Can Students With Disabilities Fail In College?

One of the misconceptions that I’ve encountered is that a college student is somehow protected from failing classes due to their disability status. Nothing could be further from the truth. I’ve worked with many students who had a disability that did fail their classes in college, or were placed on academic suspension, despite their involvement with the college’s disability services.

Parents and professionals need to understand that the college system can be very different from high school. Students do not automatically receive an IEP or a 504 plan in college, and most schools do not honor those high school plans as what the students need. Colleges require students to request accommodations, provide documentation, and then they make their own determination of what the student’s condition merits. In some cases, students may be denied accommodations even if they received them in high school. Recommendations from prior accommodation plans or even the student’s physician are not a guarantee of getting those accommodations at a specific college.

When it comes to ongoing class attendance, students with disabilities are expected to maintain adequate performance just like all other students. In general, a 2.0 GPA is required to remain in good academic status, although a higher GPA may be required in other circumstances like to keep a scholarship or to play sports. Whatever the GPA requirement, the rules that apply to all other students will apply to a student with a disability. If they fall below a 2.0 GPA or other requirement, they can lose their scholarship funds, be omitted from sports (and sports scholarships), and can even be suspended from the university due to poor academic performance. There isn’t a separate or lowered performance requirement just because a student has a disability.

There are many reasons that students with disabilities can fail in college. In some cases, the reasons can be ordinary, such as never developing good study or organizational skills. In others, the treatment of the student’s disability can become an issue. If a student hasn’t established an effective treatment for their condition prior to college, it can impact their studies. Some students are resistant to requesting accommodations once they’re accepted to a college, only to realize that they should have when the academic challenges are greater than they expected. Finally, some students I’ve worked with chose a college that felt that the student didn’t need accommodations, and the students found this out only after they had moved to campus to start classes.

Students with disabilities who wish to attend college are subject to the same academic policies that other students are, and aren’t protected from failing in college due to their disability status. They must have satisfactory performance in their academics, but can do so with accommodations. While there are various reasons that a student with a disability can do poorly in college, many of these can be addressed during high school, such as ensuring that their disability is being effectively treated, as well as choosing a college that will likely grant them the accommodations that they need.