The College Transition: Tips for Students with Disabilities


Preparation is key for all college-bound students, but thinking through what you’ll need to be successful is especially important for students with disabilities.

Here are some ideas and insights to help you settle into college.

  1. Did you have an IEP (Individualized Education Program) or 504 Plan in high school? Plan to apply for accommodations in college.
    • Recognize that increased academic demands will require more academic support.
    • Services received in high school will not automatically follow students to college and not all accommodations granted in high school are considered reasonable in college. However, colleges do grant accommodations to students under Section 504 of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The process is handled through the institution’s disability support services office (Learn more.)
    • Students can choose not to use college accommodations, but it is better to have them and not use them, than to not have them and seek them after falling behind.
  1. Locate documentation of your disability in preparation for the application process.
    • Documents should typically be dated within three years of starting college. It is recommended that students have information that is as up-to-date as possible and that reflects the most recent services they were provided.
    • Documentation that is not current but otherwise meets college guidelines may qualify the student for one semester of provisional accommodations while the student seeks re-evaluation.
    • Families may have to seek out and pay an outside provider for private testing.
  1. Find out as much as possible about the disability support services office at the college(s) to which you apply.
    • Take advantage of college tours, college presentations, etc., to find out as much information as possible about the process of applying for accommodations and the services offered.
    • Use the college’s website to gather information about the application process, especially deadlines and documentation guidelines.
  1. Complete the intake process as early as possible to ensure accommodations are in place on the first day of classes.
    • This means you must initiate the process in June/July for a fall semester start, in November/December for the spring semester, or March/April for a summer start date.
    • Students who start strong are more likely to persist in college. Having and using accommodations can increase your chances of success.
  1. Expect the first year in college to be different than high school.
    • Course grades are based more on performance and achievement as compared to the flexibility some high schools have to include effort and participation in grading.
    • Academic demands will be higher in college courses. If your college offers it, an introduction to college life/college success skills type of course will be helpful and will likely cover topics such as study skills and time management.
    • College students are considered adults. You will have adult decisions to make about class schedules, course selection, managing time, etc., and can expect adult consequences as well.
  1. Prepare for an increased level of self-advocacy.
    • Learn how to communicate information about your disability/diagnosis, strengths/weaknesses, and functional limitations.
    • Inform the college disabilities counselor immediately if barriers/concerns arise regarding your accommodations.
  1. Consider starting slow in the first semester/year of college.
    • Aim for a successful first semester to grow into your new environment and your new role as an adult.
    • Embrace the idea that getting good grades is more important than finishing fast. For some students, taking four courses instead of five may be a way to increase chances for academic success during the first semester.
    • Resist comparisons with friends/other students. Remember that everyone learns differently and at a different pace!
  1. Remember that your progress and success in college is your responsibility!
    • Under FERPA (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act), once a student reaches the age of 18 or enters postsecondary education at any age, parents no longer have the right to access the student’s records or intervene on the student’s behalf with college faculty/staff, except when given permission by the student.
    • College staff are awaiting the opportunity to work with students as they learn how to function independently in the college environment. Take advantage of their support to help make a successful transition from high school to college.

Kenneth McGhee is the director of the DC Tuition Assistance Grant Program (DCTAG) within the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) in Washington, DC. OSSE is a NACAC member organization.