Guide to Paying for College for Students with Disabilities

Getting Started

Many students worry about paying for college. The cost of college continues to rise. In 2018, college students paid nearly $24,000 per year in tuition and fees on average. 

However, a college degree often pays off. Earning a college degree translates into higher earnings and lower unemployment rates. For college graduates, a degree can mean career advancement and a bigger paycheck. So, how can students with disabilities pay for college?

In 2016, nearly one in five college students reported having a disability. These students can choose from many options when it comes to paying for college. Multiple private organizations and foundations offer scholarships for students with disabilities. Students can also use federal financial aid, private loans, and employer assistance programs.

Our guide helps students with disabilities pay for college. We walk learners through the federal financial aid program, scholarships for students with disabilities, and the legal rights of students with disabilities. Keep reading to learn more about paying for college.

Federal Aid -- Completing the FAFSA

The federal financial aid program distributes over $120 billion each year in grants, loans, and work-study funds. Federal aid helps over 13 million students pay for college every year. For millions of students, completing the FAFSA represents the first step in paying for college. 

Students must fill out the FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid, to receive federal financial aid. Federal Student Aid, part of the Department of Education, runs the FAFSA and administers federal grants, loans, and other financial aid programs. Applicants for federal financial aid must fill out the FAFSA every year. 

While filling out the FAFSA form may take around an hour, the entire process can take several months, so students should submit the form as soon as possible each year. 

Students must meet eligibility requirements to receive federal financial aid.

Eligibility requirements:

  • Graduated from high school or received your GED diploma.
  • Be a U.S. citizen or eligible noncitizen and possess a social security number.
  • Male applicants must be registered with the Selective Service.

Applicants provide personal and financial information on the FAFSA form. For example, applicants must provide their social security number and federal tax information from tax returns and W-2s. Applicants must also provide records of any untaxed income and their financial holdings, including cash, bank accounts, investments, and assets.

Independent students do not need to provide financial information about their parents. Independent students must be at least 24 years old, married, a graduate or professional student, a member of the armed forces or a veteran, an emancipated minor, or someone with legal dependents.

Applicants who do not meet any of these criteria must file as dependent students and provide financial information about their parents.

After submitting the FAFSA, the government processes the form and provides a Student Aid Report that summarizes the FAFSA data. Colleges and universities then calculate the aid and send an award letter detailing the scholarships, grants, and loans available to the student.

Several factors influence the amount of federal aid each applicant receives, including the cost of attendance at the school, expected family contribution, number of years in school, and student's enrollment status.

Types of Federal Aid

Pell Grants

Pell grants support undergraduate students who demonstrate exceptional financial need. The program provides up to $6,345 per year for qualifying students. The amount can change each year depending on federal funding.

Recipients do not need to repay the Pell grant, making it one of the best forms of financial aid for students with disabilities. Pell grant recipients must not hold a bachelor's degree or higher to qualify for the program.

Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (FSEOG)

The FSEOG program provides up to $4,000 per year depending on the applicant's financial need and other forms of financial aid. The federal government provides these grants directly to schools, which award funds to their students. Only undergraduate students who do not already hold a bachelor's degree can receive grant funds.

Applicants must submit the FAFSA to qualify for the FSEOG. Recipients do not need to repay the grant.

Federal Perkins Loan

The Perkins loan program ended in 2017, with the program's final disbursements reaching students in 2018. New students can no longer apply for the Perkins loan program.

Direct Subsidized Loans

Direct subsidized loans, also called subsidized Stafford loans, offer several benefits for students who meet the financial need requirements. For example, the federal government covers interest for recipients while in school and during a six-month grace period after graduation. Interest also does not accumulate during an approved deferment period.

The annual limit for the subsidized loan program varies depending on the student's year in school and their financial need. Only undergraduate students qualify.

Direct Unsubsidized Loans

The direct unsubsidized loan program, also known as unsubsidized Stafford loan, helps undergraduate and graduate students pay for school. The program does not require financial need, and the amount of the loan varies depending on the student's year in school and whether the student qualifies as independent or dependent.

Unlike the subsidized loan program, recipients of an unsubsidized loan must pay interest on their loan, with the option to add interest accumulated during school to the total loan.

Direct PLUS Loans

Unlike other forms of federal financial aid, the Direct Plus program lets eligible parents take out loans for their children. Also known as the parent PLUS loan, the loan can cover the entire cost of attendance minus any other forms of financial aid the student receives.

The program sets credit score requirements for recipients and conducts a credit check during the application process. The PLUS loan program also awards loans to graduate and professional students.

Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education Grant

The TEACH grant offers up to $4,000 per year to support students pursuing a teaching degree. Recipients must submit the FAFSA and enroll in an undergraduate or graduate program at a participating school.

The grant comes with a service agreement. Recipients must agree to work for at least four years in a high-need area or low-income school. If TEACH grant recipients do not meet the service requirement, the grant converts to a loan.

Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grant

The Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grant funds students who lost a parent or guardian as a result of their military service in Iraq or Afghanistan. Recipients must either have been enrolled in college or under 24 years old when their parent or guardian died.

The grant also carries financial eligibility requirements. Eligible students must not qualify for a federal Pell grant based on their expected family contribution, but they should meet other Pell grant eligibility requirements. The maximum grant is $6,345 for 2020/2021.

Federal Work-Study

The federal work-study program provides part-time job opportunities for students who demonstrate financial need. Work-study students may work on campus or off campus, and the program tries to match students with opportunities in their field. Both undergraduate and graduate students qualify for the program.

The work-study program guarantees at least the federal minimum wage for all hours worked, but some positions pay more than minimum wage. The amount students earn varies depending on their hours and pay.

In the final step of the process, students must accept the federal aid. Your awards letter will tell you how to accept your aid. Always accept any scholarships or grants first; then consider loans. Keep in mind, you do not have to accept loans or even the full amount of the loans offered, and make sure to accept loans with the most favorable terms to you.


Scholarships for All Disabilities

AAHD Frederick J. Krause Scholarship on Health and Disability

The AAHD Frederick J. Krause Scholarship on Health and Disability awards a scholarship to a student with a disability who is currently pursuing an undergraduate or graduate degree. The program gives preference to students in majors like health and disability. Concentrations may include public health, health promotion, disability studies, disability research, rehabilitation engineering, audiology, disability policy, and special education. Applicants must provide a personal statement and two letters of recommendation. Click here to visit the official website and apply for this scholarship.

Amount: Up to $1,000
Deadline: November 15

Mays Mission for the Handicapped Scholarship Program

Mays Mission offers scholarships to students with physical and/or mental disabilities who score a 20+ on the ACT or 970+ on the SAT. Applicants must be enrolled in a four-year, undergraduate study program and provide documentation showing a significant disability. Click here to visit the official website and apply for this scholarship.

Amount: Award varies
Deadline: June 30

Chicago Injury Center’s Annual Scholarship Fund for Disabled Veterans

The Chicago Injury Center offers a scholarship for veterans with a physical or emotional injury. Applicants must write a 500+ word essay on the challenges they have had to overcome from their disability and how this has prepared them to succeed in their intended course of study. Click here to visit the official website and apply for this scholarship.

Amount: Up to $1,000
Deadline: June 1

Buckfire & Buckfire P.C. Disability Scholarship Program

Buckfire & Buckfire P.C. offers a scholarship for a college or university student with any type of disability. Applicants must submit a one-page essay describing how they overcame adversity caused by their disability, along with what they learned from the experience. Click here to visit the official website and apply for this scholarship.

Amount: $1,000
Deadline: October 1

Auger & Auger Disabled Scholar Award

Auger & Auger Attorneys at Law offer two $1,000 awards per year to students with disabilities pursuing an undergraduate degree. Applicants must write a 500- to 1,000-word essay on one of the following topics: overcoming their disability to do something extraordinary, how their college degree will contribute to their goals, or how their disability has made them unique. Click here to visit the official website and apply for this scholarship.

Amount: $1,000
Deadline: Two annually -- July 31 and November 30

Gabriel’s Foundation of HOPE College Scholarship

Gabriel’s Foundation of HOPE offers several $500 scholarships to students living with a diagnosed disability who want to work in a field that benefits people with disabilities or who have immediate family members living with a disability. Applicants must write a one-page essay explaining their career goals and why they want to further their education. Click here to visit the official website and apply for this scholarship.

Amount: Multiple awards, $500 each
Deadline: Two annually -- July 1 and November 1

Wells Fargo Scholarship Program for People with Disabilities

The Wells Fargo Scholarship Program for People with Disabilities helps people with disabilities obtain the education or training necessary to succeed in the career path of their choice. Applicants must have an identified disability and be high school seniors or graduates planning to enroll in full-time or half-time study at an accredited two-year or four-year college or university for the upcoming academic year. The program awards two $2,500 renewable scholarships for full-time students and $1,250 scholarships for half-time students. Click here to visit the official website and apply for this scholarship.

Amount: Multiple awards
Deadline: January 17th

Scholarships for Physical Disabilities Scholarship

This scholarship funds 1-2 $500 awards. Applicants must submit an essay and a visual poem (combined total of 500-1,000 words) on the theme of overcoming a personal challenge. They must also maintain a 3.0 GPA or higher.

Amount: 1-2 $500 awards
Deadline: May 30

Karman Healthcare Scholarship Fund

Karman Healthcare offers two $500 scholarships for students with mobility disabilities. Applicants must submit an essay on "an experience from your own life and explain how it has influenced your development."

Amount: Two $500 awards
Deadline: September 1

Scholarships for Autism

Avonte Oquendo Memorial Scholarship for Autism

The Avonte Oquendo Memorial scholarship, sponsored by The Perecman Firm PLLC caters to high-achieving students diagnosed with autism or those who have a family member diagnosed with autism. Applicants must write a 500- to 1,000-word essay and select from a topic relating to autism.

Amount: $5,000
Deadline: July 31

OAR Scholarship Program

The Organization for Autism Research offers various scholarships to students across the autism spectrum. Students with an autism diagnosis who pursue full-time postsecondary education or vocational training can receive an award. Applicants must apply online and answer three short essay questions.

Amount: $3,000
Deadline: May 4

Scholarships for Health Conditions

Patient Advocate Foundation’s Scholarship for Survivors

The Patient Advocate Foundation provides scholarships to individuals under the age of 25 who have been diagnosed or treated for cancer, a chronic, or life-threatening, debilitating disease within the past five years. Applicants must write an essay (1,000 word maximum) on how their diagnosis has impacted their life and future goals. Click here to visit the official website and apply for this scholarship.

Amount: $3,000 annually for up to four consecutive years
Deadline: February 19

Baer Reintegration Scholarship Program

The Baer Foundation and the Center for Reintegration partner to offer a scholarship covering all or part of an education for students currently receiving medical treatment of an illness including schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, or bipolar disorder. Applicants must complete an application package, including a form, essay, and recommendations. Click here to visit the official website and apply for this scholarship.

Amount: Award varies
Deadline: Currently Unavailable

The Hydrocephalus Association’s Scholarship Program

The Hydrocephalus Association’s Scholarship Program provides financial assistance to capable and promising young adults living with the ongoing challenges and complexities of hydrocephalus. The program provides a variety of scholarships in different categories. Click here to visit the official website and apply for this scholarship.

Amount: $1,000
Deadline: Currently Unavailable

Scholarships for Hearing Impairments

TPA Scholarship Trust for the Hearing Impaired

The Travelers Protective Association provides financial aid to people with deafness or hearing impairment. Click here to visit the official website and apply for this scholarship.

Amount: Award varies
Deadline: Quarterly -- March 31, June 30, September 30, and December 31

Alexander Graham Bell College Scholarship Program

The Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing offers various scholarships for full-time students who are deaf or hard of hearing pursuing an undergraduate or graduate degree. The program boasts several merit-based scholarships in different categories for students who demonstrate academic excellence. Click here to visit the official website and apply for these scholarships.

Amount: Award varies
Deadline: Varies

Graeme Clark Scholarship

The Cochlear Graeme Clark Scholarship is awarded to Nucleus Cochlear Implant recipients undertaking university studies. The scholarship takes its name from Professor Graeme Clark, whose research led to the first “bionic ear” in 1978 and the first Nucleus Implant in 1982. Scholarship applicants must possess a Nucleus Cochlear Implant, be enrolled in a postsecondary institution, and hold a 2.5 GPA or better. Click here to visit the official website and apply for this scholarship.

Amount: $2,000 annually for up to four years
Deadline: September 30

Sertoma’s Scholarship for the Hard of Hearing or Deaf

Sertoma’s Scholarship for the Hard of Hearing or Deaf caters to students with clinically significant bilateral hearing loss pursuing four-year college degrees in any discipline. Applicants must hold a minimum 3.2 GPA and submit an application including two letters of recommendation and personal statement. Click here to visit the official website and apply for this scholarship.

Amount: $1,000
Deadline: March 30

Scholarships for Learning Disabilities

Gemm Learning Dyslexia Scholarship

This biannual scholarship is available to students with dyslexia attending a college/university. Applicants must send in their story in the form of a 500- to 650-word essay on the topic “living with dyslexia.”

Amount: $1,000
Deadline: October 31

Scholarships for Visual Impairments

National Federation of the Blind Scholarships

The National Federation of the Blind annually offers college students with blindness the opportunity to win merit-based, national-level scholarships. All scholarships base acceptance on academic excellence, community service, and leadership. Applicants must be legally blind in both eyes, a U.S. resident, and planning to pursue a full-time, postsecondary course of study in the U.S.

Amount: Award varies; 20+ scholarships available ranging from $3,000-$12,000

Deadline: March 31

The Arthur E. and Helen Copeland Scholarships

The United States Association of Blind Athletes offers the Arthur E. Copeland Scholarship annually to one male student and the Helen Copeland Scholarship annually to one female student. Applicants must be active USABA members, legally blind, and enrolled full time in a postsecondary institution.

Amount: $500 each
Deadline: July 31

Lighthouse Guild Scholarship

The Lighthouse Guild scholarship aims to help outstanding and deserving legally blind students attend college and/or graduate school. Scholarships are based on strong academic accomplishments and merit. Applicants must provide proof of legal blindness and U.S. citizenship, send documentation of academic achievement and three letters of recommendation, and write two personal statements of 500 words or less on their educational and personal goals and the influence of an outstanding teacher.

Amount: Multiple available; up to $10,000 each
Deadline: March 31

Other Aid

Employer Assistance

Scholarships for students with disabilities aren't the only form of financial aid. Students can also use employer assistance programs when paying for college.

What is an employer assistance program? In these programs, a student's current employer provides tuition assistance for a degree in a relevant field.

The employer may cap the annual tuition benefits for each employer or place limitations on the program. For example, employers may require that employees work a minimum number of hours while in school or agree not to leave their job for a certain amount of time after completing the degree. Employers may also limit the type of degree or field of study. In most employer assistance programs, students must attend an accredited school.

Many colleges also offer employer assistance programs to their faculty and staff.


Fellowships offer another form of financial aid for students with disabilities. A fellowship typically provides a tuition waiver and financial support for graduate students. Sometimes a fellowship also offers health insurance or other benefits.

Universities offer fellowships in several forms. A teaching fellowship comes with classroom or grading responsibilities, while a research fellowship might involve providing research assistance for a professor. This teaching and research experience serves as a valuable part of graduate training while also providing financial support. Some schools also offer fellowships with no work requirements.

Depending on the program, students may apply for a fellowship when they submit their application to the program or on an annual basis. Because fellowships vary in requirements and financial support, prospective students should research potential fellowships carefully.

Cost-Saving Measures

Studying Online

Studying online can help students lower the cost of paying for college. For example, many colleges offer tuition discounts for fully online students, including in-state tuition rates for out-of-state learners. Online students often save money by avoiding expensive on-campus living costs and on transportation and parking costs.

Enrolling in an online program can also help students complete their general education requirements at a less expensive community college before transferring the credits into a four-year university.

Many online learners work while completing their degree, thanks to the flexible schedule of online programs. This can mean taking out fewer loans, since students can use their paycheck to cover some tuition costs. Learn more about the most affordable online colleges.

AP Classes and Testing Out

Students can earn college credit at a lower price through AP classes, which entails testing out of basic classes. 

High schoolers can enroll in AP courses and pay $95 to take an exam in the subject. Students who earn a passing score can receive college credit in the subject. Many schools offer AP classes during all four years of high school, giving students multiple opportunities to earn college credits. The College Board, which administers the AP exams, offers exam accommodations to qualifying students. 

In addition, students can test out of introductory language, English, social science, and natural science courses. Many colleges let students test out of these courses through an exam administered by the school or an outside organization. For example, the College Board runs the CLEP exam program. Testing out of classes can save students thousands in tuition.

Know Your Rights

Several laws protect students with disabilities, including the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and several sections of the Rehabilitation Act

The ADA, which became law in 1990, prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities, including in higher education. The civil rights law applies to both private and public colleges. Similarly, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act states that colleges and universities that receive federal funding cannot exclude students with disabilities.

These laws prohibit schools from discriminating against applicants with disabilities during the admission process. College programs must be accessible to all students, including extracurricular programs. This includes offering accommodations for students with disabilities, modifying campus policies, and making facilities accessible. For example, schools must provide qualified interpreters and readers for students.

Some protections that apply to younger students do not cover postsecondary education. For example, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and the Individual Education Program only apply to pre-K through 12th grade education. However, the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act provide strong protections for college students with disabilities.

FAQs for Students with Disabilities

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    What do the laws mentioned earlier mean for college students with disabilities?

    Put generally, the ADA and Section 504 protect students by ensuring institutions cannot discriminate on the basis of disability. The specifics cover admissions, programming (including extracurricular activities), housing, and other services. Overall, institutions must provide necessary adjustments or accommodations for students with disabilities who need them.

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    Which institutions do these laws apply to?

    The ADA applies to all public and private institutions, with the exception of those affiliated with religious organizations. Specifically, Title II of the ADA relates to state-funded schools (including universities, community colleges, vocations schools, etc.), while Title III covers private colleges and vocational schools. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act applies to any institution that receives federal dollars for any program or service -- whether that institution is private or public.

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    Which students qualify for accommodations under these laws?

    To receive academic or other accommodations from an institution, students must identify themselves to the institution as having a disability and may need to provide documentation. The laws protect those with physical, sensory, and health-related disabilities, psychological disorders or attention disorders, and some learning disabilities -- anything that might prevent the student from participating fully in the life of the campus community. Students do not need to inform colleges of their disability if they would prefer not to do so, but this means they will not be eligible for accommodations.

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    How do these laws affect college admission?

    Postsecondary institutions covered under these laws may not deny admission to any qualified candidates on the basis of disability.

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    What are some of the accommodations postsecondary institutions must make?

    These accommodations fall into several categories:

    • Architectural: Construction of new buildings must be accessibility-compliant; classes or programs must be relocated to an accessible building if necessary.
    • Academic: Substitution of certain courses in programs, extended time for testing, and early enrollment options.
    • Communication-related: Interpreters, assistive listening systems, captioning, audio recordings, Braille, and large print materials.
    • Housing: Comparable, accessible housing for students with disabilities must be provided at the same cost, quality, and variety as to other students.