Accessing Support in College

By Eve Kessler, Esq.


Once your teen graduates high school many of the supports they’ve come to rely on will not be available at the next level—and those that are will require them to proactively seek them out • With the responsibility squarely on the student’s shoulders, these guidelines will help ensure a smooth transition to higher ed and set them up for college success

In high school your teen was able to have an IEP or a 504 Plan, which guaranteed a free appropriate public education (FAPE). It provided them with the tools they needed to succeed: accommodations, modifications, supportive teachers, special educators, occupational, physical and speech therapists, Assistive Technology, guidance counselors, school psychologists, transition teams, and knowledgeable administrators. In addition, you were a full member of your child’s school team, advocating for an appropriate education. Your teen worked hard, visited colleges and universities, and chose to attend a school that felt right to them.

Once in college, however, there are different rules of accessibility and rights to accommodations. There are no IEPs, individualized 504 Plans or laws that entitle college students to the level of academic supports and services they received in high school. They are now responsible for advocating for themselves, deciding if they want to disclose their disabilities, and seeking out the support they need. It is up to them to identify their disabilities, communicate with counselors and professors, make sure they understand the material and keep up with their workload.

College Search Must-Do

Janine Kelly, J.D. and Deborah List, Ph.D., professionals who work with students with learning differences, recommend reaching out to the Accessibility Office during the college search and application process. It’s the best way to determine if a particular college can provide the learning environment your child needs.

There is no downside to speaking with the Director or staff members about potential supports and services. Its actually a necessary and advisable step” — Janine Kelly

There’s no need to be concerned that a visit to the Accessibility Office will negatively impact your teen’s chances to be admitted to the school: staff from the Accessibility Office will not inform Admissions about their disability or any questions they asked. The only way Admissions will know about their challenges is if, during the formal application process, they write about it in their college essay or their guidance counselor or references mention it in their recommendations with their permission. Otherwise, there’s no disability disclosure box on a college application.

Making the Leap

After students have committed to a particular college, Kelly recommends they “set themselves up for success” by taking the following steps:

  • Officially register with the Accessibility Office. Kelly advises students to disclose their disabilities and formally apply for the support services and accommodations they think they might need. By tapping into the college’s supportive environment, they’ve unlocked access to any necessary resources, even if they ultimately don’t use them. This process is confidential, so students and faculty won’t know about their needs or that they’ve applied for services unless they tell them. “If they don’t self-identify, they’re basically on their own,” says Kelly. If they find they made a mistake and  apply for accommodations late, they might not be able to change the outcome of their grade.
  • Gather necessary documentation. Different colleges require different documents, so clarify what’s required based on your child’s particular school and disability. For instance, students with learning disabilities may need a psychological or educational evaluation completed within one to two years of enrollment; a functional impact statement by a qualified professional, which explains how the disability impacts a major life activity and academic performance (eg., learning/concentrating), and recommendations for appropriate accommodations; and a student questionnaire, in which your child explains how their difficulties affect their learning and why they need the accommodations. Students with Other Health Impairments (OHI), such as ADHD, might need a detailed description of the disability; the date it was diagnosed; and medical records/medical summary by the treating practitioner, as well as a functional impact statement.
  • Sign a FERPA waiver and a Medical Power of Attorney for parental access. Under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), parents/guardians will not have access to college educational records, student portal, grades, or financial and health care information without the student’s written consent. Having these documents on file allows parents to stay up to date and offer basic support if needed. Even a signed waiver, however, does not authorize them to speak with Accessibility Office staff or professors.
  • Build relationships with the 504 and Americans with Disability Act (ADA) Coordinator and Accessibility Office team. The Coordinator is responsible for keeping the college in compliance with the laws: teaching faculty members about their legal obligations and reasonable accommodations; ensuring your child receives those accommodations; and resolving issues or complaints about perceived disability-related discrimination. The team is there to help your child access needed accommodations.
  • Reach out to faculty early. Taking the initiative to speak with professors will help your student build communication and self-advocacy skills and help their professors get to know them, appreciate their learning differences, and better understand how to support them.

This article is based on a webinar, The College Timeline: Nuts and Bolts for Teens with IEPs or 504 Plans, by Janine Kelly, JD and Deborah List, PhD, partners in College Access & Beyond, LLC. Eve Kessler, Esq., a former criminal appellate attorney, is Executive Director of SPED*NET, and a Contributing Editor of Smart Kids. Click here for a recording of the webinar.

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