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Explore postsecondary options for students with learning differences

Kelly Imperial Associate Director of Admissions and Development New York Institute of Technology Vocational Independence Program (VIP)

Many parents become anxious when students begin considering next steps after high school. For parents of students with learning differences, these feelings can be magnified as they must consider additional factors. While there are a number of postsecondary programs geared towards this population, trying to decide on the right one can be extremely difficult. The following advice is helpful in determining how to research various programs to help students make the next step.


Do begin the college search early

The process of researching various programs and colleges is extremely time- consuming. It also requires a great deal of planning to arrange trips to visit each program of interest. When considering the amount of time that must go into researching, visiting and applying to schools, it is important to begin early.

The research process should begin in the students’ sophomore and junior years. By senior year, the student and family should begin visiting various programs and identify the application deadlines for each. Planning these visits in advance will ensure the student has the opportunity to see each program in person and will limit the amount of school days the student misses to accommodate these trips.

Do incorporate your student in the process

Students must be involved in the college search process in order to make a confident decision in where they would like to attend. They also should work on the program research process with their families, helping to identify the factors that are most important to them.

Encourage your student to actively participate in transition planning meetings and to speak with peers about college options. Students also may wish to schedule additional time to discuss postsecondary options with their school guidance counselor or transition coordinator.

Do utilize college search resources

Various resources are available to assist students and families in the search for post secondary options for students with learning differences. Families should research U.S. Department of Education-approved Comprehensive Transition and Postsecondary (CTP) programs, as these programs are designed specifically for students with intellectual disabilities. also provides a thorough college search feature to identify programs that may be a good fit for students.

Do explore financial aid options

It is vital for all students and their families to understand the costs associated with attending any postsecondary program. Becoming educated on the financial aid options available to those enrolled in CTPs is important. Under the Higher Education Opportunity Act (HEOA) of 2008, federal financial aid options are available to students enrolled in a CTP. The federal financial aid options for students deemed eligible include Pell Grants, Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants (FSEOG) and Federal Work-Study Programs.

To determine eligibility for these grants and funds, parents/guardians of dependent students must complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The FAFSA is available at the Federal Student Aid website, along with a list of all approved CTPs. Additionally, students and families should discuss financial aid options with each individual program to determine if program-specific scholarships exist.

Do attend transition/college fairs

Many private and public high schools host transition nights in addition to or in conjunction with college/career events. These events are very informative and provide an opportunity to obtain contact information and literature from each program. Fairs are a great way to learn about the differences between programs and learn when to schedule a visit. Make the best use of this time by preparing questions in advance for program representatives. Representatives will provide you with information regarding the admissions protocol for their program.

Your district’s Special Education Parent Teacher Association (SEPTA) also serves as a great resource as members share programs of interest and recommend different colleges. Be sure to check with your SEPTA regarding a list of recommended programs.


Do not visit a postsecondary or transition program without your student

Students must be involved in all transition planning steps, especially in regard to college decisions. Through their involvement in the college search process, students gain a better perspective of their options, while also increasing their independence. Prospective students may be offered the opportunity to participate in a social event or open house on campus--and are encouraged to take advantage of these opportunities before making a final decision.

It is vital that students make the final decision regarding which school to attend since they will be the one attending the program. Students who feel forced to attend a program are less likely to be engaged than those who are motivated to attend themselves.

Do not delay obtaining psychological and educational evaluations

Recent psychological and education evaluations are required to apply to many CTPs and other programs for students with special needs. Many evaluations must be conducted within one to three years to be considered as part of the application. The student and family should contact the school and/or private psychologist/psychiatrist to have another evaluation conducted if the others are deemed too old. Programs cannot process applications until all materials are received. Therefore, having these recent evaluations on hand will reduce the risk of missing application deadlines.

Do not miss application deadlines

Be sure to check with each individual program regarding their admissions protocol. Some programs have rolling admissions (no application deadline), while others have strictly enforced deadlines. Gathering the application materials in advance, such as letters of recommendation, evaluations, transcripts and program-specific application forms, will help ensure that your students’ application is received in a timely fashion.

Applications vary from program to program. Some are available digitally and some are printed. Further, some applications may be submitted entirely online, while others must be mailed or faxed to the admissions department. Checking the program website and/or contacting the admissions coordinator from each program will allow you and your student to learn exactly what is required.

Do not overlook the need to encourage independence

As your student begins to research postsecondary options, he or she may consider living on campus. While not every student opts to attend a program with a residential component, those who do gain an entirely new perspective on living semi-independently.

As you and your student explore various programs, consider what skills he or she will need to be successful in these environments. Encourage your student to take on more independent living responsibilities at home, since he or she will be expected to have these skills and/or expand upon them after enrolling. Fostering these skills throughout the college search process will help to ensure a smoother transition to postsecondary settings.

Do not limit the options

Be sure to keep an open mind throughout the college search process. Encourage your student to explore various options before making a final decision. Remind him/her not to become discouraged if the search leads down unexpected paths. While a four-year university may have been the original goal, sometimes the college search process leads a student to consider a community college or vocational program. Each program has its pros and cons--and it is important to weigh each of the options. Maintaining an open mind about what each program offers will help to ensure that the program chosen is the one deemed most appropriate for the student.

Jumping cartoon

At first glance, the college search process can appear overwhelming. However, it can be a very enlightening time for both students and parents. Particularly for students with learning differences, taking the time to research and visit each program of interest is especially beneficial. All of these preparations will assist students as they plan for a successful future.

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Photo Credits: classroom work by Elmira College via Flickr; Check Man, Cross Man and Jump Man © ioannis kounadeas -

Kelly ImperialAssociate Director of Admissions and Development

Kelly Imperial, M.S. is the Associate Director of Admissions & Development for the NYIT Vocational Independence Program. The NYIT Vocational Independence Program is a U.S. Department of Education approved Comprehensive Transition and Postsecond...

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