Successful Transitions to College for Students with Disabilities

need to know

By Elizabeth C. Hamblet

In my work as a learning specialist at Columbia University’s Disability Services office and a speaker who gives presentations on transition to college for students with disabilities, I come into contact with of the people involved in the lives of these students – parents, various professionals and the students themselves.

Elizabeth Hamblet
Elizabeth C. Hamblet

In the number of years I have been working at the post-secondary level, I have not seen much of a change in the assumptions people make about the college environment, many of which are wrong. My fear is that such incorrect assumptions affect both the preparation students receive at the high school level and the decisions they make about their post-secondary options. We need to correct families' misunderstandings early in a student's education. Experts recommend that information about college be shared at least as early as the 8th grade so that students can set their sights on college early and make sure that they complete the necessary courses to get themselves into college and learn the strategies they will need to stay there. 

These misunderstandings follow several different themes. Some assume that Ivy League and other competitive colleges are out of reach for students with disabilities because these schools will not accept them or, if they do, the colleges do not have to provide accommodations. Others assume that post-secondary services work the same way that they do in high school – that colleges have to locate students with disabilities and provide them with every accommodation and modification they received in high school.

And some believe other falsehoods, such as that colleges charge students for disability accommodations, that SAT or ACT scores or high school transcripts indicate that students have disabilities, or that students have to make such a notification themselves on their college applications. None of these things are true. Misapprehensions need to be cleared up for students and their families so that students can make a post-secondary choice that is right for them and is not based on such myths.

In fact, it is up to students to decide whether they want to tell colleges that they have a disability; their transcripts and other relevant paperwork will not disclose this, and colleges are not allowed to ask.  Students with disabilities get accepted to colleges all across the competitive spectrum - community colleges through Ivy League schools - on the same basis on which their typical peers do.  This means that they do not have to meet any additional requirements, but it also means that they must have taken the same required courses, and have the same GPA, SAT or ACT scores, etc.

Once students are accepted to college, it is their responsibility to apply for accommodations because colleges don’t necessarily know they have a disability and are not obligated to offer services.  Even if a student mentions something on an application about having a disability, it is unlikely that such information will be forwarded to the college’s Disability Services office.  

Students can apply for accommodations as soon as they enroll at college, but they will not receive them unless they do so. Applying for accommodations may require students to attend a short meeting, and it typically involves completing a brief application and submitting a copy of their documentation. Some students will find that the documentation of their disability does not meet the college’s requirements or they may be told that while their high school considered them eligible for accommodations and services, they are not considered eligible by their college’s guidelines, such as when a student’s LD testing shows an even profile of skills with no real deficits.

Once/if they are found eligible for services, students will find certain accommodations are available, such as extended time to complete tests or permission to record their classes. However, they may find that their college does not offer other adjustments because they go beyond Disability Services’ mandate to “level the playing field” for students with disabilities. Services and accommodations vary across all colleges – and this is not determined by schools’ level of competitiveness or by whether they are public or private.

Each Disability Services office provides certain basic adjustments, and those that go beyond this do so because the college has decided to provide more extensive services. The only way for students to know whether the colleges they want to attend provide just the basics or do more than that is for them to check the offices’ websites and make phone calls to ask questions.

Families should also know that the law does not require colleges to make certain kinds of accommodations such as the substitution of a course requirement, so students need to check graduation requirements carefully as they research schools. They should not assume that they will receive a substitution (it is rarely a waiver) even if their high school provided one.

The kinds of support students receive at college are also different. Most colleges’ Disability Services offices do not employ disability specialists to help students with work and their role may be solely to provide academic accommodations. Students who want to receive tutoring are not entitled to more tutoring hours than typical students are, nor are they entitled to have tutoring delivered one-on-one if that is not how all students are treated. Students looking for these kinds of supports have to research the services provided by the colleges they hope to attend. Some schools offer special programs that provide such supports, but this is typically at an additional fee. Students and parents should learn early on about of the limitations on college services so that they see the importance of students learning independent study skills

This information about college admissions and services should not be a source of fear or concern, but rather it should be a basis for empowerment and encouragement. Students with disabilities have great success at all kinds of colleges, but the research tells us that those who do are aware of the changes there and are ready to handle them.

Special education teachers, administrators, and other related professionals have to make sure that students and their families have a full understanding of the post-secondary environment, and they have to provide students with the skills they will need to function in an environment where certain supports may not be available to them.

This kind of preparation requires a conscious effort by schools to teach students strategies they need to work independently -- and it should begin no later than their first year of high school. It also requires schools to educate families about the services commonly available at colleges so that all of the members of the IEP team work together to choose accommodations with an eye toward what will help to prepare students for a future at college.

The best way to ensure that students get the best possible preparation for college is to make sure that the professionals working with them are well informed, and to have a concrete plan in place to make sure that students receive the right information and training during their high school years.

7 Steps for SuccessElizabeth C. Hamblet is a learning specialist at Columbia University's Disability Services office. She is an author who gives presentations on transition to college for students with disabilities, and is the author of 7 Steps for Success: High School to College Transition Strategies for Students with Disabilities, published by CEC, and Nine Strategies to Improve College Transition Planning for Students with Disabilities, in the January/February 2014 issue of Teaching Exceptional Children, as well as numerous other articles on this topic.