Financial Aid for Students With Disabilities
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A college education can lead to greater job opportunities, but students with disabilities remain underrepresented on college campuses and in career training programs. The disability rate for high school graduates was 11%, compared to just 4% for bachelor's degree holders, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).
Disabilities can include physical disabilities, cognitive and learning disabilities, and neurological disabilities. One challenge centric to the college experience is figuring out how to pay for it — but for students with disabilities, it can be uniquely difficult.
This guide explores federal and state student assistance, targeted scholarships, and relevant grant programs. It also looks at the documents you'll need to get financial aid and campus accommodations.
Financial Challenges for Students With Disabilities
Financial aid expert Doug Watson pointed out the challenges unique to students with disabilities.
"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," Watson said. "While many costs may be covered by the institution, some may not."
Rising College Costs
The cost of college tuition continues to increase for all students. According to the NCES, college tuition, room and board, and required fees averaged nearly $26,000 a year in 2020-21 — up from $20,896 in 2008-09.
Limited Financial Assets
According to the NASFAA Journal of Student Financial Aid, many high school students with disabilities come from families with 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 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.
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.
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.
Federal and State Benefits and Assistance for Students With Disabilities
The government has several programs that 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
One option to help you pay for college when you come from a low-income household is the Pell Grant.
This federal education grant program helps undergraduate students with financial need pay for college or other postsecondary education programs. Unlike loans, you don't have to repay these funds. 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. If the Social Security Administration determines you have a qualifying disability, benefits help defray education and training expenses. Benefits can continue for as long as your 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
Colleges have many resources to help students with their financial aid, and according to Watson, students with disabilities can also find help from outside organizations.
"The financial aid office at the school the student plans to attend is an excellent resource in helping the student navigate through the process," Watson said. "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."
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 supplement your financial aid award, and you don't have to repay them. Grants may come from educational institutions, private organizations, or companies. You can renew many grants 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 for students with disabilities supplement federal and state financial aid. They can reduce your 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.
You also don't need to repay scholarships. You can use the funds to cover tuition, fees, housing, books, or other supplies, depending on the award. Some scholarships allow you to renew the funding for multiple years.
Important Documents for Financial Aid
Accommodations Request Forms
Schools must provide reasonable academic accommodations to students with disabilities, and it may even help out with your college costs in the long run. However, you need to formally request those accommodations through the college disability services office. Accommodations may include:
- Accessible housing or transportation
- Extended testing times
- Alternate testing locations
- Audio files of class lectures
- 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.
Watson pointed out that students with disabilities often need to work with multiple agencies to ensure they get the financial aid they're entitled to.
"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," Watson said. "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
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.