just because they have an individualized education program, or IEP, or Section 504 Plan in high school. Students will need proof that they have a disability and how it affects their ability to take the test. Getting approved can take many weeks, so students should start working with their school to get the documents they need by the fall of their junior year. Students can appeal if their application for accommodations is denied.

Research Schools
This is one of the most important steps in planning for post-secondary education for any student, but it is especially important for students with disabilities, because the level of disability-related supports available is so different at each school.

Some issues that all students should consider are:

  • How hard the school is to get into and whether it requires a high school diploma?
  • Whether the school will prepare the student for the career he or she wants?
  • In what types of jobs are recent graduates of the school or program working?
  • Whether the school has the kinds of courses the students wants and needs to take?
  • Whether the school provides a variety of courses to explore different careers if the student does not know what kind of job he or she wants?
  • Whether the school is located where the student wants to be, such as a big city, a college town, or a small rural area?
  • How many students attend the school?
  • How big the campus is and whether there is transportation to, from, and around campus?
  • How far from home the school is?
  • Whether there is housing available?
  • What kinds of clubs, sports, and other social and recreational activities are available?
  • How much the school costs, including tuition, housing, books, and other fees?

Some issues that students with disabilities need to consider, depending on their disability and their specific needs, are:

  • How many students with disabilities attend the school?
  • What kind of disability-related supports have past and current students received?
  • What kind of supports are available in scheduling classes?
  • What kind of academic supports are available?
  • What kind of accommodations are available for class attendance, turning in papers, and taking tests?
  • What kind of housing supports are available?
  • What kind of social supports are available?
  • What kind of daily living supports are available?
  • What kind of medical supports are available?
  • How easy is it for students who use wheelchairs or have other mobility impairments to get around campus?
  • What athletic activities are available for students who use wheelchairs or have other mobility impairments?
  • What kind of counseling and other mental health supports are available?
  • How students request disability-related services?
  • Whether high school students can talk to current students with disabilities about their academic, residential, athletic, and social experiences at the school?

Tour schools
Students may not be able to find answers to many of the previous questions simply by reading the school’s brochure or looking at the website. In addition to finding written information, students should always try to visit the schools they are seriously considering. They can create a list before their visit of the issues that they want to learn more about, use the list to get as much information as possible during the tour, and then compare the information from the different schools they visit to figure out which schools will be the best fit. Students should be sure to visit the office that supports students with disabilities when they visit schools.

Apply to Schools

Once the student has researched and toured the schools he or she wants to attend, the student needs to put together all of the documents needed to complete an application. In addition to test scores and high school grades, some schools require students to write an essay and get letters of recommendation that show why the school should accept the student.

After the student submits the application, he or she should follow up with the school to make sure they received the application and that it was complete.

Is financial aid for post-secondary education different for students with disabilities?

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Students with disabilities have the same financial aid options that all students applying for post-secondary education have. However, they have some additional options as well. Any student planning to continue their education after high school needs to talk to their high school guidance office to find out what financial aid options might be available in their community or state. Students should also talk to the Financial Aid office at the schools they are considering to find out what kind of aid the school might offer.

One way for any student and his or her family to pay for post-secondary education is to save up money over time and pay for it themselves. Some students even work at the same time they take classes to help pay for their education. There are special accounts that families can set up to save money for college and other disability-related expenses called 529 Plans and ABLE Accounts. Families should research how these accounts affect their taxes, eligibility for public benefits, and eligibility for financial aid. Families can also talk to a financial planner or attorney.

For any student and his or her family that is not able to pay for all post-secondary education expenses themselves, they will need to apply for help, or financial aid. Some financial aid does not have to be paid back. This type of financial aid is called a scholarship or grant. Other financial aid does have to be paid back. This type of financial aid is called a loan. After they leave school, students and/or their parents will make monthly payments for a certain period of time to pay back the loan. The amount of the payments will depend on a lot of things, so students and their families should ask for as much information as possible from the bank that is giving them the loan, so that they understand how the loan will work.

Students will need to complete a form called the FAFSA to figure out what kind of grants or loans they qualify for. Some scholarships have their own individual applications, so students will need to research what kinds of scholarships they might be eligible for and how they apply for those specific scholarships. Again, high school guidance offices and college financial aid offices should be able to help, especially in identifying resources in your local community that may not be easily found online.

Students with disabilities may also qualify for help paying for some or all of their tuition and other post-secondary education expenses from their state’s vocational rehabilitation agency. Each state’s eligibility rules and services are different, so students need to talk to their state’s agency for more information. If a student is denied vocational rehabilitation services that the student believes he or she should receive, contact the Client Assistance Program, or CAP, in your state.

How do students ask for disability-related supports in post-secondary education settings?

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One of the first decisions students with disabilities will have to make when they are planning for post-secondary education is whether to tell the school that they have a disability. Students are not required to tell postsecondary education programs about their disabilities. It is their choice. Students may see post-secondary education as a chance to have a fresh start and get away from special education, so they may decide not to tell the school about their disability. Again, that is the student’s choice. However, if a student will need academic, physical, or mental health accommodations to be successful, then they will have to tell the school about their disability, how it affects their learning, and the kind of help, or accommodations, they are asking for.

Because the law requires post-secondary education programs to provide accommodations to students with disabilities that need and ask for them, many schools have created an office whose job is to work with students with disabilities. This office will have different names depending on the school, but students can search the word “disability” on the school’s website to find out more about this office. The office that supports students with disabilities will be able to answer many of the questions that students have about disability-related services at that school. Students should set up an appointment to visit the office and talk with the staff when they do their school tours. Be sure to ask for a copy of any school policies about getting disability services, including:

  • How students request accommodations?
  • What documents are needed as part of the request?
  • How long it takes to get approved for accommodations?
  • What students can do if they do not agree with the decision about what accommodations the school will provide?

Post-secondary education programs are not required to evaluate students to understand their needs like high schools are. The responsibility is on the students to obtain information that shows what accommodations they need and why. Different schools will require different documents. That’s why students must specifically ask what the school they have decided to attend requires. Once students understand what documents are required to get accommodations, they need to work with their high school and doctors to get all the paperwork together as soon as possible. Information they will often need to provide includes:

  • A quality report about their disability written by a qualified professional
  • Clear information about what disability they have and how it affects their learning
  • Scores and other results from formal and informal testing – including intellectual, academic, and social-emotional tests, depending on the student’s disability
  • The accommodations the student is requesting, including any information about how the accommodations have been successful in the past

Some schools may require a copy of the student’s most recent IEP with their request, but others may not. Though the IEP is the most important document while the student is in special education, post-secondary education programs are not required to follow it and typically will not create a similar document. However, it is still a good idea to provide the disability services office a copy of the student’s most recent IEP because it should include important information about the services, supports, and accommodations that the student was getting in high school and the ways in which the student learns best. It may also be a good idea to provide a copy of the student’s “summary of performance.” Schools must create a summary of performance for every student who has an IEP when the student graduates or turns 21 and no longer qualifies for special education services. The summary of performance should include a summary of the student’s academic and functional skills and recommendations regarding the supports the student will need in post-secondary education.

Staff from the disability services office will usually want to meet with the student to discuss the accommodations he or she is requesting and why before they make a decision. Students will get a written decision from the disability services office about what supports and accommodations the school is agreeing to provide. Students should reach out to the office if they haven’t gotten a decision at least several weeks before they begin school. Students should first try to informally resolve any disagreements with the disability services office about accommodations the school will provide. However, if disagreements are not resolved through informal conversations and meetings, students can file a complaint with the Office of Civil Rights in the US Department of Education or file an action in court. Students may want to talk to an attorney in their state if they are considering legal action.

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Once there is an agreement about what accommodations will be provided, students should ask the disability services office how their professors and other appropriate staff will be told about the accommodations and exactly what the student needs to do before and after school starts to make sure they get their accommodations. Even if the disability services office says they will communicate with the students’ professors, students may still want to talk to each of their professors before classes begin about the specific accommodations they’ll need for that class. Students should also make sure they understand what they need to do if they don’t get the accommodations they are supposed to get and if the accommodations aren’t helping and they need to ask for different ones.

What disability-related supports are available in post-secondary education settings?

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With the right academic supports, many students with disabilities take and pass typical post-secondary education classes. The supports that students can get will entirely depend on their disability and their needs. However, some accommodations that are often requested in post-secondary education include:

  • Preferential seating in class
  • Note-takers
  • Documents in specific formats like electronic, audio, enlarged text, or Braille
  • Use of assistive technology
  • Interpretation or real-time captioning
  • Extra time to complete work and take tests
  • Alternate ways to take tests including verbal directions, verbal answers, and separate test rooms
  • Assistance with organization and scheduling
  • Opportunities to audit classes before taking them for credit
  • Reduced credit loads

Some schools allow students to use more specialized services, such as:

  • Study skills support
  • Social skills support
  • Tutoring, coaching, or mentoring
  • Counseling and other mental health services
  • Personal attendants
  • Residential support

Some of these services are not provided for free by the school, so students need to clearly understand what the disability services office will provide and what the student is expected to pay for. The student may be able to use money from their scholarships, grants, or loans. Funding from their state’s vocational rehabilitation agency, private insurance, and Medicaid may also be available.

Are there special considerations for students with disabilities who live on campus?

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Students with disabilities must be provided accommodations in campus housing, just like they must be provided accommodations in class. There are many benefits to living on campus, including being fully integrated into the campus community, learning how to be independent, learning how to live with people with different opinions and lifestyles, and developing friendships and relationships. However, some students with disabilities may need extra supports to live on campus, so they need to plan and prepare for how to get their needs met.

Students may need to consider:

  • Whether they need help with daily living skills, like getting dressed, eating, bathing, and moving around
  • Whether they have special dietary needs
  • Whether they have special medical needs
  • Whether they have communication needs
  • What the school’s policy is on housing supports
  • What accommodations the student will need to live on campus

Some post-secondary education programs do not allow students to live on campus unless they are full-time students. Those policies may directly impact students with disabilities who are taking classes on a part-time basis or who are auditing classes. Students need to research these housing issues when applying to schools and make sure they have housing in place to meet their needs before they start school.

Where can I get more information?

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Books and Articles 

  • Banerjee, M. & Brinckerhoff, L.C. (2010). Helping students with disabilities navigate the college admissions process. In S. Shaw, J. W. Madaus & Dukes, L.L., Preparing students with disabilities for college success: A practical guide to transition planning.  Baltimore, MD: Brookes Publishing Co.
  • Collaborative on Workforce and Disability for Youth. (2005). The 411 on Disability Disclosure Workbook. Washington, DC: Institute for Educational Leadership.
  • Duffy, J, & Gugerty, J. (2005). The role of disability support services. In E.E. Getzel & P. Wehman, Going to College: Expanding opportunities for people with disabilities. Brookes Publishing, pp. 89-118.
  • Getzel, E. E. & Wehman, P. (2005). Going to college: Expanding opportunities for people with disabilities. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.
  • Getzel, E., & Briel, L. (2006). Pursuing postsecondary education opportunities for individuals with disabilities. In P. Wehman (Ed.), Life beyond the classroom: Transition strategies for young people with disabilities (pp. 355-368). Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.
  • Shaw, S., Madaus, J., Dukes, L. (2010). Preparing students with disabilities for college success. Baltimore, MD: Brooks Publishing Company.