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Possibilities: A Financial Resource for Parents of Children with Disabilities

Planning and Funding Your Child’s Education — Post-Secondary Schools

Post-secondary school is an all-encompassing term for a variety of education programs one attends after graduating from high school. Close to 30 percent of Americans with disabilities, compared to about 38 percent for all Americans, acquire some post-secondary education, usually through vocational schools or two-year programs. Only 12 percent (see Disability Statistics: Online Resource for U.S. Disability Statistics (2008 American Community Survey Data Set). Cornell University. graduate from a college or university, compared to over 17 percent  for all Americans.

(for above, see Disability Statistics: Online Resource for U.S. Disability Statistics (2008 American Community Survey Data Set, Cornell University. Retrieved from acs.cfm?statistic=9 on September 26, 2010); (see U.S Census Bureau. 2006-2008 American Community Survey 3-Year Estimates.); Retrieved from acs.cfm?statistic=9 on September 26, 2010); (see U.S Census Bureau. 2006-2008 American Community Survey 3-Year Estimates.)

Your advocacy efforts and the self-determination of your child in pursuit of a post-secondary education will help your child become the person he or she aspires to be.

Planning — Creating Paths to Income

In 2000, Jim Langevin, a quadriplegic, became the first individual with a disability to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. Since the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) became law in 1990, employers have come to know the unique talents of individuals with disabilities, and the value they bring to a working environment. 

Even though approximately half of disabled workers are unemployed  (as of this writing: see Barbara T. Mates. “Twenty Years of Assistive Technologies” American Libraries: The Magazine of the American Library Association. September 14, 2010. Retrieved from 09142010/twenty-years-assistive-technologies on September 26, 2010), if you consider the advocacy efforts over the last 20 years of many organizations for improving workplace conditions, career opportunities for individuals with disabilities are likely to continue to broaden. 

Your child can choose from several paths to income, depending on his or her abilities and career goals.

Vocational or Technical School

These schools offer great flexibility in the pursuit of an education or career. A great starting point for students not yet prepared to work towards a four-year degree, vocational and technical schools prepare students for specific job skills. Coursework is usually completed over an 18-month or two-year period. Programs can be offered by stand-alone vocational or technical schools or offered by community colleges. Upon successful completion, students earn certificates that may qualify them for jobs. Certificate options include:

  • Information technology
  • Accounting
  • Medical coding
  • Construction management
  • Plumbing
  • Electrical engineering
  • Air conditioning and refrigeration
  • Auto mechanics
  • Interior, fashion, or graphic design
  • Cosmetology
  • Hospitality and tourism

College Programs

These programs offer undergraduate-level coursework at colleges and universities. Students may earn a college degree, also referred to as a Bachelor’s Degree, typically a four-year program, or an Associate’s Degree, typically a two-year program.

Social Stigmas — To Ask or Not Ask for Accommodations

This can be a sticky point with your child, who might be happy to be rid of “special education” labels upon graduation from high school. Yet having proper learning academic and test accommodations can become an important element in post-secondary education success, and ultimately, in work and independent living. 

In any post-secondary learning environment, it is up to your child to request needed accommodations. Those requests can be made through a school’s Disability Support Services (DSS). It is also your child’s responsibility to:

  • Find out what procedure must be followed to request or order an accommodation.
  • Provide documentation of the disability and the need for an accommodation. Each school has its own documentation requirements.

Should your child hesitate to disclose his or her disability in order to request needed accommodations, you might suggest that doing so is part of self-advocacy and self-determination in getting supports necessary for success in school and beyond.

For more information on your child’s rights to accommodations in post-secondary schools, see Post Secondary Education .

Students with Intellectual Disabilities — Why College?

One reason for pursuing post-secondary education that remains the same across all groups of individuals: qualify for higher paying jobs. In 2009 Think College! , stated in its Fast Facts publication that individuals with intellectual disabilities (ID) who completed a post-secondary program earned 73 percent higher weekly income than their peers who did not complete such a program (see Alberto Migliore, John Butterworth, and Debra Hart. “Fast Facts.” Think College! No.1, 2009. Retrieved from on November 22, 2010.). 

Your child with ID may have many reasons to attend college. Beyond the ability to qualify for higher paying jobs, attending a post-secondary education program can help improve other areas of your child’s well-being: independence, community involvement, confidence and self-esteem, and the ability to solve problems without mom or dad’s assistance.

Through the Higher Education Opportunity Act (HEOA), a growing number of  post-secondary programs are available to students with intellectual disabilities:

Find Post-Secondary Programs for Students with Intellectual Disabilities

Think College!, a project of the Institute for Community Inclusion at the University of Massachusetts Boston, provides resources for students with intellectual disabilities (ID) who want to attend college. They include information on:

  • Entrance requirements
  • Academic and learning programs suited for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities
  • Types of instruction for ID groups only
  • Specialized degrees or certificates

Find out what post-secondary programs are available for your child with ID. Contact Think College!:
Call 1-617-287-4300 (Voice) or 1-617-287-4350 (TTY)
Visit (Search through the Think College! database to find post-secondary programs for students with intellectual disabilities)
Institute for Community Inclusion
University of Massachusetts Boston
100 Morrissey Boulevard
Boston, MA 02125

Funding Your Child’s Education — Post-Secondary Schools

If your plans to save for your child’s post-secondary education got derailed because of disability-related health care expenses, you might not feel financially prepared to even consider post-secondary options for your child. A variety of post-secondary financial aid programs are available to help you finance tuition and other costs related to post-secondary education. These programs include:

  • Scholarships
  • Grants
  • Federal Work Study (FWS) programs
  • Federal student loans
  • State Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) programs
  • Social Security Administration Work Incentives—Plan for Achieving Self-Support (PASS)
  • Community Service Programs (example: AmeriCorps)
  • Financial Aid for Students with Intellectual Disabilities

Your child must apply for each of these types of student aid programs. Eligibility is based on a variety of factors such as financial need, academic achievement, a special talent, community service, and disability.

Making Your Way through the Financial Aid Maze

Trying to sort through the seemingly endless lists of resources on student financial aid can be pretty overwhelming—there is so much information out there. The following resources might be able to direct you to the best places to look for financial aid:

  • Your child’s Individual Education Plan (IEP) team
  • Your child’s disability-specific organization
  • Your local Parent Center
  • Your state’s agency for Vocational Rehabilitation

Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA)

To qualify for federal student aid, your child must complete (with your help if you wish) a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The FAFSA process determines how much federal aid your family needs to cover education costs. Depending on your financial need, you may be expected to pay a portion of education costs. That amount will be defined as the “Expected Family Contribution” in the Student Aid Report (SAR) you receive after completing the FAFSA.

The FAFSA requests detailed information about:

  • Your child
  • Your child’s dependency status
  • Your child’s finances (income and assets)
  • You, the parent
  • Your finances (income and assets)
  • What schools should receive the results of the FAFSA

(see “FAFSA on the Web Worksheet.” Retrieved from on November 18, 2010.)

Information you’ll need to have handy as you complete the FAFSA:

  • Income tax returns, yours and your child’s (if applicable)
  • Your current financial statements: savings and checking account, investment
  • Records of any untaxed income you may have received, such as Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI)
  • Your Driver's License (if you have one)
  • Your and your child’s Social Security Number
  • If you are not a U.S. citizen, your alien registration or permanent resident card

(see “Before Beginning a FAFSA—Documents Needed.” Retrieved from on November 18, 2010.)

There is no charge to submit a FAFSA form

There is no charge to submit a FAFSA form, ever. Be wary of organizations that charge a fee to submit your FAFSA application or promise to qualify your child for financial aid. Some of these organizations are legitimate; many are scams.

How to Apply for FAFSA

The fastest way to complete the FAFSA is online at . The FAFSA online form includes supports for completing the form correctly, and it automatically checks for errors. Your child will save time, and maybe some frustration, by completing the FAFSA online. The online process provides an option for printing a worksheet ahead of time so your child can get familiar with the application.

To learn more about the FAFSA online application process and to apply online, visit .

If you wish to complete the application process by mail, your child’s IEP team can get you a FAFSA form, or you can request one by calling 800-433-3243 (800-4FED-AID). Processing the FAFSA by mail can take three to five weeks longer to find out what aid your child is eligible for.

Getting Help with the FAFSA Form

Seek help on filling out the FAFSA form only through your school or the U.S. Department of Education offices or Web sites. Those Web site addresses have the ending .gov. For example, the official site for filling out the FAFSA form is

One Family’s Approach to Lowering the Cost of Post-Secondary Education

Our son John had always expressed an interest in going to college. In fact, he made “college acceptance” a goal in IEP during his sophomore year of high school. John had several academic interests but wasn’t quite sure what specific area of study he wanted to pursue. During his senior year in high school, he still wasn’t sure. We talked to John about attending a community college to begin his college coursework. This was an interest to all of us for several reasons.

  • It would give John time to adjust to college life and decide if college was what he really wanted to pursue.
  • He could check out coursework in a variety of areas before committing to a specific major of study.
  • He could take coursework that transferred to a four-year program.
  • Community colleges are usually less expensive than larger four-year colleges.

We knew we had to be careful about which of John’s coursework credits would transfer to a four-year program because not all do. John worked closely with an academic advisor at the community college to carefully select courses that would transfer to a four-year program.

This approach worked out great. John eventually transferred to a four-year program at a larger college, and we saved money on his overall tuition expenses.

Scholarships and Grants

This type of aid is based on merit (academic achievement or community service) or financial need. When your child gets a scholarship or grant, it is like receiving free money—you don’t have to pay it back. There are all sorts of scholarships and grants available from schools, disability-specific organizations, individuals, and faith- and community-based organizations. 

Federal Pell Grants are based on need and are awarded through the FAFSA application. The amount of any other student aid you might receive does not affect the amount of a Pell grant.

The following resources offer helpful information on how to find scholarships and grants and prepare your child for college.

Council for Opportunities in Education
COE  advocates and supports federally-funded programs that assist underrepresented students, including students with disabilities, in pursuing and completing post-secondary education. They publish a complete directory of these federally funded programs called TRIO and GEAR UP, where you can locate a program in or near your city and state.

Student Aid on the Web
Call 1-800-433-3243 (Voice) or 1-800-730-8913 (TTY)

FastWeb, LLC
133 Boston Post Rd
Weston, MA 02493

FinAid! (includes information on student aid for students with disabilities)
Call 1-724-538-4500
PO Box 2056
Cranberry Township, PA 16066-1056

College Board
Call 1-212-713-8000
College Board45
Columbus Avenue
New York, NY 10023

Disability-Specific Scholarships and Grants

Various organizations offer financial aid specifically to students with disabilities. Your child’s Individual Education Plan (IEP) team, your local Parent Center, and disability-specific organization may be able to direct you to sources of financial aid.

If you’d like to investigate some online financial aid options on your own, here a couple of places to look:

The HEATH Resource Center

This is an online clearinghouse of information on post-secondary education for students with disabilities. The site provides teaching modules on a variety of topics related to post-secondary education and life beyond education. They include: financial aid, awareness of post-secondary options, college application process, financial literacy, and self-advocacy.
2134 G Street, NW
Washington, DC 20052-0001

Federal Work Study (FWS) Programs

These federally funded programs are based on financial need, providing part-time, on-campus jobs to your child. Money earned can be used for educational expenses. Not all post-secondary schools participate in this program. Students are considered for federal work study awards through the FAFSA application.

Often times, working while attending school helps students appreciate their education even more. If your child has an opportunity to become part of a work study program, you’ll want to talk about ways your child will juggle school assignments and job responsibilities. Potential employers will appreciate your child’s efforts and hard work in properly managing time.

Federal Student Loans

Should scholarships, grants, and work study not be able to provide the post-secondary funding you need, you may want to apply for a federal student loan. They are low-interest and deferred-interest government loans that must be paid back. Deferred-interest loans are based on financial need. All federal student loans don’t have to be paid back until your child graduates from or leaves college. Also know that you are not required to borrow the full amount of the loan your child qualifies for. Be certain to borrow only what you need. Student loans can be used in combination with other forms of aid. For example, if your child qualifies for a scholarship, grant, or work-study program, it may not be enough to cover all college costs. He or she could also qualify for federal financial aid. 

A special note to parents of children with intellectual disabilities (ID): Although the HEOA provides students with Intellectual Disabilities access to Federal Pell Grants, Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants (FSEOG), and Federal Work Study, it did not extend that eligibility to Federal student loan programs. For more information, see Financial Aid for Students with Intellectual Disabilities.

Types of Federal Student Loans

Federal Stafford (Direct) Loans—Subsidized and Unsubsidized. Based on financial need (subsidized) and unmet educational costs (unsubsidized), these loans are available for undergraduate and graduate programs. As of 2010, all Federal Stafford Loans are administered by the Department of Education’s Direct Loan Servicer. The loan amount varies each year, and they must be paid back to the federal government beginning six months after the student ceases enrollment.

Federal Perkins Loans. These federal loans are also based on financial need but made available through the post-secondary school. The loans must be paid back to that school beginning nine months after the student ceases enrollment.

Federal Parent Loan for Undergraduate Students (PLUS). Allows parents with good credit histories to borrow money on behalf of their children

Learn More About Federal Student Loans

For more information on the types of federal student loans available, loan terms, and how to apply for them, visit

State Vocational Rehabilitation Programs

Your state Vocational Rehabilitation agency may offer student financial aid to individuals with disabilities who qualify for VR services. Before your child can qualify for this aid, he or she must first be found eligible for VR services. You also can explore financial aid through other sources, as the VR agency will require you to use that aid before it provides any of its own. A key factor that VR counselors consider is how closely linked the post-secondary course of study is to a student' specific career goals, as identified in their VR Plan for Employment. Note: not all state VR programs provide funds for tuition. In addition, because of limited funding, many states have waiting lists of eligible individuals waiting to receive VR services. 

Social Security Administration Work Incentives — Plan for Achieving Self-Support (PASS)

Your child can set aside part of his or her Supplemental Security Income (SSI) to offset college expenses under the Plan for Achieving Self-Support (PASS). To get a PASS, your child must have a clearly defined work goal and know what post-secondary program is needed to achieve the goal. 

The PASS program is not just for setting aside money for post-secondary expenses. Your child could use the program to set aside money for any training, supports, or services needed to achieve a work goal, including starting his or her own business.

Speak with your local Social Security Administration office to get more information about PASS and to fill out an application. 

Other Student Aid Sources

Your child may be able to fund some education expenses through community service programs such as AmeriCorps. In these programs, your child would perform community service work for a certain period of time. Upon completion, your child would receive an award that can be applied to education expenses. Depending on the program, your child might earn a small stipend during the service period. AmeriCorps is committed to actively recruit individuals with disabilities. 

Call 1-202-606-5000 (Voice) or 1-202-606-3472 (TTY)
1201 New York Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20525

Financial Aid for Students with Intellectual Disabilities

The Higher Education Opportunity Act (HEOA) provides opportunities for students with intellectual disabilities (ID) to apply for federal financial aid for comprehensive transition and for post-secondary education. Federal financial aid is based on need, which is mostly based on income. Families interested in applying for financial aid can do so through the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.

The types of financial aid opportunities for students with ID that are available through the FAFSA application are:

  • Pell Grants: A federal program that provides need-based grants to low-income students.
  • Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants (FSEOG): A federal student aid program that provides assistance to the neediest students with priority given to those students eligible for the Pell grant.
  • Work Study Programs: Students finance their education through work at on-campus jobs.

Next Section: Your Child’s Employment