Easing the College Transition for Students with Disabilities

Joan Goodchild

If you’re the parent of a child with a disability who is considering college, there are a lot of unanswered questions. Perhaps you have heard that colleges have to follow the student’s Individual Education Plan (IEP), which has possibly been in place for years. Or perhaps you have heard that colleges don’t have to follow an IEP, but they do have to follow 504 plans, which mandate certain accommodations for students with disabilities.

Unfortunately, neither is true.

This is one of the many misconceptions and confusing pieces of information that students with disabilities, and their parents, must navigate when they transition from high school to college. That’s because college is a different world from high school, and the laws, expectations, and culture around disability services are different, too.

Enter Elizabeth Hamblet, a learning specialist at Columbia University, who has written From High School to College, Steps for Success for Students with Disabilities to help families navigate the process, and surprises, of going to college. The guide, according to Hamblet, is a step-by-step resource that provides everything students and their families and education team need to know about registering for accommodations at the higher-education level.

“Families understandably think it is going to be the same level of service they experienced in high school when they go on to college,” she explained. But that is not the case. Take the questions around IEPs and 504 plans, for example.

The law does not hold colleges and universities to the same requirements as secondary schools and students’ plans essentially expire after high school. Post-secondary schools may look to previous plans in helping them may decisions about new accommodations for disabled students, but they are not obligated to follow a previous 504 plan or IEP.

This is often an unpleasant and upsetting surprise for incoming students. Which is why the inspiration for the guide came from Hamblet’s background working as a learning disabilities specialist at Rutgers University several years ago.

“The bulk of job was reviewing student requests for accommodations and making recommendations,” said Hamblet. “I was seeing requests for things we don’t do. Requests such as ‘I need to meet with a learning specialist. I need one-on-one tutoring. I need my professors to email me the assignments.’ What I took from that was that they are asking for these things because no one has prepared them for the reality.”

With the book she aims to dispel the many misperceptions students with disabilities and their families often have when applying for and attending college in order to set them on a path for early success. Young adults need an understanding of the postsecondary disability services system, and they need to have well-honed self-advocacy skills, know when to disclose a disability, and be able to build and nurture support, Hamblet notes. It is a mistake to expect a previous-level of accommodation in many cases, she says, and information is key when applying to schools.

“If students, parents, and professionals assume that students can just walk into the college disability services office, hand in their IEP, and receive the accommodations they have received in the past, how do we get people to go looking for information they need to make sure that students get the proper preparation for college?” said Hamblet.

Transitioning to college is often as much of an adjustment for parents as it is for their children in the best of circumstances, but it can be particularly challenging for families of students who are disabled and sometimes not ready for total independence. However, as legal adults now, the onus is on the student to register for accommodations, and parents cannot force their child to do so. It is important to prepare and discuss expectations before even getting to campus on day one, she said.

“The most important thing you can do for a student with disabilities is try to work them toward the greatest independent-level of functioning that you can,” said Hamblet. “Encourage them to register as insurance and make sure they have the skills to complete the paperwork. Make sure they understand how to fill out a registration form. Download that form from the college site and see just how much they can fill out.”

While, at first, receiving accommodations at the college-level can seem daunting, it is important not to let it panic you, said Hamblet. For some students, the change and move toward more independence comes with rewards and satisfaction, too.

“For the kids, let them know this isn’t special education anymore,” said Hamblet. “Because for some that is encouraging. They are not going to special classes anymore, or having an aide check in. For some students, that is refreshing because they are now anonymous in ways that they desire. They can be the only ones that know about their disability if that is what they choose.”