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Research-Based Practice

Facilitating Successful Postsecondary Transitions for Students With Disabilities

By Diana K. Joyce & Sally Grapin

Over the past decade, school psychologists' role in facilitating the transition from high school to college for students with disabilities has become increasingly complex. Practitioners are faced with the difficult task of navigating the conspicuous disconnect between disability eligibility criteria at the secondary and postsecondary levels (NJCLD, 2007). In addition, the increasing popularity of alternative programs such as dual enrollment and virtual schooling presents a changing landscape when considering responsibilities for accommodations for students with diverse disabilities. This article is intended to explore emerging professional issues pertaining to documenting disability and accommodation needs for students transitioning to postsecondary education. Consideration is given to recent changes in federal law, guidelines by national organizations, and the shifting infrastructure of educational services in high school and college. Finally, specific accommodation recommendations are provided.

Federal Mandates for the Provision of Services to Secondary and College Students

At the secondary level, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEIA) of 2004 governs transition services. One of the many purposes of this legislation is to ensure that all children with disabilities have access to services that meet their unique needs and prepare them for postsecondary employment and educational opportunities. As a precursor to college, these standards require that written, measurable postsecondary transition goals be included in any Individualized Education Plan (IEP) that will be in effect when the student is 16 or older (U.S. Department of Education [USDOE], 2011a). Appropriate transition goals may include developing self-advocacy skills, assuming increased responsibility for interventions, and obtaining information about college admissions requirements (Joyce & Rossen, 2006).

Other IDEIA mandates pertaining to the provision of transition services to secondary students include the development of a Summary of Performance (SOP), an exit “summary of the child's academic achievement and functional performance” (IDEA, 2004, Sec. 300.305(e)(3)). The SOP must be written during the student's final year of high school and include recommendations on how to assist the student in meeting his or her postsecondary goals. This document is often important for informing a student's eligibility for services at the postsecondary level; however, federal law does not require that the SOP meet standards for college-level disability documentation (USDOE, 2011a).

Legislation regulating the provision of services to postsecondary students includes a different set of laws, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, which prohibits programs and institutions that receive federal financial assistance from discriminating against or denying equal access to individuals with disabilities. Under this law, disabilities are defined as physical or mental impairments “that substantially limit one or more major life activities” (ADA, 1993, 42 U.S.C. §12102(2)(A)). Colleges apply these laws to a DSM diagnostic rather than an Exceptional Student Education (ESE) classification model for eligibility. The most recent amendments to the ADA (2008) expanded the definition of major life activities to include thinking, reading, concentrating, and communicating with others (Simon, 2011).

Comparing Documentation at the Secondary and Postsecondary Levels

Currently, individuals with learning disabilities comprise the majority (31%) of students with disabilities who attend college (USDOE, 2011b), and school psychologists can play a pivotal role in providing appropriate documentation to prepare these students for success at the postsecondary level (Madaus & Shaw, 2006). Typically, criteria for the documentation of learning disabilities in postsecondary institutions are based on guidelines provided by three organizations: the Association on Higher Education and Disability (AHEAD), the Educational Testing Service (ETS, 2007), and the National Joint Committee on Learning Disabilities (NJCLD). Collectively, these organizations recommend that college-level evaluations adhere to the following standards.

  • Evaluations should be conducted by an appropriately credentialed and qualified professional. The evaluator should indicate clearly her or his credentials in the report (e.g., degree, license number) and have relevant experience in conducting assessments with adolescents and adults with learning disabilities. A school psychologist certification or license is deemed appropriate.

  • Evaluations should be conducted within the past 3 years. Most institutions require that individuals submit scores acquired within the last 3 years and documentation that describes the current impact of the disability on the individual's functioning.

  • Evaluations should be comprehensive. A comprehensive evaluation includes a diagnostic interview and measures of cognitive ability and academic achievement. Some institutions also may require the inclusion of an information-processing measure. It should be noted that, as K–12 education moves toward an RTI model of identifying specific learning disability (SLD), traditional components of a comprehensive evaluation (e.g., IQ scores, information-processing measures) may appear less frequently in reports generated by schools. Evaluators should be sure to use adult measures; instruments designed for children, such as the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children, 4th Edition (Wechsler, 2003), are typically deemed unacceptable for college disability documentation. All standard scores and corresponding percentile ranks for each measure should be included (not just global IQ).

  • Evaluations should include recommendations for accommodations with a rationale based on the current needs and functional limitations of the individual. This section may be an especially critical component of the evaluation, as many institutions base decisions for student accommodations directly on recommendations provided by the evaluator (Gormley, Hughes, Block, & Lendmann, 2005). In offering recommendations for supports, evaluators should be cognizant of the distinction between modifications and accommodations. College-level curricula are generally not modified or streamlined for students with disabilities; however, accommodations are commonly provided. Some critical college entrance and placement exam accommodations may also require very specific justifications (e.g., exactly what increment of extra time is needed for exams and why).

Some higher education institutions specify additional requirements and recommendations for documenting learning disabilities; therefore, evaluators can be especially helpful to families by informing htem of these local criteria and addressing those requirements in assessments, transition plans, or SOPs, if possible.

Proposed Changes to the DSM-5 Definition of Learning Disability

Presently, the workgroup for neurodevelopmental disorders for the DSM-5 is considering several revisions to the diagnostic criteria for learning disorders. Impetus for these revisions stems from a need for consistency with the IDEIA mandate that states must not require the use of a severe discrepancy between intellectual ability and academic achievement to determine the presence of a specific learning disability. Tentative discussion suggests that, while diagnostic criteria for this category may require that individuals demonstrate at least average intellectual ability, they will not depend on a comparison of achievement with overall IQ (American Psychiatric Association, 2012). At this time, the American Psychiatric Association (2012) has posted the following proposed revisions to learning disability criteria. Criteria for the diagnosis of written language disorder are not yet available.

  • Learning disorder. A learning disorder is defined as a group of disorders characterized by difficulties in learning basic academic skills (currently or by history) that are not consistent with the person's chronological age, educational opportunities, or intellectual abilities. Basic academic skills refer to accurate and fluent reading, writing, and arithmetic. Multiple sources of information are to be used to assess learning, one of which must be an individually administered, culturally appropriate, and psychometrically sound standardized measure of academic achievement.

  • Dyslexia. Dyslexia is defined as difficulties in accuracy or fluency of reading that are not consistent with the person's chronological age, educational opportunities, or intellectual abilities. Multiple sources of information are to be used to assess reading, one of which must be an individually administered, culturally appropriate, and psychometrically sound standardized measure of reading and reading-related abilities.

  • Dyscalculia. Dyscalculia is defined as difficulties in production or comprehension of quantities, numerical symbols, or basic arithmetic operations that are not consistent with the person's chronological age, educational opportunities, or intellectual abilities. Multiple sources of information are to be used to assess numerical, arithmetic, and arithmetic-related abilities, one of which must be an individually administered, culturally appropriate, and psychometrically sound standardized measure of these skills.

Considerations for Other Disabilities in Higher Education

As a positive outcome of the greater accessibility efforts through ADA and other provisions, increasing numbers of students with disabilities now attend college (USDOE, 2011b), and that includes not only students with learning disabilities but also physical impairments and mental health needs. The USDOE (2011b) indicates that 11% of those with disabilities have health impairments (e.g., orthopedic). These individuals may demonstrate needs for assistive technologies, medical accommodations, and other supports related to infrastructure access. In addition, a significant proportion of disabilities at the college level pertain to mental health. ADHD accounts for 18% of reported disabilities, and 15% of students with disabilities report additional mental health needs. School psychologists are particularly well positioned to also help students with mental health needs be successful in college by providing appropriate transition plans and required assessment documentation, as a wide range of mental health syndromes first manifest in childhood or adolescence. The lifetime prevalence estimates for DSM-IV disorders is 46.4% with onset for half of the disorders before age 14 and three quarters by age 24 (Kessler et al., 2005). Therefore, many students with mental health issues may already have been recognized and accommodated by the K–12 school system.

Data from university counseling centers indicate that incidents of depression have doubled and reports of suicidal ideation have tripled among enrolled students since 1990 (Benton et al., 2003). Some researchers indicate that the stressors of initial adjustment to college may in fact expose mental health vulnerabilities for the first time. Therefore, it is important for transition evaluations to consider both existing mental health diagnoses as well as emerging symptom clusters that may later warrant a full DSM diagnosis. For the purposes of accommodations in college, institutions will require a medical or DSM diagnosis as evidence of a mental health disability. Special education classifications alone, such as other health impaired or emotional/behavioral disturbance, will not qualify if a current diagnosis is not documented.

Implications for Accommodating Students with Disabilities

Typical accommodations for college students with disabilities include the following (adapted with permission from Joyce & Rossen, 2006).

  • Testing: Extra time, test reader, preferential time-of-day testing, exam delays (for medical treatment), alternate answer format (e.g., oral, computer, no scanning bubble sheets), intermittent rest for fatigue, separate quiet room with proctor.

  • Classroom environment: Priority seating, change of classroom, environmental changes (e.g., equipment, furniture, professor location), frequent instructor feedback, copy of course reviews, ADA access compliance, longer response time for questions, turn-taking in discussions.

  • Classroom instruction: Providing copies of lecture overhead transparencies (or PowerPoint slides), enlarged print, advanced copies of syllabus, books, handouts, alternatives to fine motor manipulation (e.g., lab experiments)

  • Online instruction: Minimizing superfluous text and visuals, using high color contrast between text and background to increase readability, providing clear headings to describe the content of text and charts, increased access to the instructor (e.g., through follow-up phone calls or e-mails to summarize, clarify, or provide feedback on assignments), outlines of narrative instructions for assignments, audio recordings of text, flexible time lines for work completion, transcripts of online discussions and lectures, and extended time for completing online exams and assignments.

  • Assistive technology: Tape-recorded lectures, textbooks on tape, computer software (text-to-speech, speech synthesizers, phonetic spell checker), typed rather than handwritten assignments, captioning, visual tracking, telecommunication device for the deaf, assistive listening devices.

  • Personal assistants: Note taker, scribes, sign language interpreter, readers, tutor.

  • Administrative accommodations: College waivers for failed sections that are related to the area of disability on entrance exams, priority registration, reduced course load per semester, course substitutions, extra course drops or withdrawals, support letters for petitions, workshops (e.g., study skills, time management, learning strategies), flexible attendance for medical procedures, time-of-day allowances for medication regimen, mental health support groups (e.g., test anxiety groups, ADHD coaching), vocational counseling.

Online learning. At the college level, online learning has become an increasingly prevalent alternative to face-to-face teaching (Case & Davidson, 2011). In fact, some postsecondary institutions exist exclusively on the Internet, and in 2009 more than one in four higher education students were enrolled in at least one course online (Allen & Seaman, 2010). In addition to offering coursework online, most colleges currently use Internet-related technologies to coordinate a variety of logistical functions, including housing assignments and course registration and evaluations (U.S. Department of Justice [USDOJ], 2010).

In a number of ways, online courses offer a potentially advantageous approach to learning for students with disabilities. For example, online courses allow for increased flexibility with respect to the time, frequency of breaks, and setting in which instruction takes place. This may be especially beneficial for students who prefer to study at specific times of day and in quieter, less stimulating environments. Online courses also allow students to view lectures and complete assignments in shorter intervals, to review course content as often as necessary, and to contemplate and edit their contributions to class discussions (Case & Davidson, 2011). However, this form of instruction may pose several potential disadvantages for some students with disabilities. The successful completion of online courses often requires that students demonstrate well-developed time management, organization, and self-regulation skills. Moreover, these courses also typically require a high volume of reading, which may be especially overwhelming for students with language-based learning disabilities (Case & Davidson, 2011). Manual dexterity for typing also poses an obstacle for some students with physical impairments, who may require alternate forms of access (e.g., voice recognition software). Overall, the unique design of online courses poses novel challenges for the implementation of accommodations for students with disabilities.

Collectively, statutes in both the ADA and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act prohibit discrimination based on disability that would limit the accessibility of services or activities of a public entity (National Center on Accessible Information Technology in Education, 2012). Specifically, Title II of the ADA mandates that public institutions take appropriate measures to ensure that communications with individuals with disabilities are as “effective as communications with others” (28 C.F.R. § 35.160(a)). The Office for Civil Rights (OCR) further clarified this mandate by defining effective communication (via any medium, including the Internet) as the exchange of information in a timely and accurate manner that is appropriate to the significance of the message and the needs of the individual with the disability (OCR, 1997). These mandates ensure equal access to online learning and other Internet-based services with respect to hours of operation, breadth of information and options available, and other features (USDOJ, 2010).

Presently, neither the ADA nor the U.S. Department of Justice regulations under ADA specifically address the accessibility of websites, and postsecondary institutions are not required to adhere to a particular set of standards for Web accessibility (USDOJ, 2010). The absence of clear federal regulations on this issue is largely attributable to the fact that Internet technologies were not as prevalent or well developed at the time the ADA was initially authorized (Case & Davidson, 2011). However, revisions to these regulations are currently underway, and in July 2010, the U.S. Department of Justice published an advance notice of proposed rulemaking on the accessibility of Web information and services.

Meanwhile, institutions continue to grapple with the issue of how to effectively ensure that online courses are accessible to diverse learners. A number of sources have offered general recommendations for promoting a more accessible design for online courses, including minimizing superfluous text and visuals, using high color contrast between text and background to increase readability, and providing clear headings to describe the content of text and charts (Case & Davidson, 2011). In addition to these universal supports, individual accommodations may be necessary. Accommodations for online learning that may be particularly effective for students with learning disabilities include: (a) increased access to the instructor (e.g., through follow-up phone calls or e-mails to summarize, clarify, or provide feedback on assignments), (b) outlines of narrative instructions for assignments, (c) audio recordings of text, (d) suggested time lines for work completion, (e) transcripts of online discussions and lectures, and (f) extended time for completing online exams and assignments (State University of New York, 2012). Specific accommodations can be recommended by school psychologists in the summary section of evaluation reports and may be requested by eligible students.

Dual enrollment. In a review of national trends in college enrollment, an increase in the number of students under the age of 25 who are matriculating to postsecondary institutions was noted (Karp, Calcagno, Hughes, Jeong, & Bailey, 2007). Notably, enrollment for students in this age group (33%) is growing more rapidly than enrollment for older students. In part, this pattern is attributable to the emergence of dual enrollment programs that permit secondary students to earn credit toward graduation by attending college courses, either part- or full-time, while still enrolled in high school. In fact, over 71% of high schools now facilitate dual enrollment options for students. Dual enrollment raises a number of questions regarding how accommodations are provided for online coursework, which institution is responsible for assuring accommodations, and how to collaborate with postsecondary institutions on transition plans for these students.

Summary and Recommendations

Clearly, there needs to be further dialogue and policy consideration regarding the transition to institutions of higher education for students with learning and mental health disabilities, and school psychologists are well suited to lead this discussion. Notably, AHEAD (2012a, 2012b) recommends that postsecondary institutions implement flexible policies that allow for the consideration of alternative methods of disability identification and documentation. In the meantime, school psychologists face the daunting challenge of deciding how best to prepare their secondary students for virtual school and dual enrollment options as well as traditional matriculation to college while also operating within the legal and fiscal limits of their respective school districts.

At the secondary level, school psychologists can assist students in identifying existing sources of information in their educational records (e.g., standardized tests of intelligence and achievement administered in the last 3 years; Madaus & Shaw, 2006). When such information is not available, school psychologists may attempt to pursue a formal transition evaluation. Parents and IEP teams have the right to request evaluations for a number of reasons, and school personnel may be able to justify conducting a formal evaluation on the grounds that it constitutes an individually appropriate transition assessment (Madaus & Shaw, 2006).

Students should be informed of options for accommodations in college such that they are prepared to be effective advocates for their educational needs. For students who no longer qualify for accommodations in college, school psychologists can promote continuity of academic supports by alerting them to services available to all students on campus, such as tutoring and writing centers (Sulkowski & Joyce, 2012).

The aforementioned recommendations represent preliminary avenues for school psychologists to participate in bridging the gap between secondary and postsecondary institutions with respect to eligibility criteria and accommodations. Final high school evaluations and transition plans present an opportunity to assure documentation of data students will need to access disability services in colleges. As the demarcation between traditional brick and mortar educational settings blurs to include more virtual schooling options and dual enrollment, it is likely that a number of professional bodies and authorities will need to work in tandem to ensure access and accountability for accommodations. Given their extensive background in assessment, intervention, and instructional planning, as well as disabilities, school psychologists have an important role to informing future national policy on postsecondary eligibility criteria, virtual school transition options, and dual enrollment accommodations.


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Diana K. Joyce, PhD, NCSP, is an associate scholar in the University of Florida school psychology program. Sally Grapin is an advanced doctoral student at the University of Florida.