To College

When it comes to post-secondary schooling, students with disabilities have a different set of challenges they must face. With the right information, these students can thrive in college and start building their future. In fact, many colleges, universities, and trade schools see the importance of an inclusive and accessible learning environment. This means students with disabilities can find the support and service they need in school. This page will discuss some higher education options, some differences between high school and college, and ways to get assistance for students with disabilities.

Higher Education Options

There are exciting college and other higher education possibilities for young adults with disabilities that offer a wide range of choices and can benefit most students.

  • College/University Programs
    • Four-year colleges and universities differ in location, cost and admissions
  • Community College
    • Offers basic, core requirements that can allow for transfer to other colleges, and most have degree programs for specific training, such as computer programming, medical assisting, or criminal justice.
  • Comprehensive Training Programs (CTP)
    • In 2008, the Higher Education Opportunity Act (HEOA) for the first time provided access to financial aid to students with intellectual disability attending college programs that meet CTP requirements. CTPs are designed for postsecondary students with intellectual disabilities to continue academic, career and technical, and independent living instruction in order to prepare for employment.
  • Life Skills Programs
    • Educational programs designed to help young people learn necessary skills for independent living.
      • TimeManagement
      • Social Skills
      • Hygiene
      • Career study
      • Situational Awareness
      • Financial Management
  • Online Colleges
    • Online colleges have legal responsibility to provide equal access to course materials to students with disabilities. The ADA and Section 504 do not specifically discuss distance learning. However, the general provisions of the laws require that postsecondary schools provide equal access to programs and services offered to the public. If a qualified person with a disability enrolls in a distance learning course, that course should be available to them and reasonable accommodations provided to ensure an equal opportunity to learn.

Some Differences between High School and College

College provides opportunities for students to become more independent. As a student transitions from high school to college, there are some big differences that they need to know about. There is no IEP and the student will have more responsibility to connect with services. Some of the biggest differences between high school and college for students with disabilities are listed below:

  • Identification
    • High School: Students with disabilities are usually identified by the school district.
    • College: Students must self-identify by registering with the disability services office.
  • Privacy
    • High School: Information is shared with parent/guardian.
    • College: Student’s information is confidential
  • Placement/Accommodations
    • High School: Placement and accommodation decisions include parent/guardian.
    • College: Placement and accommodation decisions do not include parent/guardian.
  • Eligibility
    • High School: Eligibility for services is driven by falling below grade norms.
    • College: Eligibility for services is driven by the impact of the disability on major life activities.

Assistance for College Students with Disabilities

  • College disability centers can help students, living on or off campus, get services they need to be successful in class and help make the campus more accessible. The centers are a good place to go if students with disabilities are feeling like they could use some help navigating this new experience. Students can contact the centers during the application process for college and by providing any documentation needed to apply and qualify for services on campus. 504 accommodations are available to eligible students in higher education through their Disability Resource Center. Students should keep their own documentation in case the secondary school’s 504 record is unavailable.
  • The FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) is used to determine eligibility and requires students to provide information on their dependent or independent status, financial circumstances, and citizenship. All students seeking federal aid must fill out a FAFSA, whether they have a disability or not. One difference between students with and without disabilities as it relates to loans is the calculation of costs for attendance. Attendance costs usually include the common factors of tuition, room and board, etc., but can also include costs related to a disability.
  • Grants – Unlike loans, grants do not have to be paid back. One of the most widely used grant programs is the Federal Pell Grant. The Pell Grant gives need-based grants to low-income undergraduate and certain post-baccalaureate students that can be used at any one of approximately 5,400 participating postsecondary institutions. By law, grants under this program cannot discriminate against students with disabilities. Grant amounts are based on several factors including:
    • a student’s expected family contribution
    • attendance costs at a specific school
    • enrollment status (full- or part-time)
    • whether the student attends for a full academic year or less
  • Scholarships – many schools and organizations offer students with disabilities scholarship programs to help ease the cost of college.
  • If you have an intellectual disability, you may receive funding from the Federal Pell Grant, Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant, and Federal Work-Study programs if:
    • you are enrolled or accepted for enrollment in a comprehensive transition and postsecondary (CTP) program for students with intellectual disabilities at an institution of higher education (a college or career school) that participates in the federal student aid programs;
    • are maintaining satisfactory academic progress; and
    • meet the basic federal student aid eligibility requirements, except that you are not required to have a high school diploma or GED and are not required to be pursuing a degree or certificate.
  • Vocational Rehabilitation - Students with disabilities may also be eligible for financial help through their state’s vocational rehabilitation program. These programs generally work to help people with disabilities gain employment but can include postsecondary educational financial help to meet an individual’s employment goals. For more information, check with your state’s vocational rehabilitation agency.


Information & Support

For Parents and Patients
This parent-friendly site provides information, a discussion board, a listserv, resources, student stories, and links to colleges and programs that support youth with intellectual disabilities. Good site for young people with disabilities who are looking into college—search for what’s happening in your state and how to apply.

College for Students with Disabilities: A Guide for Students, Families, and Educators
Provides thorough information on things to consider when thinking about college. Compiled by Maryville University Online, St. Louis, MO, 2018.

Online Colleges--Resources for Students with Disabilities
A great guide for online colleges for students with disabilities. Covers educational rights, grants and education resources, with a filterable search feature for online higher education.

Scholarships for students with disabilities
An online guide to financing options and benefits available to disabled students; includes a very good list of scholarship opportunities specifically for students with disabilities.

College Support for Students with Disabilities (PDF Document)
This guide provides an overview of the legal rights of students with disabilities, as well as advice and next steps when considering which college to attend; and a list of links to web applications and software programs that aid students with various disabilities. Center for Online

State Education Contacts and Information
This page has contact information for state school resources, including the department of education, the higher education agency, special education agency and adult education agency in any state, commonwealth, or territory; U.S. Department of Education.

National Center on Secondary Education and Transition
This easy-to-use website provides information about transition during high school and to opportunities after high school including jobs, vocational education, and college. Provides links to contacts in each state for State Transition Contact, Regional Resource Center Contact, State Director of Special Education, Part B Contact, and State Director or Vocational Rehabilitation.

Services for Patients & Families Nationwide (NW)

For services not listed above, browse our Services categories or search our database.

* number of provider listings may vary by how states categorize services, whether providers are listed by organization or individual, how services are organized in the state, and other factors; Nationwide (NW) providers are generally limited to web-based services, provider locator services, and organizations that serve children from across the nation.

Authors & Reviewers

Initial publication: July 2008; last update/revision: October 2019
Current Authors and Reviewers:
Contributing Authors: Gina Pola-Money
Lisa Samson-Fang, MD
Reviewer: Tina Persels
Authoring history
2008: first version: Alfred N. Romeo, RN, PhDR
AAuthor; CAContributing Author; SASenior Author; RReviewer