Students With Disabilities Need Comprehensive College Planning

As a group, American college students are encountering more problems and are taking longer to graduate than parents and students expect. The U.S. Department of Education estimates that, on average, only about 36% of students are finishing in four years, and even after six years only 58% have earned a four-year degree. These figures measure all types of students, and do not specifically account for the separate burdens that students with disabilities face when attending college.

Students with disabilities who wish to attend college have both traditional and disability-specific issues that they should consider, and pre-college planning for them should take a multi-factor approach. Among the issues that should be considered are:

Traditional College Issues

Students with disabilities who want to go to college have to deal with the same “ordinary” issues that all other students face. Earning good grades in high school, exploring majors, doing campus visits, and deciding on what schools to apply to are all among the common concerns that high school students face when thinking about college. In most cases, a student’s high school guidance office can help with these general issues, but they aren’t necessarily equipped to deal with more specialized ones.

Known “Success” Factors

Too often, success-related factors are given a lower priority prior to college. High school can be a very structured and monitored time for students, but with college comes a low-structure, high self-reliance environment. Students that are unable to be self-directed, become easily disorganized, or have poor skills in areas like studying or writing can quickly find themselves overwhelmed. Being able to work independently, be self-directed, and know how to create their own structure are key college success skills. Other known correlates of college success are “student engagement,” and colleges can vary on this critical factor. A college’s graduation rates and retention rates can also tell much about a school, and other factors like the composition of a college’s student body can make the difference between the student feeling right at home with other students their own age or accidentally winding up at a commuter school that has mostly adults attending. There are many “knowns” for college that can be determined ahead of time, and these should be both identified and considered during the high school planning phases.

Disability-Specific Factors

When thinking about college, parents and students also need to consider factors specifically related to the student’s disability. For example, what might the impact of the student’s disability be on the student’s school work? Expecting there to be no effect at all while the student is attending college is an improbable event. I’ve worked with many students who did poorly in college because they expected to do well since they “cruised” through high school on their natural talent. They didn’t request accommodations (or they chose a school that didn’t easily approve accommodations) and later found the work to be extremely challenging. Also, some studies have shown that college students experience anxiety and depression at two to three times the rate of their non-college peers due to the stress that academics can bring. This type of stress can cause many problems and even trigger a relapse or exacerbation of the student’s current condition. The impact of the disability on the student’s academics or school life is often referred to as the functional impact, or functional impairment, and determining how the student could be impacted by their disability during college is the first step toward preventing problems.

Another disability-specific factor to consider is the ongoing need for a student’s treatment. In some cases, students want to transfer their treatment to a college and receive psychiatric or counseling services from the school’s counseling center. In theory, this sounds like a good idea, but colleges vary on the services they offer as well as their policies. While most colleges at least offer counseling services, not all have a psychiatrist or physician available to prescribe medication. I’ve encountered colleges that set narrow guidelines for who can receive medication services, such as only students receiving intensive therapy at the counseling center. Some students I worked with didn’t find a medication or other intervention that really helped them during high school, so when they went to college and encountered more challenging course work, they began failing because they weren’t at their best. They didn’t establish effective treatment during high school to help them overcome the impact of the disability on their school work. Establishing an effective treatment is best done during high school since the rigors of college academics can often prove to be too much for a student with a poorly or ineffectively treated disability.

Students with disabilities who wish to attend college must have comprehensive planning that considers multiple factors. Parents and students must consider not only the customary factors such as earning good grades and possible majors, but also “success” factors such as student skills and the ability to be self-directed. There are also disability-specific factors that must be considered, such as finding a college that has reasonable standards for granting accommodations as well as available support services. All of these issues should be considered by parents and students during their college planning efforts while in high school, since they could make the difference between a positive experience or problems early in college.