Date: May 3, 2023Attorney: Arla D. Cahill

For many students who are classified in the public school as having an educational disability under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the difference between the educational supports provided in high school and the college or other post-secondary learning environment can be significant. A major difference is that, in high school, a classified student has a structured program with individually tailored accommodations and supports specific to the student’s educational needs, called an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), that must be provided by the public school.  

Colleges and universities that accept federal money cannot reject an otherwise qualified student’s application for admission solely on the basis of a disability, but they are not compelled to implement the student’s IEP. Rather, they are only obligated to provide “reasonable” accommodations to disabled students so long as the accommodations do not fundamentally alter the requirements of the college’s programs, such as extended time to take tests, taking tests in a room free of distractions, sign language interpreters for the deaf, and the use of a note taker or recorder for class notes. A student who had an IEP in high school though may have other more significant educational needs in a higher education learning environment than what is offered by any given college.

Therefore, asking the right questions before committing to a particular college or post-secondary learning environment is important to ensure that the student is on a pathway to success rather than failure and disappointment.  Here are some suggestions to consider:

  1. What Are the Student’s Educational Goals? Determining whether a degree or non-degree program is the right option is a personal choice and may depend on many variables pertinent to the student’s disability, interests and vocational aspirations. As of March 2019, there were 265 non-degree programs on university and college campuses across the country offering students with developmental and intellectual disabilities an opportunity to take college classes, engage in career development, vocational training and independent living activities, and participate in the social life of a college campus. 
  • What Accommodations and Supports are Necessary?  Review the last IEP and most recent evaluations to prepare a comprehensive list of accommodations and supports that your child must have in order to successfully participate in a higher learning environment.  This will be a useful tool when visiting prospective colleges and serve as a source of questions to determine if supports are available to address your child’s specific needs.  This list should also include specialized housing accommodations, sometimes called a “medical single”, that may be needed to address the student’s sensory issues.
  • Does the College Have a Formalized Program Specifically Designed with Learning Disabled Students in Mind? Ask if the prospective college will provide direct support, such as assigning a learning disability specialist to help develop a learning plan tailored to the individual needs of the student, one-to-one tutoring, small class sizes, mentoring, study skills workshops, coaching, readers, scribes, life skills training, job training and internships, assistive technology, advocacy training, and counseling. Ask whether there are any student “ambassadors” with whom you and your child can speak to get a sense of what their college experience is like as an educationally disabled student.
  • Are There Additional Fees Associated with Enhanced Accommodations and Supports?  In preparing a budget for college, it is important to ask if there are additional fees associated with having a greater level of support. The cost for learning disabled students enrolled in higher learning programs will vary greatly depending on whether the college is public or private, geographical location, the level of support required, whether the student is living in supported campus housing, and whether the college is inclusive or is solely for learning disabled students.  Additional costs related to academic/therapeutic supports can range from $5,000 to $20,000 or more per academic year at a public college.  Private colleges established solely for learning disabled students can cost in the neighborhood of $40,000-60,000 per academic year. Inquire whether there are any aid packages, scholarships or grants available to help offset tuition and fees.

While it may make things more challenging, an educational disability should not stand in the way of a student getting further education and instruction in order to become a more self-sufficient and productive adult. Families of students having educational disabilities are encouraged to do their research early in the process of school selection and visit prospective schools well in advance of their anticipated enrollment date.