Transition to a Post- Secondary Educational Setting for Students with Disabilities

Due to reasonable accommodations, opportunities for students identified with disabilities to experience success in post-secondary settings have increased.  The number of students who attend post-secondary educational institutions has increased significantly over the past several decades.  However, these students face a new set of challenges when transitioning from the secondary to the post-secondary environment, as evidenced by graduation rates that continue to lag behind those of non-disabled students.  Moreover, the growth in enrollment and the recognition that LD students experience difficulties, have led to an increase in the types of support services offered at institutions of higher learning.  I have recently visited several Western Pennsylvania Universities and Colleges and had the opportunity to interview students with disabilities in attempt to identify keys to success.  Four key points emerged:

The Power of Self Advocacy

Students consistently reported their ability to self-advocate as the number one contributor to their post-secondary success. It was stressed that students need to understand their specific disability, understand how their disability effects the way they learn, understand their need for support services, and be able to communicate this information to their professors.  At the post-secondary educational setting, students are the ones that must self-disclose and seek out supportive students (from the institutions Office for Students with Disabilities), then must communicate to each of their professors their need for accommodations in the classroom. One student reported, “It’s easy.  Just keep in mind that you are not the first student with a disability that has ever talked to a professor.  Once they understand why I need my accommodations, they seem to be more likely to provide it for me and help me out.”   Beginning now, start to practice discussing your disability and individual needs with others.

Touring Campus Sites

A majority of students interviewed stressed their success began during their senior year in High School.  They communicated the importance of their visits to potential colleges/universities as they began to explore post-secondary options. In addition to see if campuses offered what they were looking for in programs and campus features, it is critical to see if the support programs offered by prospective Offices for Students with Disabilities were a match to their individual educational needs.  On your campus visits, be sure to visit these offices and examine what support systems are available to you for consideration.

Educate yourself about the Law

A third theme to emerge centered around an understanding of the legal aspects of the transition.  After graduating from high school there is a switch from the familiar Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEIA) to Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.  Students reported that understanding the difference and the provisions for Reasonable Accommodations where crucial in understanding the process of obtaining support services at the post-secondary level. 

Updating Evaluations

A final common interview response was the need for students to have their evaluations updated before requesting support services at their respective colleges/universities.  Most schools will need evaluations no longer than one year old by the time of acceptance.  Furthermore, it was reported that many schools do not accept current Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) as an updated evaluation, but rather prefer updated psychological evaluations.  Many school districts will work directly with the Office of Vocational Rehabilitation (OVR) to ensure students have an updated evaluation.  Talk with your current guidance counselor for details.

The transition from high school to college can be confusing and overwhelming (it is for ALL students).  It is imperative for students with disabilities when transitioning from their secondary environment to a post-secondary setting to maintain support services.  To begin to prepare for a smooth and successful transition, students must continue to improve on their self-advocacy skills, start researching specific support programs offered at potential colleges/ universities, and educate themselves on policies and procedures outlined by Section 504 that will be crucial to success at the post-secondary setting.

Dr. Matthew Vogel is a faculty member in the Education Department at Point Park University, in Pittsburgh Pa. He received his undergraduate degree in Business Administration from St. Bonaventure University. He earned his Master’s degree and Supervisory Certificate in Special Education from Slippery Rock University. Dr. Vogel earned a doctorate in Educational Management and Leadership from Robert Morris University, Pennsylvania. He has served for twelve years as an elementary and secondary special education teacher in the Pennsylvania public school system, teaching in Learning Support, Emotional Support, Autistic Support and Life Skills classrooms.  Dr. Vogel has also served in the capacity of faculty member at Slippery Rock University, in the Special Education department.  Prior to his teaching career, Dr. Vogel was the Director of a grant funded research program which examined the validity of a neurological assessment and reeducation program for students identified with learning disabilities. In addition to his tenure at Point Park University, Dr. Vogel also completes  consulting work for Pennsylvania public schools in the areas of high incidence disabilities, differentiated teaching strategies, positive functional behavioral assessments, transition planning, autism, and professional development. Dr. Vogel’s most recent research examines accommodations for students with learning disabilities at post secondary learning communities.