How Financial Aid for Students with Disabilities Works

What financial aid options are available for students with disabilities?
What financial aid options are available for students with disabilities?
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Students with disabilities have a lot to think about when it comes to planning for college. For one student, a campus that doesn't require a lot of walking on his or her prosthetic leg might be a major concern, while another student might be interested in the school's adaptive technology labs [source: University of Minnesota, Totty]. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, an estimated 11 percent of undergraduates reported having a disability between 2003 and 2004 [source: U.S. Department of Education].

Along with these specific concerns, students with disabilities have many of the same concerns that other students have when planning for college, such as studying for the SATs, filling out applications and financing the college experience. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the average price for undergraduate tuition, room and board at a public institution for the 2007-2008 academic year was $11,578. For a private education, it was $29,915 [source: U.S. Department of Education].

While college tuition and educational expenses may seem daunting, there are financial aid opportunities for students looking to further their educations. According to a National Center for Education Statistics study, in 2007-2008, 66 percent of undergraduates received some financial aid to help with educational expenses [source: U.S. Department of Education]. Many of the postsecondary financial aid opportunities are open to all students, yet there are many that are specifically meant for students with disabilities.

In this article, we'll review the four main types of financial aid -- loans, grants, scholarships and work-study -- focusing on when there are special opportunities or concerns for students with disabilities. First, we'll take a look at loans.

 

Loans for Students with Disabilities

Loans must eventually be paid back.
Loans must eventually be paid back.
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Many postsecondary educational loans are federally funded, while others are private. Student loans consist of borrowed funds from the government or other lending institution to be used for educational purposes. These funds usually have some type of interest rate, along with a specified repayment plan.

Federal loans usually have lower interest rates and better repayment options than private loans [source: U.S. Department of Education]. Undergraduate federal loans usually range from $3,500-$10,500, while graduate federal loans can reach $20,500 per year [source: U.S. Department of Education]. Many private loan providers recommend exhausting your federal loan options before turning to private student loans [source: Sallie Mae, SunTrust Bank].

To be considered for any federally funded financial aid including loans, all students -- including students with disabilities -- must first fill out the Free Application for Student Aid, or FAFSA. The FAFSA is used to decide eligibility and includes questions related to the student's parents, dependency, citizenship and financial status [source: Free Application for Student Aid]. This information, along with a number of different factors, will determine the amount of funds that you're eligible to receive.

One of the main factors that can be different for students with disabilities in this calculation is the cost of attendance. The cost of attendance factors in tuition, cost of books, and room and board, but it can also include costs related to a disability [source: U.S. Department of Education]. The latter can range from an personal note taker to the costs associated with disability documentation, yet these costs shouldn't already be covered by another source of aid. These costs are usually determined on a case-by-case basis and require documentation of the needed services. "The cost of attendance is supposed to be a realistic estimation of what the student's education expenses are, so that's why they can make the adjustment for that situation, because students with disabilities can have additional expenses," says Jennifer Martin, associate director of professional assessment training and regulatory assistance at the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA) [source: Martin].

Sometimes federal loans, and other forms of financial aid, don't fulfill the full amount of financial support needed to pay for a student's education. Private student loans are another option. Private loans usually come from banks or lenders. They're usually not based on the FAFSA, but instead based on a credit analysis and other criteria [source: Sallie Mae, SunTrust Bank].

Grants for Students with Disabilities

Grants are helpful, since students don't have to pay them back.
Grants are helpful, since students don't have to pay them back.
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Unlike loans, grants don't have to be paid back, making them especially attractive to many students [source: U.S. Department of Education, Federal Student Aid]. However, grants do tend to have more criteria associated with receiving the funds. Grants can come from many sources, including the federal government, state governments and postsecondary institutions.

One of the most widely utilized grant programs is the Federal Pell Grant, which also provides a good example of another consideration that students with disabilities may miss if they're not careful. Student eligibility and funding amounts from the Pell Grant program are based on the FAFSA form and several other factors. One of these other factors is enrollment status, such as full-time or part-time enrollment [source: U.S. Department of Education, Student Aid on the Web]. Pell Grant allocations are based on a scheduled award, the amount a student receives based on a given cost of attendance and expected family contribution (EFC), assuming that the student is enrolled as a full-time student for a full academic year [source: FSA Handbook Federal Pell Grant Program]. Yet, a student will receive less than this amount if they don't meet the enrollment criteria, and this can't be modified even if a student has disabilities that makes achieving this criteria difficult. "However, institutions may be able, if a student is not able to be full time, to use institutional funds that would fund additionally and wouldn't have the same requirements," says Martin. "And that really would vary greatly from school to school, depending on what funds they had available" [source: Martin].

Students may also be eligible for financial help through a state program -- the vocational rehabilitation program. This program works to help people with disabilities to gain employment [source: Sherman]. "For transition students, after eligibility is determined, the student will work with a counselor to define an employment goal and develop an IPE (Individualized Plan for Employment)," says Beth Ruth, communications manager for the Ohio Rehabilitation Services Commission [source: Ruth].

This plan may include postsecondary education to meet the individual's employment goals. "If someone is eligible economically and we determine that their educational goal should be teacher, as an example, testing shows that they have the aptitude to be a teacher and that is their interest area, then we can assist them with postsecondary or vocational training," says Susan Sherman, assistant vocational rehabilitation director at the Georgia Department of Labor. "We would determine what type of financial aid they would have, and then we could possibly help them with some expenses towards postsecondary training."

Scholarships for Students with Disabilities

Students with disabilities should broaden their scope when looking for scholarships.
Students with disabilities should broaden their scope when looking for scholarships.
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Scholarships are similar to grants in that they don't have to be paid back. Some scholarships are based on need, but many are based on merit or even other criteria. "There are some, but not many, scholarships that are disability specific requiring the student meet a particular disability criteria -- and those that are available often do not offer large sums," says Donna Martinez, Ed.D., International Education Consultant [source: Martinez].

Many of the disability-specific scholarships can be found through advocacy organizations such as the National Federation of the Blind [source: McVey, National Federation of the Blind]. Foundations such as the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing also offer disability specific scholarships [source: Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing].

Yet, students with disabilities shouldn't narrow their search for scholarships to just disability specific scholarships. "The point being just because one has a disability the student should not limit his or her search to only those disability focused scholarships, but look to see what other personal traits, skills, background characteristics or affiliations the student has and compete for those as well, remembering that his disability is only one characteristic not the defining one," says Martinez.

Thinking more widely can help students access more financial aid opportunities. "I have had one student who was in a wheelchair, and she received scholarship money for her academics, but the only money she received for her disability was from the local Kiwanis who have a scholarship for students who have 'overcome great challenges,'" says Kate McVey, director of college advising for Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School in Indianapolis, Ind.

When exploring your options for scholarships, there are many resources. Talk with your college/university financial aid office for any institutional scholarship options. "Our office offers specific scholarships and awards based on disability and need; these monies are secured through development funding," says Margaret Collins Totty, M.Ed., assistant director of the Disability Resource Center at The University of Georgia [source: Totty].

Another place to check would be with a parent's employer [source: DO-IT University of Washington]. There are also many books and online sources filled with scholarship opportunities.

Work-study for Students with Disabilities

Work-study programs allow students to make money to help pay for school.
Work-study programs allow students to make money to help pay for school.
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Work-study is essentially payment in exchange for completion of a job. Most work-study is funded through the federal government and administered through the schools. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, during the 2007-2008 school year, students received on average about $2,400 in wages through a work-study job [source: U.S. Department of Education]. The amount of money a student can earn usually corresponds to the student's Work-Study award, or maximum amount of money they can earn during that year through the program, which is based on FAFSA information and federal standards [source: University of Missouri-Kansas City, Oklahoma State University]. The hourly wages for work-study jobs start at the federal minimum wage and can go higher depending on the jobs performed [source: U.S. Department of Education, Oklahoma State University]. Job opportunities can range from clerical work to updating Web pages to food service [source: University of Washington].

Some students with disabilities may require special assistive technologies or accommodations when attending college. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits discrimination against students with disabilities [source: U.S. Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights, The George Washington University HEATH Resource Center]. Postsecondary institutions covered under these laws must only provide services or accommodations necessary to ensure that they are not discriminating against a student with disabilities [source: U.S. Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights]. Such free services may include assistive listening devices, video closed captioning or academic assistants. In order to receive accommodations, documentation of a given disability is usually required. According to Margaret Collins Totty, M.Ed., around 1,000 students use the Disability Resource Center's services every semester [source: Totty].

From work-study to loans, students with disabilities have many financial aid opportunities open to them to help them pursue their career dreams through postsecondary education.

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More Great Links

Sources

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