by Adriane Donkers, Independent College Consultant
Students diagnosed with a physical or learning disability or mental illness may wonder if they can attend college. In short, the answer is absolutely, but it will take some extra research, understanding the laws, and having the necessary documentation.
Does a Student’s IEP or 504 follow them to college?
No, it does not. However, there are still laws to protect students needing accommodations. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 come into play. These Acts mandate equal access to postsecondary institutions (public, private, vocational, and community colleges) for students with disabilities and mental illness. Also, if a school receives federal financial assistance or allows its students to receive federal financial aid, it must also follow Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.
Simply stated, these laws require colleges to provide reasonable accommodations to students. However, colleges do not need to change the design of the program or courses, they do not need to offer private tutoring, and the accommodation cannot cause financial hardship for the college. Further, the colleges need to provide access, but they do not need to guarantee student success.
Some of the most common accommodations that students receive at the college level include:
- extra time on tests
- testing in a quiet setting separate from the classroom
- note takers or recording devices for lectures
- substituting one course for another such as to fulfill a math requirement or a foreign language requirement
- offering priority registration for classes
Do all colleges offer the same level of support?
No. Since a college is only required to offer reasonable accommodations, this means that one college’s definition of reasonable is not the same as another college’s definition of reasonable. It is very important for families to understand the level of support offered by a college. One step that a family can take is to visit the Office of Student Success or the Office of Disability Services (the name varies at each college) to inquire about the availability of accommodations and the level of support offered.
Fortunately, some colleges have increasingly expanded their support services to help students with specific concerns. For example, some colleges offer autism support groups or executive function coaching groups. In these types of programs, a student will receive regular interaction with a group and/or support person to help them navigate college. While some of these expanded support programs are free, sometimes there is a substantial fee for these services. Further, these may be offered for a limited time (e.g., first semester or first year) or they may be offered all four years of your student’s college journey.
Am I required to disclose my disability or mental illness on my application?
No. Applying to a college is a separate process from applying for accommodations. Colleges cannot deny a student based on their disability or mental illness, but they can deny them based on whether the student is academically prepared for that college or program.
Students and families often struggle with the decision to disclose a disability or mental illness on a college application. In general, it is okay to do so, but it needs to be done in a carefully worded way to indicate the student is still functioning well and able to succeed despite the disability or mental illness. Further, given the growing number of students seeking accommodations and support, sometimes disclosing this information helps the college know the student better prior to arriving on campus and it allows them to prepare staffing and support needs better.
How do I access accommodations at college?
After you enroll in a college, visit the college’s Office of Student Success or Office of Disability Services. They will let you know the process and the documentation required to receive accommodations at their college. Often you will need a less than 3-year-old neuropsychological, psychoeducational, or psychological evaluation. If your student was diagnosed much earlier in life, it should be an updated document during grades 10-12, however, some colleges will accept documentation that is a bit more than three years old. A small number of colleges will only require high school IEPs and 504s.
After you complete the intake process for receiving accommodations or support, and if approved, the student will need to understand how to access the support. Learning this should be done prior to arriving for their first semester on campus. For instance, documentation may need to be sent from the student to their professors each semester or they may need to know when and where support group meetings are taking place.
Finally, it is the responsibility of the student to follow through with using the support services provided. It can’t be stressed enough that this is the most important aspect of this process.