College: Not a ‘one size fits all’

How to find the right college for you - both academically and in support services.

Part of the College Readiness Resource Center, by College Success @ Perkins

By: Leslie Thatcher, Director, Program Development and Strategy, Perkins Transition Center

It’s complicated!  

As a student with a visual impairment, you may be wondering which campuses are most accessible? You may be wondering, more generally, where are the best colleges for students with visual impairments?  Other disabilities?  While we all like clear, immediate answers, there really is no short answer to these questions. The college process is complex, and many factors need to be taken into consideration.

What do you want out of college? What is your plan after college? What do you love and what are you good at? Do you want to be near or far from home?  Answers to these questions will help guide you to begin to identify the “type” of college you may benefit from attending — two-year, four-year, a non-degree program, s training program — there’s so many options. Start planning NOW, in high school, for challenging college prep curriculum. It can help you to be prepared academically, and in terms of developing your blindness skills, to be as independent as colleges expect you to be!

College today looks very different from when your parents were in college. Much of the college process— researching colleges, submitting applications, registering for courses — now occurs online. You can even complete your four-year degree completely virtually, as many colleges have created complete online degree programs. Searching for college is a great way to learn about yourself or your student, as you observe how you react to different settings, and as you consider what college really “means” – it’s complicated!

“Not for everyone” vs “On your own timeline!” 

Deciding to go to college, applying and enrolling is a significant personal and financial commitment. Yet, while completing a college degree can lead to larger lifetime earnings, it is not an experience for everyone. If you are thinking about attending college, it’s important to define why you are interested in college, and what skills and interests you bring to the task, and what type of college or university will be a good match for your interests, drive, and skills. Bottom line:  it’s very different from high school, and you need to really want it and be ready for it.  

Colleges: Many shapes and sizes

Colleges come in all shapes and sizes. You will need to do some self-reflection and some work to find the ones that will fit you best — academically, socially, and in terms of support for your unique learning needs. There’s a few steps to start this process and to get a sense of options that might work for you now, and in the future.

  1. Prep: Take the Perkins College Readiness Checklist with your TVI or parents. Discuss what you learned (or discovered that you did not know) with them, as well as with your Transition Counselor.
  2. Options: Learn the types of colleges, training programs and non college options that you could consider after high school. Later in this article, we will provide you with some definitions to get you started.
  3. Interests: Start to clarify your general or specific interests. Think about classes you are enjoying, and why you’re enjoying them. Or perhaps a job, or camp experience when someone noted that you were skilled at something. Think about integrating things you’re interested in, with things you may be skilled at (for example, a teacher who enjoys working with children first, and their subject second… or a lawyer who really loves complex issues and ideas.)  It’s ok if you’re not sure; many students change their intended major after a semester or two, but it’s helpful to start somewhere.
  4. Location: Discuss with your parents or guardian if you’d like to stay near home, and if you hope to live at home, at college, or somewhere else.  There are many implications for this decision, including making sure you have strong skills if you’re considering moving away from home, and financial implications as well.
  5. Select: Using this information from Steps 1-4, you can research and create an initial list of colleges that meet your criteria.
    • Try using some of the resources listed later in this article to help you generally search. Be sure to consider which college admissions criteria are aligned with your academic record (GPA, the rigor of your high school courses, etc.) and possible standardized test scores.
    • SAT or ACT are the main standardized test options. Yet, many colleges are “test optional” or not accepting scores at all. Once you get a list of possible colleges, check to see if the colleges are still requiring them, recommending them, or do not review any testing. 
    • Consider making a spreadsheet or document that will help you keep track of all of these details.
    • Then, shorten your list by the beginning of your senior year, through online research on each college website, reading about their academic programs, visits, and talking to others who may have attended the college. Adjust your list based on what you learn.  It may be just 2 schools to start! That’s ok, as long as they create reasonable admission options for you (so that they are not a “reach” from an admissions perspective, where you’re unlikely to get in).
  6. Visit! Visit colleges near you – even if you’re not necessarily interested in them. Go on a formal admission tour, if available. Or walk around campus if it’s open. Visit a café. Chat with a current student. Ask what they like and don’t like. You’ll learn more than you think!  How independent are you?  How different is it from your high school?  How would you feel navigating the campus on your own?

Resources to help you

Let’s look at some resources out there designed to help you explore some of these interests and determine how to finance college beyond your state VR agency. This is an opportunity to explore yourself, your strengths and interests. These established resources will help you explore and develop an initial “college list” based on your interests, including how far you want to be from home.

College search:  Even if your high school is not able to provide you with a lot of guidance in the college search process, there are lots of other resources for you to use to educate yourself about college, searching for good college matches that meet your needs, and to learn more about financial aid. For families going through this process for the first time (possibly ever!), some of these sites can help get you started with understanding the language used in this process, and how to support your student.

A few suggestions:

  1. Understand the difference between high school and college accommodations. Here’s a helpful place to start to learn the differences.
  2. Visit colleges near you, and far away, to get a better sense of life on campus.  
  3. Be sure to explore the college’s experience working with students with visual impairments at the Disability Services Office. The Office of Admissions will not have all the information you will want. You all bring different strengths, and needs for accommodations. Work with your Teacher of the Visually Impaired (TVI) to develop a list of questions, based on your vision profile and any other learning or physical challenges, such as ADHD, autism, auditory processing disorders. Try role playing questions and answers before you visit the DSO. 

Not one size fits all 

College is not one size fits all; it can take different forms. Each one will help prepare you for a wide variety of career paths. But you need to do the work to explore what will work best for you, and that requires that you know yourself.  

Community college 

You can attend a 2-year track at a community college to receive an associate’s degree for a specific trade or area of study; you may choose to try a college course or two, to see if you like it; you may enroll in, and complete, a certificate of completion in a certain area of your choice; or, you can apply and transfer to attend a 4-year degree college program and graduate with a bachelor’s degree (a BA) diploma in your hand. You can start at a 2-year, and then apply to a 4-year college. With planning, you can mix and match, finding the mold that best fits your learning style and needs, and financial requirements. You may need to take placement tests in English and Math in order to take credit bearing courses (which lead to a degree).  

State university systems

All states have public 4-year colleges and universities; there’s a lot of variety. If you are interested in a state university, for the state in which you live, you would likely qualify for “in state” tuition rates. State universities in states other than your home state, charge out of state tuition which is usually significantly more, although if you apply for need based financial aid, and qualify, you may receive some financial aid. As with all colleges, the mix of curriculum, size, and the accommodations offered by the Disability Service Office, will all have an impact  on your decision.

Liberal arts colleges

Liberal Arts colleges are often small to medium sized, meaning roughly 1,000 to 10,000 students. Many value supporting students to explore a wide range of ideas and areas of study, even before selecting a major; that is what is suggested by the liberal arts — valuing study in a wide variety of disciplines, to inform your final area of study and to think critically across disciplines. Students often consider these types of colleges due to their reputation for smaller classes, where professors get to know their students. Colleges such as Lewis & Clark College (where Haben Girma graduated from!), Rollins College in Florida, and Mount Holyoke College, in Massachusetts, for example, all are liberal arts colleges.  

Specialized programs within colleges and universities

Colleges such as Mitchell College and Lesley University are both four-year colleges, and have specialized programs for students with autism to engage in college, with additional support and structure to support student success. Landmark College, in Vermont, provides excellent programs for neurodivergent students, including those with executive functioning challenges, students diagnosed with autism, and others. Any of these could be appropriate matches, depending on your area of academic interest, and other interests.  Take a look at their websites to learn about how different colleges approach these types of programs — maybe they would work for you.  Other programs offer the chance to experience the college environment, and even take some courses, but not complete a degree. The comprehensive Think College website has excellent resources to explore these programs.

Comprehensive private universities

Colleges that fit this description are more likely to have several “Schools” within the university, such as a School of Public Health, of Business, and even Arts and Sciences.  Boston University, Syracuse University, Washington University, Santa Clara University all fit this description.

Training programs for blindness skills

Some students who aspire to attend college may still need additional focus on developing blindness skills such as Orientation and Mobility, Independent Living Skills, and others, and will benefit from adding to their college timeline a plan to attend a training program to develop these skills. There’s often not enough time in high school to gain these skills to the point of independence. Yet, these skills are best learned in intensive settings. There, students can focus on their growth and confidence in their emergent blindness skills. There are a variety of timelines that can allow time to tackle learning these skills, then attend college.  And, some programs support you to also take classes at the same time.  One list of some transition programs are in the new American Printing House for the Blind’s Transition Hub.  

Training and certification programs for professions and jobs

Some community colleges and other programs can help you learn specific job skills, and offer vocational training. These are good options when you are unsure if college is the right choice for you, but you would like to start to earn money.

The college search, and the planning that comes from it, can help you, as a student, learn about yourself. It can help your parents learn more about your emerging interests, strengths, and goals as a young adult. This is an exciting, but sometimes challenging time. By investing in thoughtful research, you can make better informed decisions that integrate your interests, readiness to study, live and ultimately, work independently. Understanding these options can help you determine what options and timelines work best fit for you.

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