College student with professorFinding the right college is an involved process. And for students with disabilities, the search includes understanding and locating the specific services and resources needed to academically excel. Schools are required to offer auxiliary aids that aim to create equal access to all students. As a result, each college and university has a plan in place to help students with disabilities succeed. The resources look a bit different than they do on the high school level, but with some advanced research, each student can find a school that is a good fit based on his or her needs and goals.

In high school, students with diagnosed disabilities typically receive services through a 504 Plan or an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). But those plans end at graduation. In the collegiate setting, obtaining services is voluntary and initiated solely by the student. Resources are determined on an individual basis according to current functional limitations.

According to the laws governing these rights (Section 504/Americans with Disabilities Act), approved services are designed to ensure equal access to students’ education by affording specific services or accommodations. While any school receiving federal funding is required to support students with disabilities, the level of support services can vary greatly depending on the school.

Take these steps to gather the information you need during the college search:

  • Research support services offered at potential schools online
  • Take college tours and meet with admission representatives to ask about available supports
  • Identify whether specific support programs require a separate application
  • Determine if services are fee-based or free to all students

It is important to note that students do not need to disclose their disabilities during the college admissions process. Once admitted, students requesting accommodations can then apply for services by disclosing their disability and providing the appropriate documentation. It is not the responsibility of the college to reach out to students to inquire about the existence of disabilities.

Similarly, once accommodations are in place, it is the student’s responsibility to advocate with professors and college staff to access their approved accommodations. At the secondary level, students may have had teachers, school counselors, or special educators advocating for them. The move to post-secondary education shifts that responsibility solely to the student.

Here are steps to take during the disability services application process:

  • Once admitted and enrolled, submit an application to the appropriate office at the college that helps students with disabilities
  • Provide documentation regarding the disability, including but not limited to:
    • Psychoeducational/neuropsychological evaluations
    • Medical history
    • Diagnostic information
  • Share the student’s IEP/504 Plan to demonstrate what services were helpful at the secondary level
  • Meet with a representative of the school to discuss needs, identify appropriate supports, and develop a 504 Plan

It’s important to note that accommodations cannot modify the fundamental nature of the course content since they are focused on ensuring equal access to the education as opposed to ensuring academic success.

Before leaving high school, students should begin developing their self-advocacy skills with their high school support network so that they can successfully navigate the process of accessing their support services in college and beyond. Encouraging students to take control of both the college search and disability services application process is invaluable as it encourages the development of those skills. These processes may take some additional time, but the efforts will be well worth it when the student finds the school that is the best educational fit based on his or her needs.

Shannon DandridgeShannon Dandridge is a School Counselor at Acton-Boxborough Regional High School. There, she has supported students for a decade in the development of their post-secondary educational plans. In addition to managing her overall caseload, Shannon is the Services for Students with Disabilities (SSD) Coordinator at Acton-Boxborough. She is also an active member of the CalTech Counselor Advisory Board. She holds a BA from Simmons College and an EdM in School and Community Counseling from Boston University.