Paying for College

One of the greatest challenges for college attendance is how to pay for it, and this can be particularly true for students with intellectual disability. But there are several avenues to explore for funding the cost of a college program. Students may be able to use vocational rehabilitation funds, scholarships, or federal financial aid. They may also take advantage of PASS plans related to Social Security benefits, among other things.

News & Features

On May 25, 2022 at 2 pm ET, Cate Weir, Coordinator of the Think College National Coordinating Center, will present a one hour webinar sharing strategies and resources for paying for college.   ...Read more
Ruby’s Rainbow 2022 Scholarship Application is NOW OPEN!  Deadline is 4-18-2022.  Ruby's Rainbow offers scholarships to students with Down syndrome seeking postsecondary education of up to $10,000. ...Read more
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Three briefs from Think College that share important information on how Medicaid Home and Community Based Services (HCBS) waivers are being used to support participation in postsecondary education (PSE) programs.  ...Read more

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the general costs associated with attending a postsecondary program? For example, the cost of tuition, books, room & board, and general fees?

Costs of attendance at college programs for students with intellectual disability vary considerably. Costs for tuition, fees, and room and board are typically the same as for other students. There may also be additional program-specific fees.
Costs for college-based transition services (sometimes referred to as dual enrollment programs) which are for students who are receiving transition services from their high school, are typically covered by the school district.

My child gets funding for disability supports from multiple sources. Which of these funding streams can be used to help support them in college?

Many students are using funding from vocational rehabilitation (VR) and/or Medicaid to help pay for college. If your child has these services, it is very worthwhile to discuss how those services and supports can help pay for college attendance. In some states, VR is very supportive of these initiatives, while other states are still determining if they will support college for students with intellectual disability. The same is true of Medicaid funding for developmental disability services. Currently, in most states, Medicaid cannot be used to pay for tuition, but it can be used for other college expenses. The details of that must be discussed with your developmental disabilities agency.

This page mentions disability supports like Medicaid Waivers and Vocational Rehabilitation. How can I learn more about these?

Waivers are a set of additional Medicaid benefits designed to support individuals with disabilities in their communities. The most commonly used are Home and Community Based Services (HCBS). Overall, waivers cannot be used for tuition and fees but can be used to pay for student support services such as educational coaches, independent living, mentors, physical or occupational therapy, transportation and supported employment. It is important to note that every state waiver has defined what services and supports can be funded and it varies from state to state so it will be important to first review your state’s waiver to determine the services and supports that can be paid for by waiver funds. For a full overview of using waivers in college, check out our Medicaid Waivers Insight Brief.

Vocational Rehabilitation provides individualized services to individuals with disabilities to support them to reach their job goals. VR agencies may cover a range of services including tuition, fees, books, and vocational assessments. However, what is covered varies by student, as each case is different. Find your state VR agency.

For those that qualify, Medicaid Waivers and VR can be great resources for adults with disabilities, whether you are in college or not.

Are there any scholarships available for students with intellectual disability?

There are relatively few college scholarship programs specifically for students with intellectual disability. We provide links to some of these scholarship programs in our Scholarship Guide. College programs may have their own scholarship programs, so ask about those when you are contacting them for information. Also, seek out scholarships that are offered to college-bound students through your town or school, such as Rotary Club. They may have never considered offering a scholarship to students with intellectual disability, but you never know until you ask!

Are students attending college programs for students with ID eligible for federal financial aid?

There is a category of programs called Comprehensive Transition Postsecondary Programs, or CTP programs. View a complete list of Comprehensive Transition Postsecondary Programs. Students with intellectual disability who attend one of these approved programs can apply for federal student aid through the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), and may be determined eligible for Pell Grants, Supplemental Education Grants, or work-study. Income eligibility guidelines will still apply. Learn more about each type of federal financial aid.

Are students in these non-degree programs eligible for federal student loan or Parent Plus loans?

At this time, students with intellectual disability who are attending non-degree college programs are not eligible for federal student loans.

What is the average financial aid package?

Financial aid packages can vary widely based on a number of factors. For federal financial aid, students with intellectual disability are eligible for grants and work-study programs, but not loans. The current limit (2022-2023) for the Pell Grant award is $6,895. The amount a student is eligible for is determined by financial need, and parent income is typically counted. A small number of students may be eligible for the Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (FSEOG), which can range from $100-$4,000. Work-study awards will vary based on how many hours a student works each week. For more information on how federal student aid is determined, visit the Federal Student Aid website. In additional to federal aid, students may also access state and college specific financial aid. To learn more about these, reach out to the programs you are considering.

Is there a financial aid office at the college that can help map out ways to fund college?

The first place to discuss ways to pay for college is with the staff of the programs you are interested in. Ask them what strategies other students are using to pay for the program: are there scholarships, does VR support any students, are there ways to use Medicaid-funded services to cover some of the costs, how much are families typically paying, and so on. Once you have determined the college your son or daughter will be attending, then that financial aid office may also have some information, so you should be sure to discuss your needs with them. In some cases, the program may be able to suggest a contact in the financial aid office who is familiar with working with students with ID.

Does FAFSA count parent income for a youth over 18 who is a dependent or has a legal guardian?

Typically, yes. This is also true for most college students. If a student is claimed as a dependent on the family’s tax return, then it is likely that parent income will be counted. In this area, the rules for considering parent income do not differ from the rules that apply to all college students applying for aid.

What will happen to my child’s Social Security benefits if they get financial aid or participate in a work-study program on campus?

Probably nothing. No federal financial aid you receive is counted as income or resources, regardless of use. No other non-federal forms of financial aid – including grants, scholarships, fellowships, or gifts – are counted as income or resources so long as they are used to offset educational expenses. For more on SSI and Social Security and Financial Aid, see our Federal Financial Aid Insight Brief.

How can ABLE Act accounts help to pay for college?

Now that many states have passed ABLE Act legislation, families and students are allowed to save for college and other expenses without impacting their benefits. This offers a way for families to set aside money for college for their child with disabilities, just as they might do for their other children.

Are ABLE accounts considered assets for the purpose of determining financial need when completing the FAFSA?

ABLE accounts are not included as investment assets for the parent or the student when completing the FAFSA. You can find this information in writing in the explanatory notes to the FAFSA. For the 2021/2022 FAFSA PDF this is on page 9 in the right‑hand column.

Can I use a 529 plan to help pay for these programs?

College tuition pre-payment plans or college savings plans known as 529 Plans may be a way to pay for college attendance for a student attending a college program for students with ID. The specifics of fund use vary between states, so you should read the regulations and speak to a financial advisor to determine the specifics for your situation. The issue may be that college programs for students with ID do not offer a degree, so check with the 529 account rules that apply to you to assure that is not an issue. Families have been allowed to use 529 savings accounts to pay for attendance in these programs. For more info, visit this 529 Plan FAQ page.

Are there any other resources that I should know about?

On this page, we outline the most common resources students with ID and their families use to pay for college. In addition to these, there may be other resources specific to a state, region or local area, or for a specific type of student. Examples include veteran dependent benefits, tribal grants, and financial aid specific to undocumented students. When reviewing possible funding sources to support attendance at a college program for students with ID, one important factor is to determine if non-degree seeking students are eligible for the funds you are considering
Additionally, a pillar of college programs for students with ID is that students will gain work experience. Some students work part-time during the school year and/or during summer break to help pay for college.

I have concerns about how going to college will impact my student’s benefits. Can you direct me to any resources that might help me?

Thinking about college often brings up conversations about starting to work. For individuals who receive SSI or SSDI, this can raise a lot of questions. Benefits counseling is a service to explain how working will affect your federal and state benefits. A benefits counselor can help your family make a plan.
Learn more about benefits counseling and how to find a counselor.

I still have a question. How can I contact you?