Helping Students with Disabilities Make Good College Choices

04/23/2015  |  By Julia Frost

When high school students begin to consider postsecondary options, some of them find an almost limitless field of undergraduate choices. These are the students with grades, test scores, and/or athletic ability that make them prime candidates for generous scholarships from a wide array of institutions. It can also be the students whose families have the financial means to fund whatever type of institution in whatever locale the student might choose and be accepted to. Other students, however, are not as fortunate. 

They may not have the top grades, test scores, and/or athletic ability to qualify for the scholarships that are being offered their peers. Also, their families may not have the financial means to fund whatever institution they choose. Sometimes an even greater challenge can be adding a disability to this mix that could limit them even more in the search for their best postsecondary options. However, many of these students are quite capable of college success if the right college is chosen.

So, what are these students, their families, and secondary educators to do? Most importantly, begin planning early. This is a process, not a quick, capricious decision. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires that a transition plan be in effect when the student turns 16. It is required that this plan be individualized, based on the student’s strengths and interests, and include opportunities to develop functional skills for the future. As the plan is regularly reviewed over the next few years, input can be obtained from all high school personnel who work with this student to determine which plans and goals are realistic for the student and what skills the student will need to master in order to reach these goals. Accommodations or support services that will be needed in the postsecondary setting in order to reach those goals will also need to be determined.Then, it will be necessary to find postsecondary options that provide this support.

For example, if students are expected to transition from small high schools where modificationshave always been made for them as a matter of course into large public universities where they must advocate on a regular basis to access the same accommodations, that step may be too large to take immediately following high school. However, if the students can be taught self-advocacy skills in the final years of high school, they may be ready for a transition of this magnitude.Also, if a smaller college with a comprehensive support program is chosen rather than the large public institution that is close to home, that program can guide students toward better self-advocacy skills as they go through college, so that they can continue their previous success.

Another very important step that needs to be taken is to insure that the student receives the same accommodations on the ACT or SAT that he or she receives on tests at school. Students with disabilities often cannot show colleges what their potential is through these high stakes tests if they are required to take them in exactly the same manner that all other students take them. However, in order to get these accommodations, there is paperwork to complete and guidelines to follow. This has to be submitted to the testing agency earlier than applications for students without disabilities in order to take the test on a national testing day. The results, though, can be astounding. For instance, sometimes simply allowing a quiet place to take the exam with extended time can significantly raise the composite score for an individual with AD/HD from someone who might not get into college to a student who could even be offered an academic scholarship! By helping the student to access these accommodations, the result will be scores that can potentially open doors for him or her to colleges that might not have been available otherwise.

As high school personnel continue through transition planning, what resources are available to help them to successfully move a student from their care into a new setting where success can continue rather than making a quick decision that sets the student up for failure?

First, it might be helpful to consult the websites of national organizations that specialize in the type of disability that the student has. Each one has suggestions on navigating the transition process, many of which will be specific to students with that particular disability that school personnel may not have considered. Then, it will be necessary to carefully consider a variety of schools that have the type of support program that can provide the services that it has been determined the student will need. One of the best resources for this search is “The K&W Guide to Colleges for Students with Learning Differences.” After finding a group of colleges that appear to be the best fit, then peruse their websites and talk to someone involved in each support program. If it still appears that this school might be a possibility, the next step is to schedule a visit.Before the student makes the visit, help them with determining specific questions they should ask. Besides talking to one of the staff members of the program, insure that the student meets another student who utilizes the support of that program to determine firsthand exactly how the program works. Encourage students to find the program that provides the support they need at a college that they feel like could be home for several years. If this task appears too complex for the family, they might choose to engage the services of an independent educational consultant, a professional with training and expertise in this area.

In my work, I have seen many instances where parents or students themselves insisted that they attend the parents’ alma mater or a large university that had the athletic teams that they loved without considering the academic support provided. These college experiences most often ended in failure, which left the student with a deflated self-esteem and a low GPA, trying to determine the next step and doubting his or herability to complete college. In actuality, this student may certainly have had the intellectual ability to attend and succeed in college if the right college choice had been made, a choice that provided the student with the academic support to learn and the tools to compensate for his or her disability. Without a doubt, taking the time to help students with disabilities to make the right college choice can positively change their lives.

Julia Frost is the Director, Jones Learning Center at University of the Ozarks. For more information, visit
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