Preparing for Postsecondary Education
Frequently Asked Questions
Why get a postsecondary education?
Research has established that there is a strong relationship between
postsecondary education and successful employment
outcomes. People with a postsecondary education
are more likely to get a job and have a higher
salary than people without a postsecondary
This relationship is even stronger for people with disabilities. Individuals
with disabilities have a much higher chance
of achieving valued employment outcomes if
they have a postsecondary education. In addition,
the information and technology age has changed
the job market so that more and more vocations
require postsecondary education. A postsecondary
education is meant to prepare students to think
critically, access and develop knowledge, and
acquire the skills necessary for a successful
career. Postsecondary school is also a good place to develop social
skills, independence, and work-related experience.
How is postsecondary school different from secondary school?
Postsecondary school is different from secondary school in many ways, including the following:
- class schedules are more flexible, class offerings are more varied, and class time per week is shorter
- students are expected to take on more responsibility for their progress and to spend much more time and effort on independent study
- teachers in postsecondary schools are
typically less available for guidance than
secondary school teachers, requiring students
to find the extra help they may need from
- for students living on campus, there is a wide variety of social and special interest opportunities, and often a sense of “freedom” from parental supervision
- postsecondary school is often more expensive than secondary school, and books and supplies are also costly
- for students with disabilities, the laws governing special assistance are different, and change students’ experiences in many ways, including:
- students are responsible for identifying their disability, providing documentation, and requesting assistance
- disability service personnel make decisions based on the “reasonable accommodations” requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Rehabilitation Act, section 504, rather than the individualized focus and prescribed mandates of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)
- students are offered a menu of services to choose from, rather than having a team of people meet and decide for them
- students with disabilities often have to repeat the process of requesting accommodations each new semester, with new classes and new professors
What should be considered when deciding between postsecondary
In addition to the typical college characteristics, such as location,
size, program offerings, and competitive nature,
students with disabilities need to be aware
of the kinds of supports institutions offer.
Institutions vary widely in the types of supports
they offer, and how often. Two-year institutions
tend to offer more services than four-year
institutions, and public schools tend to offer
more services than private schools. Because
of these differences, it is important to find
out about what kinds of services specific schools
provide when considering where to enroll.
What does a student need to know when preparing for postsecondary
Students with disabilities need to know about the nature of their disability and the kinds of support they may require. They need to understand that as they enter postsecondary school, they will be taking on more responsibility for themselves than they have ever had before. That responsibility includes advocating for accommodations and services and self-monitoring progress in classes. Students with disabilities should be aware of their rights in school, and know what to do if those rights are violated.
Another responsibility they will have is developing vocational goals for a career after college. This can help guide them in what programs to enroll in and may help with obtaining financial aid.
What should an IEP team consider when preparing for postsecondary
Because the differences between secondary and postsecondary environments,
if not anticipated, can impede students’ success, transition
planning is critical, and should involve the following components:
- Students should be involved in developing
their IEP/transition plan in order to increase
awareness of their accommodation needs and
develop skills communicating about them.
- Students should be given opportunities
to develop self-determination, self-advocacy,
communication, and independent living skills,
through involvement in the accommodations
decision-making process, specific skills
training, if necessary, opportunities to
learn about themselves and their rights and
- Efforts should be made to make sure students’ interests,
goals, and strengths guide the planning process. There
are some programs and guidelines about person-centered
planning that may be helpful (see the Resources
- Interagency collaboration is important
in order to identify and alleviate gaps in
funding and services as students transition
out of secondary school. The kinds of people
that should be involved in the planning process
include students, parents, teachers, college
personnel, school-to-career personnel, guidance
counselors, Department of Mental Retardation
service coordinators, vocational rehabilitation
counselors, Independent Living Center counselors,
and service provider personnel.
- Obtaining assessment and disability documentation
that is acceptable to postsecondary institutions
is also important. Many postsecondary institutions
state that they will not provide services
to a student who does not have a “documented” disability. They
usually do not accept written IEPs as proof
of disability, and their requirements for
documentation (i.e., a psychological evaluation
by a qualified psychologist) can cost time
and money. Postsecondary institutions
typically do not provide assessment services
or funding for them, so it is important to
plan ahead while the student is still in
the secondary system.
- Postsecondary institutions often have prerequisite
requirements for admission, including specified
scores on tests such as the SAT or ACT, math
and English courses, and certain GPA levels. Even
extracurricular activities can help to improve
students’ chances of being accepted. Information
about the requirements for entering postsecondary
institutions should be obtained and used
to plan students’ secondary coursework.
The classes that secondary students take
should not only meet requirements for graduating
from secondary school, but also for entering
- The team should identify
and explore the types of supports and accommodations
that the student will need in postsecondary
environments and plan for ways to prepare the
student to transition to these supports.
The kinds of supports that will be available
to the student and/or the kinds of supports
that are appropriate for postsecondary environments
will likely be quite different than they are
at the secondary school level. For
example, some services, such as personal
aides or alternative curriculum or testing
are not typical at postsecondary institutions,
while note takers or extra time on tests are
How can parents and teachers help students with disabilities prepare
for postsecondary education?
Parents and secondary teachers will no longer have a say in the accommodations
their students receive in postsecondary school. Postsecondary
students are treated as adults and are expected
to make these decisions on their own. In some cases, disability
services may keep students’ information
confidential from parents. Therefore, it is important that parents
and teachers help to prepare their students
for the greater responsibility that will be
required of them. They can
provide information to students about their
disability and the kinds of supports that they
will need to request in postsecondary education.
Parents and teachers can also help prepare
the student by teaching and reinforcing self-determination, self-advocacy,
and career development skills, and by facilitating an internal locus
of control (sense of responsibility and control over one’s own
future). They can also help students explore
the issues outlined in this document.
What are students’ rights in postsecondary
In secondary school, students with disabilities have a right to a
free and appropriate public education under
the mandates of IDEA. However, in postsecondary
education, IDEA no longer applies. The civil
rights laws that cover the postsecondary educational
experiences of students with disabilities are
presented in section 504 of the Rehabilitation
Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act.
According to these laws, students with disabilities have a right to
equal access to educational programs and related
activities, and to reasonable accommodations.
The definition for reasonable accommodations
is, however, vague, and sometimes determined in the courts. What students
need to know is that by law, postsecondary institutions must provide
reasonable accommodations to help students fully participate in their
It is important to keep in mind the difference between the individualized education
required by the IDEA in secondary school and “access” required by
civil rights laws in postsecondary schools. Postsecondary schools are not
required to redesign their programs, but to give accommodations that increase
access to already existing programs.
What financial resources are available?
There are many different sources of financial assistance for postsecondary
students, as well as financial assistance specifically for students
Postsecondary institutions rarely offer disability-specific financial aid, so
it is important to get a head start on the search for funding. Here are
some recommendations for students:
- Make sure to fill out the Free
Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which is available online, at
http://www.fafsa.ed.gov/ as well as at
any financial aid office. Most high schools
also have them available
in print at counseling offices.
- Explore financial aid and grant options. Check with the financial aid offices of the postsecondary institutions you are considering.
- Use free scholarship searches online.
- The Social Security Administration has plans to help students pay
school expenses and work while retaining
social security benefits. See Benefits
for People with Disabilities on the SSA Web
site, at http://www.ssa.gov/disability/
or call 1-800-772-1213.
- The state vocational rehabilitation agency will sometimes provide
assistance with paying for fees, books,
and other school and work-related expenses.
To find the number for the vocational rehabilitation
center nearest you, look in your phone
book in the state government section. State
vocational rehabilitation services often
have Web sites, as well. Search for “vocational
the name of your state.
Other pages on this topic:
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