Special Needs: Considering College

Kathy Lynn Gray
Carla Lemon is the program director for Coaching for College Success.

Taking charge of life after high school doesn't always come naturally to students with special needs. They've often relied on parents to help them manage at school, in extracurricular activities and in their social lives. But when these children decide to go to college, experts say, that dependence needs to stop.

“Parents have to empower their students to speak up for themselves and be able to manage themselves,” said Carla Lemon, the program director of Coaching for College Success, which helps high schoolers with disabilities prepare for postsecondary school. “Some students have never experienced having to solve things on their own or make decisions on their own or handle conflicts on their own.”

Unlike K-12 schools, postsecondary institutions don't have a legal obligation to identify disabled students, said Jamie Axelrod, president of the Association on Higher Education and Disability, a national organization whose members work to advance postsecondary education for individuals with special needs.

Students who need help must seek it, usually through the school's disability services coordinator—a position that's required for any college or university receiving federal money, Axelrod said. Talking with someone in that department should be part of every college visit. “Set up an appointment, ask lots of questions and see what you need to provide them in order to get accommodations,” he said.

Axelrod pointed out that while primary and secondary schools might modify curriculum and evaluation procedures for special needs students, that typically doesn't happen in college. “They'll be judged by the same standard as their peers,” he said.

Once enrolled, students should provide the disabilities coordinator with a copy of their Individual Education Plan or 504 plan from high school. “A lot of parents think that plan just transfers over, which it doesn't,” Axelrod said.

L. Scott Lissner, coordinator of Americans with Disabilities Act services at Ohio State University, said some people hesitate to contact his office, fearing the stigma of being labeled. But that information is shared only at an individual's request, he said, usually when he or she needs a special accommodation for a class or dormitory. “Students should go ahead and register with the office in the beginning,” he said. “They can decide later if they want services.”

While transitioning to college is difficult for all teenagers, it may be more challenging for students with special needs, Lemon said. That's what one Worthington mother worried about when her daughter, who has anxiety and depression disorders, was preparing to attend Ohio State last fall. “We were afraid of what to expect; she could have easily done well or she could have tanked,” said the mother, who asked that her name not to be published to protect her daughter's identity.

The family turned to Coaching for College Success. The program, operated by Syntero, costs $1,250 to $2,550 per semester, depending on the level of assistance provided. According to Lemon, it serves clients with issues such as autism, bipolar disorder, depression, social anxiety and learning and physical disabilities.

“It's a fantastic thing,” the Worthington mother said of the program, which helped her daughter identify her strengths and build self-confidence while also providing a freshman-year safety net.

Lemon said the coaching begins with a college readiness test. “We consider their level of independence, such as the ability to plan and organize and advocate for themselves,” she said. “The student has to be aware of what accommodations they need.”

Coaches work to increase a student's independence so they can manage schoolwork, extracurricular activities, medical care and housing on their own. “Giving them opportunities to fail with minimal consequences can force their brain to reason, handle conflicts and make decisions,” Lemon said.

Twice a year, Coaching for College Success offers a four-week book club where parents of children with disabilities can ask questions, share experiences and learn more about postsecondary readiness. The next session begins April 6. For more information, go tocoachingforcollegesuccess.com.

Other Resources

In addition to the guidance offered by local programs and colleges and universities, plenty of help is available online and in print.

Some of the options include:

  • The National Center for Learning Disabilities, ncld.org
  • Virginia Commonwealth University's Rehabilitation Research and Training Center, going-to-college.org
  • Think College's College Options for People with Intellectual Disabilities, thinkcollege.net. Think College is part of the Institute for Community Inclusion at the University of Massachusetts Boston.
  • Prufrock Press has published two books on the subject: College Success for Students with Physical Disabilities, by Chris Wise Tiedemann, and College Success for Students with Learning Disabilities, by Cynthia G. Simpson and Vicky G. Spencer. Those are available online and in some local libraries.