Community College

MODULE GOAL(S): To provide students with disabilities a basic knowledge of considerations and options in choosing to begin postsecondary training and/or education in a community college setting.


  1. To understand the purpose and intent of community colleges
  2. To understand the difference between high schools and colleges
  3. To describe the differences between community colleges and four year colleges
  4. To gain an understanding of the disability documentation generally required to apply for disability services
  5. To learn more about frequently requested and provided accommodations in the postsecondary setting
  6. To identify steps for applying for financial aid
  7. To understand the importance of self-advocacy in working with faculty


Did you know that there are two federal laws to assist you in receiving postsecondary education? The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990 has ensured that students with disabilities have equal access to secondary and postsecondary educational opportunities. The percentage of college freshman with a disability more than tripled from 1978 to 1998. A US Department of Education Postsecondary Education Survey conducted in spring 1998 indicated that students with disabilities were more likely to enroll public two-year institutions.

Therefore, it is important for you to understand the role and intent of community colleges as they transition from secondary to post secondary training and education. Community colleges are typically open access two-year public educational institutions. Community colleges usually offer several different degree, career, and certificate programs as well as continuing education programs. Generally, there are two different types of degree programs. Associate of Arts (AA) and Associate of Science (AS) provides the first two years of a four year college degree and are intended to prepare a student to transfer into a four-year institution. Associate of Applied Arts (AAA), Associate of Applied Science (AAS) and career certificate programs are usually terminal degrees or vocational training programs. While some of the courses may transfer to a four-year institution, the intent of these degrees is to prepare students to directly enter the work force.


Several questions are important when thinking about community college.

These are:

  1. What does open access mean?
  2. What differences can I expect in my academic studies?
  3. What are the differences between the laws, Individuals with Disabilities
  4. Education Act (IDEA), the Rehabilitation Act (section 504) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)?
  5. Which ones apply to me in college?
  6. Is it true that community college is easier than a four-year college?
  7. What are other the major difference between community colleges and four-year colleges?
  8. What should I do to prepare to enter the program I want?
  9. Can I get financial aid?
  10. Why do I need to advocate for myself?
  11. What is a day in the life of a community college student with a disability like?
  12. How do I apply for disability services on the community college campus?

What does open access mean?

Open access means that students may apply and be accepted to the community college as long as they are 18 years of age or possess a high school diploma. Students do not need to provide copies of their high school transcripts or standardized (e.g. SAT/ACT) test scores in order to be accepted into the college. However, most community colleges have some type of placement test in math and English. This test will determine which courses you are eligible to take and students may be required to take some remedial or developmental coursework prior to beginning their studies in certain academic areas. Additionally, some degree programs have additional requirements to gain acceptance into their programs. This frequently applies to programs in the health sciences or programs that bear a state or national certification. Therefore, open access means access to the institution, but not always the particular course of study a student desires.

What differences can I expect in my academic studies?

You have much more flexibility in the times and days of the week you take your courses. Most students like this flexibility. However, along with the flexibility comes much more demanding course work and a much greater need for self-advocacy and independence. The biggest factor to realize is that a full time student is typically in the classroom about 12 to 15 hours per week. However, for every hour a student is in the classroom, he or she can expect two to three hours of homework. Many students in community college want to work while they attend college. If you are going to be a full time student plan on spending between 36 and 45 hours per week dedicated to your studies. Minimize the hours you work in a job. Most professors expect you to realize when you are doing poorly. They will depend upon you to take charge of your studies and to contact them or the tutoring center if you are falling behind or need assistance with your course work.

You may wish to also review the attached powerpoint presentation at the conclusion of this module entitled: Identifying and Overcoming Barriers to Postsecondary Success for Students with Disabilities.

What are the differences between the laws, Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the Rehabilitation Act (section 504) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)? Which ones apply to me in college?

Once you graduate from high school or reach 21 years of age, the IDEA no longer applies to you and you no longer have an IEP. You are now covered under Section 504 and ADA. There are many good references regarding the legal differences between high school and college. There are many excellent resources regarding the difference between high school and college from both the academic and the legal perspective. For more in-depth information on either the academic or legal aspects please refer to other modules in this training program.

You may wish to review the attached powerpoint presentation at the conclusion of this module entitled: Identifying and Overcoming Barriers to Postsecondary Success for Students with Disabilities.

Is it true that community college is easier than a four-year college?

Many students, parents and people in the community believe that classes in a community college are easier than those in four-year institutions. In many respects this is true, but not for the reasons many people assume. Faculty on community college campuses are required to meet the same academic and technical standards as their counterparts on four-year university campuses. An advantage in a community college is that professors do not generally have tenure requirements, such as doing research and being published. They may have more time to spend with direct student contact. Students with disabilities tend to do better in college by starting their education in the community college studying an AA or AS degree and transferring to a four-year institution (PEQUIS,1998).

In community colleges class size tends to be smaller. Most classes average about 25 students whereas in some of the larger universities the general education freshman classes can have over 250 students. Many students that move away from home to study in four-year universities find that they are ill-prepared in many areas other than the academic areas. For instance, they need to strengthen their self-advocacy skills, learn to budget and handle money, do tasks such as laundry and preparing meals,establishing a new network of friends, as well as learning to study in a postsecondary setting. Many students find that they do better if they can focus on just studying for their first year or two of college and then moving away from home to establish the other independent living skills required to succeed.

What are other the major difference between community colleges and four-year colleges?

Most community colleges do not have residential or dormitory living. Therefore, students tend to go to class and go home again or to work. Most community colleges do have clubs, special programs and events, but students have to check regularly in the student newspapers, student activities office, and any student meeting places or bulletin boards to find out what is going on. Sometimes, it is a little harder to find social events or to meet new friends.

Many students in community college are working adults that are returning to college for career changes or to improve their job skills. The average age of the community college student is about 22 to 24 now, but every year more and more students are going to the community college right out of high school. In the four year college the majority of the students are between 18 and 22 years old.

Look at the cost of tuition at the community college and at a four-year college. Community college tuition is very low compared to most four year colleges. It is a good place to start your education, if you do not want to have large loans.

What should I do to prepare to enter the program I want?

Engage in the IEP (Individual Education Plan) process with your parents and teachers so that you assist in identifying your long term educational and career objectives. Look at the catalog for your local community college while still in high school. Review the course requirements and the types of courses that will be required of you in programs that interest you. Talk to your guidance counselors and to the college counselors to learn more about the programs. Decide if your goal is to transfer to a four-year university or to go to work immediately after completing your studies at the community college. If you are undecided, ask for recommendations for courses that are generally required for both AA/AS and the vocational AAA/AAS degrees. This will help you to determine if you like studying in a college.

While you are a junior in high school and if you think that community college is the place for you to start your education, you are on your way to being a very successful student. If you are a senior in high school, you too have plenty of time to begin your education and vocational training at a community college. However, it is important to begin immediately checking out your local college for their specific requirements. You need to find out:

Requirements for general acceptance into the college in terms of proof of residency, age, or scheduled completion of high school

  1. Identify what academic programs are available, the minimal acceptance requirements and the person in that division that can provide you additional assistance
  2. Learn what the documentation requirements are if you wish to apply for accommodations as a student with a disability
  3. Find out the procedure for meeting with a disability services counselor and applying for accommodations

Can I get financial aid?

Many community college students apply for and receive financial aid. There are generally three types of aid for community college students. Depending upon the income of your parents and you, all three or just one or two types of aid might be awarded, if you are eligible. Some students can receive a grant, which is free money that you do not have to pay back. Some students are given work study, in which they can work on campus and get paid to help with the cost of college. Other students are eligible for low interest loans, which they do not have to pay back until they complete college. Be careful though because students can only receive financial aid if their grade point average is at least a 2.0.

Why do I need to advocate for myself?

Self advocacy is a very important skill to develop in order to be successful in the community college. Self advocacy means understanding your disability, accommodations, strengths and weaknesses and being able to talk about it with your disability counselor. Self-advocacy is important in order to work effectively with faculty and to seek resources for assistance like tutoring.

Once you leave high school, your parents are no longer your advocates in college. You are in charge now. Follow the recommendations in this modules and the other HEATH module on self-advocacy to begin to develop this important skill.

What is a day in the life of a community college student with a disability like?

Let's look at the first semester experience for two students at their local community college, Paul Procrastinator and Paula Prepared.

Paul Procrastinator knew he needed to apply to the community college, but what was the big deal? Everyone gets into the community college and it is easy. His parents are bugging him, but why waste his summer? They also want him to go see the disability counselor, but he is tired of that whole IEP stuff. Maybe he won't even need any help. Paul has a really messed up schedule for his first semester. He heard that you only go to class for about 15 hours per week and so he wanted all afternoon classes. Paul likes to sleep late and he would like to get a job in the evenings or just hang out with his girlfriend. Paul did not register for classes until two days before classes began and now he has classes late Monday night and all day Tuesday and Thursday. He is really struggling to concentrate for these long periods of time. Paul just got his mid term exams back last week and he failed them all, "big time"! He asked one of his professors after class if he could take the test again. The professor told him that he was failing the class and that the policy is that you cannot retake exams. Paul is really mad at the professor. He never told Paul that he was supposed to be reading the textbook and turning in homework. That book is really boring and hard to understand. Besides he has trouble getting up and getting to an 8 o'clock class. Paul knows he is going to fail all of his classes and his parents are going to be really mad that he wasted so much time and money. Paul went to see the disability counselor, but she said he can't use his IEP in college and needs to go get copies of his most recent testing. She also suggested that he start using the reading and writing center and try to get tutoring services. She is stupid, too. She asked him the names of his professors and their contact information. How is he supposed to know who they are? Maybe he will just quit going to class and get a job. Boy, his parents are going to have a fit! He probably won't tell them until it is time for the next semester to start. Why get them on his back now?
Paula Prepared would have liked to go away to a four year university, but she knew that she would have trouble getting accepted to the schools she really liked because she doesn't do well on standardized tests and her grades were only B's and C's. She went to an information program with her parents last spring and found out that if she went to the community college and took the right courses, she could get accepted into a lot of different colleges and her courses from the community college would transfer. The people at the information session had some really helpful ideas like learning to keep a daily planner, participate in your IEP meetings, and learn about your disability and what kinds of accommodations work best for her. At the information session, they also told her that there would be a special three day orientation during the summer. During the program, Paula was able to apply for disability services, take her placement tests and get assistance with choosing the correct courses at times that would be best for her schedule and to allow plenty of time to study. She also got a tour of the campus so that she knew of all of the resources and how to take advantage of them. Paula really likes her class schedule. She has also met with each of her professors and they are really helpful. Paula applied for accommodations, but she found that she does not need all of the accommodations. The ones that are most helpful are the books on CD, extended time for tests, and additional use of the tutoring center. Paula is really proud of herself and her parents are thrilled. She got all B's on her mid terms and she thinks she might even get a couple of A's because she has gone to class everyday, turned in all of her assignments and has done some extra credit work. College is really hard, but she is doing it on her own and feels really great. Registration for spring semester begins next week and she already knows which classes she wants to take. She is so glad to be out of high school and be in a college!

How do I apply for disability services on the community college campus?

Each college has a slightly different process for applying for disability services. Be sure to check with the community college you plan on attending for specific information. Usually, you will schedule a meeting with the disability counselor to discuss your disability and to discuss types of accommodations. Begin to get your documentation gathered, apply for admission to the college and apply for disability services right before you graduate from high school. If you wait too long, you may have trouble getting an appointment with a disability counselor or you may find that you need additional documentation or information. Remember, your disability records are not part of your permanent academic records and no one will know you have a disability unless you provide your professors with a copy of your letter of accommodations. Therefore, it is a good idea to go ahead and apply for accommodations, even if you are not sure if you will need them.

Question: What types of documentation is typically required in order to receive accommodations in the community college:

Each college might have slight differences in the type of documentation it requires. Basically, the college wants your documentation to be current and to demonstrate that you have a chronic disability which, as an adult, impacts on your ability to learn in college without accommodations when compared to the general adult population. You should check out the website for the college you wish to attend or call the disability counselor. Remember, you cannot use your IEP in college.




POSTSECONDARY (related to colleges, universities and/or employment)

The HEATH Resource Center at the National Youth Transitions Center

Office for Civil Rights

DO-IT University of Washington College Resources


Now that you have read this module, use the following steps to develop your plan of action.

  1. Will you be able to attend any IEP meetings and transitional plan meetings?
  2. Can you talk about your disability, your strengths, weaknesses, and what accommodations provide you the greatest success?
  3. Can you manage a daily calendar and accurately record all assignments and information to contact your professors and college resources?
  4. Are you able to take advantage of special orientation programs offered on the college campus and have you toured the college to be sure you know what resources are available and where they are located?
  5. Have you examined what programs are available at your community college, study the catalog and make sure that you are enrolled in the correct classes in high school?
  6. Have you contacted the Disability Services Office to find out exactly what type of medical or psychological documentation required to apply for services?
  7. Have you looked at your high school records to see if they are sufficient or if you need to have them updated?
  8. Have you begun to explore careers and spoken to your counselor so that you know which courses you should study when you enter college?


So, hopefully you know a little more about attending a community college and how the community college is different from high school. We also talked a little bit about how community college is different from a four-year college, but two and four year colleges have much more in common than not. The laws are the same, financial aid eligibility is the same, the coursework is the same, and the process for receiving accommodations is the same. The advantage of starting at the community college is to further work on and develop your study skills and your self-advocacy skills while choosing a degree or major. Plus, you will save a lot of money. Lastly, view the attached powerpoint presentation entitled:

Identifying and Overcoming Barriers to Postsecondary Success for Students with Disabilities (619 kB)

Now you know what you need to do now to begin to prepare for tomorrow. Your last step is just do it!




US Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, 1999. Students with Disabilities in Postsecondary Education: A Profile of Preparation, Participation, and Outcomes, NCES 1999-187. Washington DC.

Frieden, L (2003) People with Disabilities and Postsecondary Education (Position paper for the National Council on Disability, September 15, 2003) Available on website:

This document made possible in part by the support of The HSC Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based foundation dedicated to expanding access and success in education beyond high school. HEATH is affiliated with The George Washington University Graduate School of Education and Human Development. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of The HSC Foundation. No official endorsement by the Foundation or of any product, commodity, service or enterprise mentioned in this publication is intended or should be inferred. Permission to use, copy, and distribute this document for non-commercial use and without fee, is hereby granted if appropriate credit to the HEATH Resource Center at the National Youth Transitions Center is included in all copies.