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College Transition – Important Considerations for Students with Disabilities who are Making a Final Decision

By March 11, 2021NESCA Notes 2021

By: Kelley Challen, Ed.M., CAS
Director of Transition Services; Assistant Director, NESCA

May 1st is often referred to as “College Decision Day,” the deadline by which students must submit their deposit and commit to enrolling at the college of their choice. Given that students are applying to an increasing number of colleges, with multiple “safety schools” on their application lists, some students will be comparing and contrasting several prospective college choices during the winter and spring months of their senior year.

There are some common variables that students learn to compare when researching and visiting colleges:

  • Location
  • Cost
  • Scholarships and Financial Aid
  • Size (campus size, number of undergraduate students, class sizes, etc.)
  • Strength and Availability of Majors
  • Retention and Graduation Rates
  • Internships
  • Gut feelings

But, for students with disabilities, there is often additional information that can be useful in making a decision to commit to a particular college. Here are five tips that can be helpful when researching, communicating with, and visiting colleges in order to make a final selection, if not earlier in the college application process:

  • Research student clubs and organizations. Student participation in clubs and campus activities is known to contribute to the student’s retention, persistence, and success in college. Therefore, researching student groups should be an important aspect of the college selection process for every college student. However, for students with social, emotional, or other disabilities that impact communication and connection with others, participation in student clubs and organizations can also provide exactly the structure needed to assist the student in forging both initial and lasting relationships in college. Therefore, it’s important to research ahead of time and ensure that there are structured groups on campus you can see yourself being part of.
  • Research foreign language requirements. Having a foreign language waiver in high school does not mean that you will qualify for a waiver in college. In fact, having any accommodation or service in high school will not automatically qualify a student for the same support in college. As such, it is important to understand the foreign language requirements of the college and to ask whether the college will allow course substitutions or other accommodations (e.g., pass/fail grading, adjustments to the class participation requirement, etc.). It is important to realize that even colleges that allow substitutions may not be able to do so if the language is central to the student’s chosen major/course of study. If substitutions are not allowed, it is useful to ask about foreign language faculty on campus and to look for foreign languages that may be easier to learn, such as Latin or Greek, which are not spoken.
  • Book an appointment with Disability Support Services (often called Student Accessibility Services). While it is important to ask questions about accommodations offered to students, the process of qualifying for accommodations and/or assistive technology devices/services on campus, it is also important to think about how accessible the services will be for you. Where is the office located on campus? Do you feel comfortable talking with the director and staff? Is the website easy to find and navigate? How easy was it to book the appointment in the first place?
  • Research the reduced course load policy. If a student struggles with processing speed, writing efficiency, anxiety, or any other difficulty that may impact work completion, it is important to understand what the colleges reduced course load policy is. What are the fewest number of classes a student can take in one semester and still be considered a full-time student? Are you allowed to start your freshman year with an “underload” or “reduced course load”? Can you participate in more than one semester while carrying a reduced number of class hours? Could you potentially complete all semesters of college with reduced course loads and make up the difference with summer courses at the college or at a college close to home?
  • Contact the Office of Residential Life. Not all dorm life is created equal, especially for students with disabilities who require accommodations in college. Ask questions about the leadership structure within the dorms, the training/qualifications for residential directors and residential assistants in the freshman housing, how social relationships are fostered and facilitated within the dorm environment, and how dorm conflicts are resolved. For students who require a medical single (e.g., a single dorm room on the basis of documented social or emotional difficulties, allergies, etc.), elevator access, or a service/support animal, make sure that you confirm not only that these accommodations are available, but also where that housing is available on campus. For instance, single dorm rooms are sometimes only available within dorms or housing complexes that are traditionally reserved for upperclass students, reducing the opportunity for freshman bonding.

Certainly, the college search and selection processes are different for each student, both with and without disabilities. But my hope is that this list of considerations helps to make this difficult decision-making process easier. At the end of the day, it is important to remember that there is not just one perfect school for a student. There are lots of places where you can be successful and happy, and your job is just to make the best decision you can for yourself.


About the Author:

Kelley Challen, Ed.M., CAS, is NESCA’s Director of Transition Services, overseeing planning, consultation, evaluation, coaching, case management, training and program development services. She is also the Assistant Director of NESCA, working under Dr. Ann Helmus to support day-to-day operations of the practice. Ms. Challen began facilitating programs for children and adolescents with special needs in 2004. After receiving her Master’s Degree and Certificate of Advanced Study in Risk and Prevention Counseling from Harvard Graduate School of Education, Ms. Challen spent several years at the MGH Aspire Program where she founded an array of social, life and career skill development programs for teens and young adults with Asperger’s Syndrome and related profiles. She additionally worked at the Northeast Arc as Program Director for the Spotlight Program, a drama-based social pragmatics program, serving youth with a wide range of diagnoses and collaborating with several school districts to design in-house social skills and transition programs. Ms. Challen is co-author of the chapter “Technologies to Support Interventions for Social- Emotional Intelligence, Self-Awareness, Personality Style, and Self-Regulation” for the book Technology Tools for Students with Autism. She is also a proud mother of two energetic boys, ages six and three. While Ms. Challen has special expertise in supporting students with Autism Spectrum Disorders, she provides support to individuals with a wide range of developmental and learning abilities, including students with complex medical needs.

Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton, Massachusetts, Plainville, Massachusetts, and Londonderry, New Hampshire, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email or call 617-658-9800.