Preparing for College

Planning for college takes time, preparation, and organization. With the wide variety of postsecondary education options available for students with intellectual disability (ID), exploring these choices can be an exciting but overwhelming process. Resources on this page will provide guidance on supporting students to prepare for college, planning and conducting the college search, and understanding the supports that can be accessed in college.

News & Features

The transition from high school to college can be a challenging time for all students, especially for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities. As students prepare for this transition, it’s important they become familiar with the technology that can help with executive function skills (or important skills for college) such as organizing, planning, note-taking, communication, scheduling, collaboration, self-regulation, and self-monitoring. ...Read more
Image of first page of Sample Foundational Skills form
High school special education teachers and transition specialists know that it takes more than academics to succeed in college. In order to be successful college students, independent citizens and employees, young adults with disability also need to master foundational skills that support continued success in a diverse and ever-changing society ...Read more

Frequently Asked Questions

What should students and parents be doing in high school to plan for college?

Getting ready for college takes a lot of planning. Use this college planning timeline during grades 9 to 12 to get started on the process. Also, check out this table which provides recommended transition activities and outlines the role of the student, family, transition teacher, and special education administrator.

How can students with intellectual disability prepare academically for college?

Students can anticipate significant differences in the instructional climate between high school and college. This fact sheet summarizes some of the key differences between high school and college and emphasizes the necessary shift to increased student independence.

The most noticeable difference is the expectation that college students are expected to manage their own learning and function more independently than in high school. Therefore, it is important to provide students opportunities to develop and practice these skills while in high school. For example, students with ID can be taught to break a long-term assignment into short term goals; they can be taught to maintain a weekly study schedule and modify the schedule as needed; and they can be taught strategies for advocating for assistance when a challenging academic situation arises.

What non-academic skills should students develop before going to college?

To fully prepare students with ID for postsecondary success, schools and families should address several skills areas that are sometimes underemphasized. Self-determination, organization, time management, goal setting, and technology are all useful skills for students preparing to go to college to work on. The questions below share some resources to help with skill development in these important areas.

What are good resources to support the development of self-determination skills?

There are many ways that students can be supported to develop self-determination skills.  For example, students can be encouraged and supported to discuss classroom accommodations with their teachers, manage their daily academic and personal schedule, and maintain a leadership role in the IEP process.

Check out I’m Determined, an online resource supporting student self-determination.

Looking to teach self-advocacy, watch this video. For free lessons on teaching self-awareness and self-advocacy, click on these transition education resources.

What strategies can students with ID use in developing their organizational skills?

With the increased need for independence and self-management in college, students should practice the development of organization skills. In collaboration with their teachers and family members, students can learn to use organizational tools such as planners, color-coded notebooks for separate courses, and various apps to keep track of assignment deadlines. Feedback from teachers and family members is helpful to provide perspectives as to how they view a student’s organizational strengths and areas for improvement.

Check out these tools and tips to help your youth get organized.

What tools are available to support students with time management?

Many students find time management challenging in their transition to college as they balance their academic, personal, and employment commitments. Students can develop their time management skills by using organizers and creating a daily to-do list to track assignments. This article provides steps to help students create a time management system.

Check out the Good Day Plan, a tool designed to help students visualize the day from beginning to end and assist in developing structures and routines that enable them to complete a series of activities.

How can students’ goal-setting skills be developed?

Students with disabilities often enter college lacking academic goal-setting skills. Teaching students how to set long-term goals, break long-term goals down into manageable steps and stick to a plan will serve them well. The I’m Determined website provides a number of templates that address goal-setting designed to help students practice these skills.

Helping students set their own goals and also learn how to goal monitor is key. Setting goals that are specific, observable, and measurable will make it easy for the student to determine whether they have prepared a road map for success.

How can students expand their technology skills before heading to college?

Understanding how technology can support learning in the classroom and applying that knowledge often results in improved academic performance for students with disabilities. Check out this article on assistive technology basics.

It is highly recommended that students begin college with a smartphone and learn to use it as a communication and self-management tool to support their college success. Mobile devices, such as smartphones and tablets, contain multiple built-in features that are useful to students.  These features can generally be accessed utilizing the “Settings” menu. Examples include, text-to-speech transcription, large typeface settings, captioning, motion reduction tools, as well as voice memos and calendars. To learn more about assistive technology that is built into mobile devices, click here.

One way for secondary educators to prepare students for college is to provide opportunities for responsible use of mobile devices in the classroom. For example, encouraging the use of reminder apps that send text messages about assignment due dates, apps that help students review course content for upcoming exams or recording class lectures can all be quite beneficial to students.

This fact sheet describes apps and technology that can help with mobility, following schedules, academic support, communication, social connections, and personal management.

How can students be involved in their IEP process?

One way to empower students to make positive decisions in their own lives is getting them involved in their own IEP meetings. When students are involved in their IEP meetings, it helps them understand their own disability, strengths, areas to work on, goals, and accommodations. Ultimately, this practice leads to greater confidence and increased self-advocacy skills. 

Schools understand the importance of self-advocacy and the impact it will have on your child’s independence after high school. For this reason, high school students must be invited to their IEP meeting if the purpose is to consider postsecondary goals and transition services. Transition planning is federally mandated to begin by age 16, and some states mandate that this begin earlier. It is recommended that planning begins at an age that is appropriate for each student.

The annual IEP must have appropriate measurable postsecondary goals, including transition services and courses of study.

If you are still wondering if your child should go to IEP meetings, check out this article.

Looking for ways to involve your young adult in their IEP meeting, read more on this blog.

Are there resources that can help students with ID and their families choose the best college options?

Think College Search is an essential resource for this process, but it also helps to know what questions to ask. Conducting a College Search:  Questions to Ask College Programs offers some basic considerations for starting the college search as well as some helpful tips. It also includes key questions to ask college staff about academics, employment, student supports, housing, financial aid, and the overall campus experience. There is also a Spanish version available.

When should students & families start visiting colleges and universities?

Planning early is always a good rule of thumb. It is best to visit while school is in session. This provides the opportunity to experience the feel of campus life, visit with students, and get a sense of classes by attending one. Many campuses offer guided tours for students and their families and special events. Contact the college’s admissions office for dates and times. For more information about visiting college and university campuses, check out this fact sheet.

How can we prepare our son or daughter for life with college roommates?

Adjusting to life with roommates can be tricky for students who have challenges with focus, self-control, organization and/or social skills. These tips can help make the transition smoother.

Check out Riley’s story on living and learning at Utah State University.

How is a student’s disability documented in college?

Colleges and universities generally ask for current documentation verifying the disability of students who request accommodations. Be prepared to provide evaluation documents that show that the student’s disability continues over time and confirms the student’s need for accommodations. Providing evidence of what accommodations have been the most effective will be helpful to disability services and program staff.

A rule of thumb is that documentation should be less than three years old. Students planning for postsecondary education should obtain the necessary documents before high school graduation. To avoid confusion, it is wise to research exactly what each program you are interested in requires.

Postsecondary institutions do not typically accept high school Individualized Education Program (IEPs) as documentation of a disability. If they are disability specific and current, students can usually present test results used to create the IEP. Students are encouraged to keep their IEPs as they may document academic accommodations that were successful in high school. This may help with the accommodation negotiation process in college. After a student leaves high school, the student or their family are responsible for collecting and maintaining school files and medical records.

For information about the common types of accommodations available in college, check out this fact sheet.

How can I use my Summary of Performance (SOP) from high school in college?

Language in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA 2004) states that school districts “must provide the child with a summary of his or her academic achievement and functional performance, including recommendations on how to assist the child in meeting postsecondary goals.” This is known as the Summary of Performance or the SOP. The SOP, which is completed during a student’s final year of high school, lists current functioning in key academic, vocational, and life skills areas. It also lists “essential accommodations” used to help improve functioning in those areas. Students can provide the disability services and program staff at their college or university with their SOP as evidence of effective accommodations.

What adult support services should we be coordinating with to support our child’s college vision?

Interagency collaboration is a wise transition practice to engage in early on. It allows the transition team to quickly and effectively address issues by using the expertise and resources of agencies outside the special education system. Agencies from adult service systems can help students obtain supports that will be needed in a postsecondary setting such as assistive technology, Supplemental Security Income (SSI), and work incentives. Involving a vocational rehabilitation counselor from your state’s Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) agency, for example, can inform the student’s transition team about employment supports the student can access during and after high school. Bringing VR counselors into the transition planning process acquaints them with the student’s interests and can help them understand how higher education will help the young adult achieve employment goals.

VR services are generally available to eligible young adults with disabilities when they are 16. If a student qualifies for VR services, the state VR agency may pay some postsecondary education expenses when the course of study will lead to the student’s future employment in an identified career, vocation, or field. For example, financial help from VR may cover testing to document a student’s disability or accommodation needs; help with tuition; or help with purchasing of equipment that can be used later in employment, such as assistive technology.