February 2019

Postsecondary Options for Students with Disabilities

By Daya Patton
Students with disabilities can go to college and/or be career-ready, and school counselors play a pivotal role in changing student, parent and educator mindsets about postsecondary opportunities for students with disabilities. Some questions we can ask ourselves include: How do we facilitate parent education about postsecondary options? How do we support early intervention and planning? How do we facilitate a successful transition and support students with disabilities so they can access postsecondary options and be successful?

Postsecondary Program Funding

In 2008, the Higher Education Opportunity Act improved access to postsecondary educational opportunities for students with disabilities, including universal design for learning in teacher education, percentages of disabled students reported in College Navigator and inclusion-learning opportunities for students with intellectual disabilities. Most important, HEOA authorized financial aid and program funding for Transition Postsecondary Education Programs for Students with Intellectual Disabilities (TPSID) and funding for a TPSID national coordinating center called Think College.

Types of Programs

Since 2008, TPSID has supported programs at 48 colleges and universities serving more than 1,500 students with disabilities. TPSID programs are designed to support students with intellectual disabilities who want to continue academic, career and independent-living instruction to prepare for employment. A TPSID program can be degree-granting, a certificate program or non-degree program. Like other college and career school programs, TPSID programs offer academic advising and a structured curriculum. They also require that students with disabilities participate in regular credit-bearing courses with nondisabled students for at least half the program. provides details about types of programs, eligibility and admission.

Think College provides support, coordination, training and evaluation services for 270 college programs for students with disabilities. The Think College website allows parents and students to search nationally for college programs designed for students with autism, intellectual disabilities and other disabilities. Currently, there are TPSID programs in every U.S. state.

Types of Financial Aid

Because of HEOA, non-loan-based federal aid is now available to students with disabilities who choose to participate in TPSID programs. Options include Federal Pell Grants, Supplemental Education Opportunity Grants and the Federal Work-Study program. Tuition waivers may be available through state vocational rehabilitation agencies or local community colleges. Students in TPSID programs also may be eligible for individual training account funds set aside by the One-Stop Career Centers, Plans for Achieving Self-Support (PASS Plans) from the Social Security Administration, and Medicaid funding for community-based supports they might need to be successful in college.

Numerous scholarships are available for students with disabilities who attend college or postsecondary programs.

Students with Other Disabilities

Approximately 11 percent of college undergrads have some type of disability – more than two million students nationwide. Students with disabilities often don’t receive appropriate guidance regarding postsecondary options and the many programs available in the college setting to help eliminate academic barriers and support successful student transition. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 requires that the needs of students with disabilities be met as adequately as the needs of non-disabled students. In 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed to prevent discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life, including colleges and universities.

Almost every U.S. college and university is subject to ADA, Section 504 or both. Many students who receive Section 504 accommodations or have an IEP for a non-intellectual disability are eligible to receive the same accommodations in college they received in high school. Under ADA guidelines, colleges and universities must provide accessibility to students with disabilities including providing comparable housing at the same cost as it would be for other students. Additional college services under ADA include qualified interpreters, assistive listening devices, captioning, qualified readers, audio recordings of notes and text, Braille materials, large-print materials, adapted computer desk and computer terminals, and auxiliary aids and services helping students communicate effectively.

All college campuses receiving federal funding must have a department of disability services, which is one of the greatest resources for students with disabilities. This department has access to instructional technology, tutoring and social supports for students with disabilities and provides architectural access, aids and services necessary for effective communication and academic accommodations. The disability services department also provides testing accommodations such as extended time, a distraction-free testing space and alternative test formats. Unfortunately, these departments are frequently underutilized on college campuses because students with disabilities and their parents are unaware the services even exist. Connecting students with disabilities to this department before they enroll in a college or postsecondary program is a critical key to student success.

What School Counselors Can Do

School counselors are important advocates, educating both students with disabilities and their parents about available rights and protections. We can teach students with disabilities how to self-advocate so they receive the protections afforded them under ADA and Section 504 at the college level. Here are a few additional suggestions:
  • Prepare students with disabilities for the transition to postsecondary programs by linking them to disability services on campuses and teaching them how to request those services.
  • Invite universities with TPSID programs and a representative from their disability services department to college fairs to explain the types of support they offer.
  • Host a forum or coffee talk for parents and invite a representative from the disability services department at a local college to talk about the options and supports provided.
  • Host a districtwide transition fair specifically for students with disabilities, inviting colleges and community organizations that support postsecondary transition for students with disabilities.
  • Encourage students with disabilities to research the opportunities and supports available.
  • When taking students on college tours, introduce students with disabilities to the disability services department.
  • Familiarize yourself with the disability services department at local colleges, and keep a list of contacts in those offices in case you have questions on behalf of parents and students.
  • Actively explore postsecondary options for students with disabilities.
Remember, as school counselors we’re here to support and promote college and career readiness for all of our students.

Daya Patton is lead school counselor at Paisley IB Magnet School in Winston Salem, N.C. She can be reached at dmpatton@wsfcs.k12.nc.us.