Life After the IEP: Transitioning to College (Part 2)

by Linda Goldman

There are many considerations that come into play when deciding what to look for in a college. In Part 1 of Life After the IEP: Transitioning to College, we addressed some preliminary matters, such as the documentation that colleges need in order to provide your son or daughter with academic and learning support. But there are also practical considerations that must be addressed by a prospective college student and their family.

All young adults transitioning to college confront new challenges, and there are certain foundational skills that are essential for a successful transition. If your son or daughter has indicated that they would like to live away from home in a college dormitory, it is incumbent upon you, as parents, to assess whether they have developed sufficient self-management skills to live independently.  

The kinds of pre-requisite independent living skills to think about as you undertake this assessment include good personal hygiene, knowledge of how to handle basic finances, self-advocacy skills, living skills like the ability to do laundry, organizational skills sufficient to manage college coursework, the ability to comply with a schedule, time management techniques, awareness of dietary and nutritional issues, flexibility and adaptability, understanding of basic health issues including the ability to take medication independently and recognize when they need urgent care, the ability to travel independently, self-regulation skills, and finally the ability to manage emotions, particularly anxiety.  It is also important for parents to be in a position to determine, ideally with the help of high school guidance and counseling personnel, whether the student will be able to negotiate and manage the more complex social relationships that they will encounter in a college setting in a mature and healthy way—and without the more restrictive types of supports and interventions that the student might otherwise be accustomed to.  

In identifying potentially appropriate colleges, it is prudent to consider, along with the costs, factors including the distance from home, the size of the school, the academic difficulty of the classes, and the student's interests and whether the school offers classes, programs, and majors in those areas.  

Families should also consider what kind of college program is most appropriate. Some students start out at a community college, or two-year program, earn an associate degree and then transfer; others go straight to a four-year college or university; and there are still others who elect to take a gap year—an increasingly popular option.    

Families should always poke around a college’s website and call to find out what programs they offer students with disabilities. The level of supports that are available is an important indicator of how that college treats its students, and it speaks volumes about its philosophy regarding those who learn differently. 

One book that might be useful to students with learning disabilities, autism, or ADHD who are beginning their college search is The K&W Guide to Colleges for Students with Learning Differences, 13th Edition: 353 Schools with Programs or Services for Students with ADHD, ASD, or Learning Disabilities (College Admissions Guides), published by the Princeton Review.
Visit potential colleges more than once, ask as many questions as possible, speak to administrators, faculty, current students, and, (of course) attend all tours and open houses. Knowledge is power!

Life After the IEP: Transitioning to College

         After years of navigating the special education system, meeting with school district officials and teachers, identifying and arranging for outside therapies, communicating with related service providers and countless other acts of advocacy on behalf of your child, parents of students with special needs invariably face the unnerving crossroads of life… after the IEP.

          For students who are seeking to transition to college programs, there are a number of issues that need to be identified and examined.  There is no requirement for students who are entering college to identify themselves as having previously been classified with an educational disability. However, in order to receive any accommodations, the student will eventually be required to register with their college’s office of disability services and submit necessary documentation regarding their disability and special education needs. Colleges differ as to the type and specificity of the documentation that is required to access special education support and/or accommodations. However, what all colleges do require is that the documentation be recent (typically, within a three year margin) and that it be reflective of the student’s current educational needs (as measured by a psychoeducational evaluation, which includes assessments of aptitude and academic achievement, test scores, a clinical summary, a diagnosis and recommendations for accommodations). A student’s most recent IEP might also be requested by colleges that have separate applications procedures for admission to any comprehensive programs they might offer for students with learning disabilities.   

           Direct contact with the college’s office of disability services will provide you with specific information regarding the type of documentation that is needed to support a request for accommodations, classroom modifications, course substitutions /waivers and the availability of other supportive services. Speaking with representatives from the office of disability services might also provide some insight into the college’s philosophy, its student body, on campus resources as well as the college’s ability to meet your child’s specific needs in terms of accessibility issues or the availability and extent of academic, social or emotional support.  

            From a legal perspective, while the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) does not apply to post-secondary educational institutions, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 as well as the Americans with Disability Act (ADA) do apply. These statutes preclude colleges and universities from engaging in discriminatory conduct or activity that is predicated solely on the basis of a student’s disability.  It is critical to emphasize, however, that the requirement that a school district provide a free and appropriate education is not applicable to post-secondary educational institutions and the cost of tuition is, therefore, an important factor to consider in future planning.

            There are a number of other critical issues that should be explored in evaluating your child’s transition to college or in assessing other post-secondary options. Part II of Life After the IEP will address consideration of these various issues.