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E-mail this pagePreparing 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 education.

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 other sources
  • 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 schools?

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 education?

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 education?

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 responsibilities.
  • 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 section)
  • 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 postsecondary school.
  • 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 more typical.

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 schools?

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 educational experience. 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 with disabilities. 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 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 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 rehabilitation” and the name of your state.


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This page was last updated on November 29, 2017.