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Colleges Don't Offer IEPs

If this is the first time you’re learning that the Individuals with Disabilities for Education Act (IDEA), and the Individual Education Plans (IEPs) that secure the reasonable accommodations it requires, does not apply to higher education, don’t panic. 

There is still hope. Accommodations for students with disabilities still exists at the collegiate level, you just have to know how to find it. 

NOTE: This is a longer than average post because; 

  • the subject matter is complex;

  • I’ve worked with students seeking accommodations for a large variety of physical, developmental, and learning abilities;

  • and because it’s personal—I too was a high school kid with an IEP who had to figure out how I could make college work for me in the way that I needed to thrive. 

Don’t Reinvent the Wheel

You are not the first one to approach the college search with your specific concerns. Googling “wheelchair friendly campus” or “best colleges with learning disability support” can save you a lot of time. So can you own network. One college I worked for had an especially compassionate and creative Food Service Director who enjoyed the challenge of figuring out how to accommodate a student with celiac disease. That student’s mother sang his praises to the others in an online forum for people living with the condition, and pretty soon we had a whole little community of students with celiac disease. 

Consider Going Small

I highly recommend focusing your college search on a school with a population of no more than a few thousand. Smaller schools naturally provide their students with more personalized attention. You’ll have smaller classes, professors who teach a manageable amount of students and hold office hours  you can actually get in to, staff will remember you, and probably someone will be charged wit keeping track of you. 

I know we often think of big schools as having more offerings, but accommodations are about meeting your unique needs and no place pays attention to you like a serious, small college where faculty and staff tend to approach educating their students with an all-hands-on-deck mentality. People take responsibility for your success.

Why I’m Such an Advocate of Going Small

Let me tell you a quick bit about my own experience. I have an auditory processing issue that, while not enough of a deficit to be labeled as a disability, will keep me from ever learning how to speak another language. But that was no problem in high school because I took Latin, and Latin is a language you don’t speak. I intended to do the same in college, but then the professor who taught Latin left the school and they had no one to teach the class while I was a student there (the faculty hiring process moves at a glacial pace). So I approached the school’s psychologist who in turn approached the language department with my predicament. One professor stepped up and offered to spend a year teaching me to read and write French in an independent study. It did not alleviate his overall course load, and he got no extra pay. He simply did it because his department wanted to accommodate the needs of a valued student. Then his department chair talked with the Registrar’s Office so that my independent study would count towards my language requirement. 

There were other options. They could have told me to complete my language requirement at another school over the summer, or to try and tough it out in one of the regularly scheduled classes. But they didn’t. It was a choice on the school’s part, and it’s my experience that this kind of treatment is what you find at smaller schools.  

The Context of Your Academic Major

The biggest surprise for most college freshman is how little time they spend in class. Unless you’re a science major with with labs, a musician with multiple rehearsals, or an artist with studio requirements, you’ll find the time spent in a classroom almost comical compared to the long days you put in at your local high school. By far most collegiate work is done independently, and that along helps student sixth learning and developmental disabilities. The nature of that work, dependent on your academic major, can also influence accommodations you may, or may no longer, need. 

For example, a very common accommodation is extended time when taking a test. Tests are not the default method to assess learning for all area of study. In my four undergraduate years as a creative writing major, I took only five classes that assessed me via exams. Every other class did so through projects, portfolios, or essays…and I don’t mean essay tests, I mean 20-page papers due in lieu of a final exam. So consider how the subjects you intend to study may compliment your abilities. 

How to Seek Accommodations

Image courtesy of Jason Wong via

Image courtesy of Jason Wong via

Be forthcoming. Ask the Admissions Office how the schools works with students who need accommodations. The thoroughness and attitude of their response will be telling. If they offer little in response but refer you to another office on campus, that’s okay; it’s a sign of the following: 

  • they have a person designated for these discussions;

  • and they take it seriously enough not to risk giving incorrect or incomplete information.

Just like in your school district, a college needs to see documentation. The person who can evaluate your paperwork is either a psychologist who probably works in the center that handles student mental health care (Counseling Center, Health Center, etc…) or they’re an educator who works in a center that houses tutorial services and academic counseling (Academic Success Center, Writing Center). You may even find a Center for Disability Services at some schools because the need for this in higher education is growing. When you are hooked up with the appropriate person, remember that for any professional to give you a thorough answer about accommodations for you at their school, they will probably have to see your documentation. I know that’s a big step, and can be quite time consuming for all involved, so I suggest waiting a little further into your college search. Have preliminary conversations about the school’s approach to accommodations in general, and then dive deep when you’ve narrowed down your list to the small group of colleges to which you may apply.

I hear from many families that they feel like they really had to fight for their student to get what they needed in K-12 education, and that’s a shame if its been your experience. You don’t want to have an adversarial relationship like that with your college. So pay close attention to the attitudes you encounter while investigating services at a potential college. This is, again, why I recommend going with a small school. 

Accommodations for Physical Disabilities

The staff on campus with the most knowledge of a student’s physical experience living on campus will be in the residence life and housing office. We all know “accessible” can be a relative term, so ask the admissions office to put you in touch with someone there who can talk about the varying levels of ease you’ll find maneuvering around campus buildings and grounds. You’ll want to make sure you get all the information about your living options in campus dorms since everyone needs a place where they can relax and rest at ease.

Accommodations for Learning Disabilities

Ask the school if they have a policy in place that governs academic accommodations in the classroom or if students are left on their own to work things out with individual professors. If you must work with professors yourself, you’ll want the support of a staff member who functions as a disabilities coordinator to help protect and advocate for your needs. 

As I said above, the context of your academic major matters, but not just due to the nature of the studies. Academic departments all have their own personalities and professors have quirks. Even within a school you may find varying degrees of cooperation among the faculty regarding who accommodates students best. Listen closely to what staff or other students are telling you about the professors in your future academic department of study. As I recommend for every student, you should make contact with your future professors prior to enrolling at a college. Whether it’s via email or an in-person meeting at an open house or other campus visit, you want to know you future faculty advisors before making a final college decision.

Accommodations for Psychiatric Disabilities (this includes Autism Spectrum Disorder)

The options for students with psychiatric  disabilities have historically been limited, and it’s fair to say we’re still witnessing the birth of them in higher education. But that’s the good news; there are new programs being built everywhere right now. There’s Landmark College, a whole school dedicated to students with disabilities. Some schools have specialized, full-service programs within their college like Syracuse University’s Lawrence B. Taishoff Center for Inclusive Higher Learning, while others will help you piece together a program tailored to your student’s own needs. Since these sorts of accommodations are more elusive than the ones for physical or learning disabilities, you may need to rely more heavily on your network of fellow parents and health professionals; where have they heard of students have successful experiences in higher ed? You may even consider constructing a layered approach where your students starts by taking courses online, or starting with a lighter course load at a nearby school where they can commute. You know your student best, so do what will work best for them to reach their ultimate educational goal.     

Will Seeking Accommodations Hurt My Chances for Admissions?

Legally, no. A college cannot deny you admission based on a disability. But if you still worry, think of it this way: if a school rejected you because of the accommodations you need, then that school is not one where you’d be successful anyway. Remember, most schools are working hard to meet their enrollment goals. If they think you can be successful on their campus, they’re going to admit you.

Have Questions?

This is a complex subject with many considerations. Let me know if you have a question, a correction, or simply want to share a story about you or your student’s experience.

Jen ParticaComment