Affordable Colleges For Students With Disabilities

  1. You are here:
  2. Home
  3. »
  4. College Resource Center
  5. »
  6. Affordable Colleges for Students With Disabilities

A complete guide to college financing for students with disabilities. Find expert advice on loans, grants and scholarships specifically for students with disabilities, as well as resources to help with the job search after graduation.

About the Author

Michael Hoffman

A graduate of the University of California at Santa Barbara and the Santa Barbara College of Law, Michael Hoffman nurtured his love for research and writing while a practicing attorney in Los Angeles. Now a freelance journalist and aspiring screenwriter, Michael researches and writes on a variety of topics including education, finance and the law.

Expert Contributors

More than a dozen industry experts contributed to the research and writing of this guidebook. Their collective areas of expertise include campus life and accommodations, academic support, distance learning, higher education financing, student services and career services. A huge thanks to the following professionals for special contribution:

  • Debbie Spinney

    Executive Director of Student Development

  • Ellen McShane

    Director of Academic Support Services



aying for college is no picnic, with or without a disability. Tackling tuition and fees often means a stressful combination of loans and labor, the former involving years of repayment, the latter multiple part-time jobs and/or working on the weekend. According to the Census Bureau, 71 percent of the nation’s almost 20 million undergraduates worked at least 35 hours per week in 2011.

Yet for those who know where to look and how to apply, scholarships, grants, and assistance positions, can help reduce the out-of-pocket cost higher education, and they require zero repayment. Scholarships, for example, usually go to students who meet certain academic, athletic, or personal requirements. Grants also have merit-based considerations, but tend to be need-based, as well. And assistance positions, a viable option for graduate students, involve working for a department or a professor in exchange for perks such as discounted tuition.

In addition, students can also leverage different modes of learning to keep costs down and educational goals moving forward. For instance, accredited online programs combine academic rigor with time-and-place flexibility, thus maximizing convenience and affordability via lack of commuting, parking, and other auxiliary expenses. With scholarships, grants, loans, and alternative learning modes, students today have plenty of financial options to pursue.

While valuable to all college hopefuls, this guide focuses specifically on students with disabilities. Most notably, how undergraduate and graduate students living with physical or learning disabilities can leverage multiple college finance channels to make college affordable. With that in mind, the four primary goals of the guidebook include:


Providing detailed information and resources on all college finance avenues, including loans, grants, and scholarships specifically for students with disabilities.


Leveraging insight and advice from some of today’s leading experts in the field of disability education.


Helping students with disabilities find the right school and utilize disability services.


Introducing alternative modes of learning, e.g. online education, that can keep costs low and quality high

Everyone should have the opportunity to go to college and earn a degree. And while the cost of college should be top-of-mind for all prospective students, it should never be a barrier.


College Financing for Students with Disabilities:
Loans, Grants and Scholarships


hen it comes to attending college, students with or without disabilities have much more in common than you might think. All students want to get the best education available and enjoy the benefits of the college experience to their fullest. But here’s a sobering truth about college that all students must face: college is expensive. In fact, the cost of a college or university degree today will no doubt rank as one of the top expenses an individual will encounter during the course of his or her life. If you plan to pursue a college education, particularly one at a four-year school, you will most likely require the help of one or more forms of financial aid. The good news for students with disabilities is that all forms of financial aid available to other students are also readily available to them. Below, we’ll take a look at the three most common types of college financial aid out there and provide you with some tips for obtaining them.

The financial aid process can only be done according to federal, state, and the institution’s [own] deadlines, which typically happen the year the student plans to attend. However, it never hurts for students to be exploring other avenues of aid, like scholarships. Debbie Spinney, Executive Director for Student Development, University of Indianapolis

Loans are moneys borrowed by a student from a government or other lending source that must be paid back with interest. Federal student loans are quite common. To apply for a federal loan, whether you have a disability or not, you must file a Free Application for Federal Student Aid form. Your application will require you to provide information about your financial status, dependency, and more. By law, you cannot be discriminated against for a disability in the awarding of a federal loan. The added costs of attendance due to a disability, however, will be considered in determining the loan amount. For example, colleges are not required under the law to provide students with disabilities with certain services, such as attendants, or devices, such as readers for personal use. The costs for these services and devices, however, may be covered by student loans or grants.


Grants differ from loans in that they do not have to be paid back. The Federal Pell Grant program is the most well-known. It provides need-based grants to undergraduate and some post-graduate students. Pell Grant amounts are dependent upon a number of factors such as a student’s expected family contribution, cost of attendance, and enrollment status. Financial need is determined through a standard formula based on a number of factors including student and family income and assets, and family household size. As with federal loans, discrimination based on student disability in awarding grants is against the law.

In addition to Federal Pell Grants, virtually all state governments offer college financial aid, including grant programs, to students with and without disabilities. Also, many colleges and universities offer their own grant programs, some specifically for those with a disability. Be sure to check with the disability services offices at each of the schools you are considering and ask about grant programs offered by the school itself. Finally, there are many foundations and associations, both public and private, which offer disability-related financial aid award programs. And though most of these organizations term their awards as “scholarships” (see our list below), several consider financial need as one of the factors in determining who receives an award.


Like grants, scholarships are moneys paid for education expenses that are not paid back. Unlike grants, however, most scholarships are awarded based upon merit or some other criteria. Scholarships are commonly provided by non-profit associations and organizations, although many private sources also award them. In addition to merit, most scholarships require some other form of affiliation, such as membership in a particular club or association, or ethnic or other minority group. There are literally hundreds of scholarships available to students with physical, mental, learning and emotional disabilities. Below is a list of some of the most popular scholarship programs for students with disabilities, including a number offered to those individuals with a specific disability:

  • General. The Foundation for Science and Disability Student Award Program awards scholarships in the fields of science, mathematics, medicine, technology, and engineering to graduate and fourth-year undergraduates who have been accepted into a graduate program.
  • Autism/Asperger’s Syndrome. The OAR Scholarship Program provides scholarships for students living with autism spectrum diagnosis as well as more severe autism diagnoses.
  • General.The Incight Scholarship Program awards up to 100 scholarships in amounts between $500 and $2,500 to students with living with any number of disabilities.
  • Spinal. The 180 Medical-College Scholarship Program awards three scholarships annually to help students living with spinal cord injuries, spina bifida, and transverse myelitis.
  • Blindness. The National Federation for the Blind currently offers 30 different scholarship programs to top blind scholars.
  • Cystic Fibrosis. The Cystic Fibrosis Scholarship Foundation awards scholarships to help students with cystic fibrosis further their education at a college or vocational school.
  • Hearing Impairment. The Alexander Graham Bell College Scholarship Program offers several scholarships annually to hearing-impaired students.
  • Epilepsy. The UCB Family Epilepsy Scholarship Program awards 25 one-time scholarships annually to people living with epilepsy, family members and caregivers who demonstrate academic and personal achievement.
  • Learning Disabilities. Offered through the National Center for Learning Disabilities, the Anne Ford and Allegra Ford Thomas Scholarships are awarded to two scholars annually with documented learning disabilities such as dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia, and dyspraxia. Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder alone is not considered to be a learning disability. Applicants with ADHD must also provide documentation of a specific learning disability.
  • Hemophilia/Bleeding Disorders. The National Hemophilia Foundation provides information regarding a number of scholarships available to students with hemophilia or other related bleeding disorders.
  • Mental Illness. The Lilly Reintegration Scholarship is awarded to help students with mental illness acquire the skills needed to reintegrate into society. It is open to persons living with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, schizo-affective disorder, and major depressive disorder.
  • Hydrocephalus. The Hydrocephalus Association’s Scholarship Program awards eight scholarships annually to young adults with hydrocephalus.

Top Schools for Students with Disabilities


or students with disabilities in the process of selecting the right school, multiple factors come into play. Certainly a top factor is the quality of each candidate’s disability services office. Many post-secondary institutions have offices on campus dedicated solely to equality, diversity, and disability. These offices make sure the school complies with (or exceeds) expectations with respect to accommodations and staff readiness and training. Regarding the former, common classroom accommodations include accessible documents, presentations, multimedia, web content, and adaptive technologies. All of these work together to make sure everyone’s needs are met in an academic setting. For all students with disabilities exploring university options, calling disability services to better understand their role on campus is absolutely critical.

In addition to evaluating disability services at potential colleges, it’s important to investigate the true cost of an institution. A quick list of common expenses includes application, tuition, books, room & board, technology fees, lab fees, parking, course drop fees, recreation services fees, and more. When a freshman on a budget, these can certainly add up. This means finding a school with a track record of working with students with disabilities, as well as an affordable cost structure.


Online College for Students with Disabilities


s you might expect, there are both advantages and disadvantages to studying and completing a college degree program online, and while many have to do with the unique needs of students with disabilities, many more apply to all students. For example, a growing number of the best colleges and universities in the United States offer the exact same courses and prestigious degree programs through distance learning that are available on their brick-and-mortar campuses.

There are two primary advantages to distance learning programs for students with disabilities:

  • Convenience

    One of the biggest challenges for all students with disabilities, particularly those with physical disabilities, is transportation. Attending college on a traditional campus requires the often-difficult use of public transportation or finding practicable handicapped parking, and then fighting campus foot traffic to make it to class on time. Online students can avoid these problems completely. Additionally, most students with disabilities can make use of the specially-adapted computers, keyboards, monitors and software already installed in their homes, thus avoiding the added hassle of carrying additional equipment with them to a classroom.

  • Flexibility

    Unlike traditional classes that require attendance at a specific time and place, online courses are typically accessible at any time, allowing a student with a disability to accommodate a class around his or her special needs and to study at his or her own pace.

Although distance education on the collegiate level is now a firmly established option, it is important to keep in mind that the field is still in a state of relative infancy and experiencing the corresponding growing pains. One major challenge for both exclusively online schools and traditional institutions with distance learning programs concerns how to best accommodate students with disabilities. It has become clear that the general provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 require post-secondary institutions to provide reasonable accommodations to their students with disabilities for online courses and programs. The responsibilities of students with disabilities under these laws also apply, which means that if you are considering an online college degree program, you must identify your disability to the school in a timely manner and inform them of your intention to sign up for their online courses.

Students with disabilities should also be aware of the fact that while many distance learning degrees are fully obtainable online, many others are not and require some level of traditional campus class attendance or other participation. It is therefore very important that you fully understand all of an online degree’s requirements before you enroll. Also, be sure to check out the accreditation credentials of all distance learning colleges and programs that you are considering to insure that they will be providing you with the quality education that you expect.

Distance learning can also be a great way to cut costs. For example, learning and participating online eliminates many of the on-campus factors that can eat away at income. Studying online means no extra expenses for gas, parking, bus fare, and lunch at school. Furthermore, students in distance learning classes can enjoy working from the comfort of their own home.


Job Resources for Graduates with Disabilities


he job market these days is challenging, to say the least. This is particularly true for college graduates with disabilities pursuing quality, high-paying positions in their chosen fields. You might be surprised to learn, however, that more and more companies are discovering real economic advantages to hiring workers with disabilities. Studies have shown, for example, that employees with disabilities perform equally well as those without disabilities. And, more importantly, job-retention rates for employees with disabilities are significantly higher than those for employees without disabilities.

One of the best places to start your job search is on your own college or university campus. Almost every post-secondary institution maintains a career center or department for graduate employment staffed with advisors eager to help you land a job in your degree field. Many offer special resources and training for job-seeking graduates with a disability.

In terms of a graduate student’s job search, we work closely with the federal government’s Workforce Investment program to help our graduates, both with or without a disability, find employment. Ellen McShane, Director of Academic Support Services, University of Vermont

Remember, one of the best recruiting tools available to a college or university is a high graduate employment rate, so you can count on your school for real help in your job search.

In addition to your own school, there are an abundance of government, and non-profit public and private resources out there that are in the business of helping job seekers with all types of disabilities. Below are links to a few of the best of these sources available online.

Entry-level positions with true growth potential are tough to find, but they are out there. So, give your job search all that you’ve got, have some patience, and be sure to make the most of the resources available.

  • American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD). The AAPD is a non-profit organization with the goal of empowering Americans with disabilities.
  • Career Opportunities for Students with Disabilities (COSD). COSD is a professional association of colleges and major national employers whose goal is improve the employment rate of college students and recent graduates with disabilities on a national basis.
  • is a federal government website that is a clearinghouse for all sorts of useful information for Americans with disabilities, including a wide range of employment and workforce resources.
  • Job Accommodation Network (JAN). JAN provides free consulting services for individuals with physical or intellectual limitations that affect employment.
  • National Business & Disability Council (NBDC). The NBDC is an employer membership organization and comprehensive resource for disability employment best practices. The site includes a searchable database of current job openings and a database to post your resume.

Acquiring a Disability After Graduation


f you obtain a disability after graduating college and still carry an outstanding student loan balance, you may be able to have your debt forgiven. Whether or not that happens depends largely on your specific lender. Federal student loans offer a total and permanent disability discharge procedure known as a TPD discharge. Specifically, a TPD discharge will relieve you from having to pay back a William D. Ford Federal Direct Loan, a Federal Family Education Loan, a Federal Perkins Loan, and/or a TEACH Grant service obligation. You must provide the Department of Education with information about your disability to have your debt discharged. Permanent disability can be proven in one of three ways:

  • Veterans can submit documentation from the VA showing that it has determined that the applicant is unemployable due to a service-related disability;
  • If the applicant is receiving SSDI or SSI benefits, he or she can submit notice of the award of those benefits stating that the next scheduled benefit review is 5 to 7 years from the date of the most recent determination;
  • The applicant can submit certification from a physician of total and permanent disability.

Details regarding a TPD discharge are available on the Federal Student Aid website. Additional information on TPD discharge and its application process can be found at

The procedures for private student loan forgiveness vary by lender. Several lenders, including Sallie Mae, Discover, and Wells Fargo follow a discharge procedure similar to that of the federal government. If you are carrying a private student loan, check with your lender to see how you may qualify for discharge.

If you receive a disability after graduation, you will likely want to apply for Social Security disability benefits. There are two programs available: Social Security Disability Insurance, which pays benefits to those individuals who have worked long enough and paid Social Security taxes; and Supplemental Security Income, which pays based on financial need. You can find out more and apply for disability benefits by visiting the Social Security Disability Benefits website.