Financial Aid for Students With Disabilities

portrait of Heather Mullinix
by Heather Mullinix
Published on November 5, 2021
Reviewed by Angelique Geehan, and Mary Louis

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Education can help lead to greater opportunities in the workforce. An increasing number of jobs require training after high school, which can be accomplished by pursuing a postsecondary degree or a non-degree certificate. According to information shared by The Chronicle of Higher Education, about 59% of workers held jobs that required some form of postsecondary education in 2010. In 2018, that number had climbed to roughly 70%.

Yet, students with disabilities remain underrepresented on college campuses and in career training programs. About 25% of people with a disability over the age of 25 have an associate degree or higher, compared to 45% of nondisabled people over the age of 25. Additionally, fewer than 17% of people with a disability have a bachelor's degree or higher, compared to about 35% of nondisabled people.

Disabilities can include physical disabilities, cognitive and learning disabilities, and neurological disabilities. Financial aid for students with disabilities can help them continue their education and seek out rewarding career opportunities.

This guide explores federal and state student assistance, targeted scholarships, and relevant grant programs. It also looks at the documents needed to get financial aid and campus accommodations.

Financial Challenges for Students With Disabilities

Rising College Costs

The cost of college tuition continues to increase for all students. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, college tuition, room and board, and required fees averaged about $24,620 a year in 2018-19 — up from $20,110 in 2008-09.

Limited Financial Assets

According to the NASFAA Journal of Student Financial Aid, many high school students with disabilities come from families who have lower household incomes than their peers without disabilities.

Enrolling as a Part-Time Student

A larger percentage of undergraduates who reported having disabilities made up part-time enrollments than full-time enrollments. During the 2015-16 academic year, 21% of undergraduate students who enrolled part time or for part of the academic year reported having a disability, whereas 17% of undergraduate students who enrolled full time reported having a disability.

Taking fewer classes each term means that students will take longer to graduate. In the long run, part-time students usually end up spending more on their education. Additionally, going to school part time may disqualify students from some forms of financial aid.

Living Costs

Students with disabilities may need to find accessible housing, which can limit their options. If not available on campus, students may face higher housing costs and additional transportation costs to travel to and from campus.

Technology Costs

Students may require specialized technology, like scooters or hearing aids, to help them succeed in college. Computers, specific apps, and other devices can also assist students and help them overcome barriers in their education.

What are the biggest financial challenges for students with disabilities today? question-mark-circle

In addition to the traditional challenges students may have paying for college in general, students with disabilities may have other expenses related to their disability that may impact their ability to attend college and/or be academically successful.

For example, a student may need a special electronic reader or a tutor to assist in completion of [their] ability to read, interpret, and complete courses. Or, a student may need assistance physically getting to classes or connecting to online delivery systems.

Colleges and universities, by and large, provide a variety of support accommodations for students with disabilities. While many costs may be covered by the institution, some may not.

Federal and State Benefits and Assistance

Several programs have been established to help students with disabilities enter and complete college or other postsecondary education programs. These programs can provide educational benefits, pay for assistive technology, and/or help defray living expenses while in college.

Federal Pell Grants

This federal education grant program helps undergraduate students with financial need pay for college or other postsecondary education programs. Unlike loans, these funds do not require repayment. More than 5,400 postsecondary educational institutions participate in the Pell Grant program. When determining grant amounts, the student's enrollment status, expected family contribution, and cost of attendance are considered.

Social Security Benefits

The Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) program can help adults who were disabled before age 22. The program requires a determination of disability by the Social Security Administration. Once approved, benefits help defray education and training expenses. Benefits can continue for as long as the student's income remains below a specified amount.

State Vocational Rehabilitation Agencies

Each state offers a vocational rehabilitation program to help students with disabilities access training to find or keep a job. Eligibility varies by state. Services are tailored to meet each student's needs. Vocational rehabilitation can pay for postsecondary education, on-the-job training, assistive technology, and career counseling. It may also provide benefits for limited medical and psychological treatment.

Supplemental Security Income (SSI)

This program provides monthly benefits to people with disabilities. In addition to federal benefits, many states also offer additional support, such as food assistance, healthcare services, and supplemental income payments. Students can work while also receiving SSI. However, the program does place restrictions on earned income.

College Financial Resources for Students With Disabilities

College Disability Services

College disability services can help students with disabilities access the services they need. All colleges and universities participating in federal funding programs must adhere to federal laws regarding education for students with disabilities.

Disability services offices typically coordinate assistance. Students should register with the office at their school and provide forms documenting their disability and accommodation needs.

Some college disability services offices offer additional support, such as specially trained tutors or workshops on study skills and time management. Students with disabilities may also qualify for priority class registration, housing accommodations, and parking accommodations.

Grants for Students With Disabilities

Grants can be used to supplement a student's financial aid award. These financial awards do not require repayment. Grants may come from educational institutions, private organizations, or companies. Many grants can be renewed each year you attend school.

These awards typically have specific criteria, such as demonstrated financial need. Grants may also pay for assistive technology, like note-taking software or Braille printers. Completing financial aid forms is the first step in applying for many grants, like the federal Pell Grant or state education grants.

Scholarships for Students With Disabilities

Scholarships can also supplement federal and state financial aid. They can reduce a student's out-of-pocket expenses by thousands of dollars. Many schools, companies, and nonprofits offer scholarships for students. These awards can be based on variables like academic achievement, community service, and/or volunteer efforts. Scholarships may also take into account a student's specific needs.

Scholarships do not require repayment. The funds can be used to cover tuition, fees, housing, books, or other supplies, depending on the award. Some scholarships allow students to renew their funding for multiple years.

What is a resource students with disabilities should utilize for financial assistance? question-mark-circle

The financial aid office at the school the student plans to attend is an excellent resource in helping the student navigate through the process. There are also a number of organizations and foundations that provide scholarships or support to students with specific disabilities. Students and families should contact those organizations that relate to the student's disability and follow their process in applying for funding.

Important Documents for Financial Aid

Accommodations Request Forms

Schools must provide reasonable academic accommodations to students with disabilities. However, students need to formally request those accommodations through the college disability services office. Accommodations may include accessible housing or transportation, as well as academic accommodations like extended testing times or alternate testing locations. Some accommodations may include receiving audio files of class lectures or having a note-taker for classes.

Disability Diagnostic Forms

Colleges often require proof of disability before they grant requests for accommodations. A medical or mental health provider must complete the required form. Check with the disability services office to determine if a new evaluation is necessary.

Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA)

Many states, colleges, and universities use financial information provided on the FAFSA to determine how much a student or family can contribute toward educational expenses. It can also determine eligibility for federal, state, and institutional financial aid. Check with a financial aid counselor about how to report certain benefits, like SSI or SSDI.

What is important for students with disabilities to know about applying for financial aid? question-mark-circle

Students should go through the regular financial aid process — completing the FAFSA, applying for college scholarships, etc. — so they can be considered for traditional funding sources. They may also need to work with a state agency, such as the Department of Vocational Rehabilitation, or another organization that is authorized to provide evaluative services to determine funding from the state or organization. Often, the state agency will coordinate their funding with other resources available to the student, which typically involves collaboration with the school's financial aid office.

Additional Financial Resources for Students With Disabilities

This collaborative effort of the University of Washington, National Science Foundation, U.S. Department of Education, and state of Washington brings together resources for students with disabilities seeking postsecondary education. DO-IT includes an extensive list of financial aid resources. Maryland offers tuition waivers for students with disabilities who receive SSI or SSDI benefits. The waiver can be used at public community colleges and covers any remaining tuition and fees after considering other financial assistance. The program covers up to 12 credits per semester for degree-seeking students or six credits for students enrolled for other purposes. This federal agency advises government entities on policies and programs that affect people with disabilities. It offers multiple resources on disability rights laws and helps connect individuals to education, employment, and financial assistance programs. This national alliance of attorneys helps families plan for the future, including funding educational needs. Attorneys specialize in public benefits, trust and tax planning, and legal issues for individuals with disabilities. The website includes educational information on tax-free savings accounts, accessing special education services, and establishing special needs trusts. The ED provides a guide that covers the rights and responsibilities of students with disabilities attending postsecondary institutions. Learn about the Office of Civil Rights and critical legislation that prohibits discrimination. You can also find contact information and learn about Section 504, Title II, and other laws governing the rights of students with disabilities.

Advice from:

Doug Watson started working in higher education in 1981 at Midland Lutheran College, now Midland University. He has served in a number of higher education positions and currently is the director of financial aid and express services and the primary designated school official for the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System, working with international students.

Doug is a past president of the Nebraska Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NEASFAA) and has served on a number of state and regional committees. He currently serves on the NEASFAA State and Federal Relations Committee. He is also a recipient of NEASFAA's Bob Minturn award for outstanding service to the financial aid community.

Featured Image: Trevor Williams / DigitalVision / Getty Images

Many scholarships exist to help students with specific disabilities continue their education. Learn about scholarships for people with disabilities. Learn how to gain access to college disability services to get the support you need to thrive. College students with disabilities will find that many campuses address accessibility, accommodation, and assistive technology for a diverse range of needs.