College and Career Readiness for Special Needs Students

Middle school teachers can change widespread “no-way” attitudes to “never-the-less” attitudes.

Thinking about career and college readiness for a sixth grader is a little too soon for some teachers and parents. As a parent, I felt hard-pressed to decide the future for my son when he entered the middle grades. He was a young man in no rush to assume the responsibilities of growing up, and my husband and I wondered if pushing him to identify career aspirations at such a young age was putting the cart before the horse. You can’t rush development: He wasn’t really ready.

Our son also has special needs. Yet, in retrospect, I see many ways we and his teachers could have addressed aspects of college and career readiness that would have paved the way for smoother decision making later, when he was ready.

Helping students with special needs and their parents identify a path that will lead to greater success in high school and beyond is an essential component of middle school. Why? The college and career focus for special needs students doesn’t get much attention until high school, and even then the pathway for students with significant disabilities is narrowly defined or dismissed altogether. Yet, psychologists tell us that the middle grades are the time when young adolescents begin to build visions of their “future” or “hoped-for” selves—true even of adolescents who learn differently.

Middle school teachers in the know can change widespread “no-way” attitudes to “never-the-less” attitudes. They can make college life and career aspirations an educated reality for students with special needs, opening the doors for more productive “future” selves.

AMLE talks with author Linda Schlosser about CCR for Students with Special Needs

Recognizing Differences

There are three major differences between high school and college when in comes to students with special needs. Because these differences affect what needs to happen in the middle school to prepare students for transition, they are important to review.

First, high school students with disabilities are guaranteed a free and appropriate secondary education, but when they enter college, although ADA and Section 504 aim to remove barriers and provide reasonable accommodations, there are no laws that guarantee special programs.

Second, parents of high school students with special needs can be actively involved in advocating for appropriate services and can reach out to teachers and review their teen’s school records. In college, however, students must be able to advocate for themselves. It is against the law for college faculty to communicate with parents without the student’s written permission.

Finally, IEPs or 504s are legal documents that must be followed when a student is in high school, but once they enter college, there are no IEPs. The Disability Services Office will develop a plan with the student based on documentation of the disability, but only accommodations are allowed; modifications are not allowed in courses taken for credit.

Tips for Success

With these important differences in mind, how can middle school teachers work with parents and students who have special needs to broaden their access to post-secondary experiences?

Research shows that the middle grades are a tipping point for “average” students. These are the years when academic self-concept, independence, persistence, and work ethic begin to solidify, and when choices are made that affect access to high school curriculum and, by default, to college entrance.

Robert Balfanz’s studies have shown that the middle years, not high school years, are the linchpin to career and college success. For students with special needs, the middle school years are an even more precarious tipping point. What can we do to improve their chances of success?

1. Teach Self-Awareness and Self-Advocacy

The single most important thing we can do at the middle level, aside from continuing to strength students’ academic and social skills, is to start self-awareness and self-advocacy portfolios for our students. Many colleges have tools to help parents and students determine if they are ready for college. The Zarrow Center at the University of Oklahoma has published some of the best lessons and materials I have seen to help special needs students build self-awareness. Tools especially designed for students with special needs also can be found at

Use these as starting points to develop rubrics and have your students assess their progress several times a year throughout middle school. Share them with students and parents at conferences, and make parents your partners in building self-advocacy. By the time students exit middle school they should be able to discuss their individual strengths and weaknesses, explain their disability and the supports needed to address it, and set realistic goals for themselves that are challenging but attainable.

Self-awareness and self-advocacy should be a cornerstone piece in the middle school program for students with special needs, and it should be addressed regularly during the middle years. Waiting until high school to develop self-advocacy skills is far too late.

2. Introduce Students and Parents to a Hierarchy of College Types

Schools do a good job of working with students whose learning disabilities can be supported with accommodations such as note-takers or extra time on tests. These are the students we can easily see going on to community colleges or even four-year colleges.

Students with more profound disabilities, however, pose a more significant challenge. These are the students whose pathways to college and career readiness are blurred or nonexistent. The good news is that in the last few years, college and career readiness programs for students whose disabilities are pervasive and who require modifications have grown in number and status across the United States. Introducing students and parents to these new programs should begin in middle school.

Historically, students with significant special needs have been least likely to go on to post-secondary educational programs and therefore, were more likely to have diminished opportunities to grow academically, socially, and personally as their more typical peers do during college.

We can change this. During the middle school years we can work with parents and students, introducing them to a hierarchy of college types based on needed levels of support, keeping in mind that those levels may change in high school. The important thing is to keep college and career readiness in the forefront of all students’ futures and to begin this in middle school.

The hierarchy can be described this way:

  • Level One: Colleges that provide moderate support through the coordinated services of the Disability Services Office.
  • Level Two: Colleges that provide comprehensive support through structured programs.
  • Level Three: Colleges that provide significant support through transitional programs.

Students who require moderate support through accommodations and who do well in inclusive middle and high school classes can choose from a broad array of level-one colleges that can potentially meet their needs. Students who require significant support and whose parents may not be considering college should be introduced to level-two colleges, for example, Beacon College in Leesburg, Florida or Landmark College in Putney, Vermont. These colleges are among many institutions of higher education that have pioneered college-level studies for students with disabilities that would typically keep them out of college.

Plan to take students on virtual tours of these colleges and encourage parents to look into the summer programs they offer to high school students with disabilities. Planning for this while students are in middle school can make a difference in students’ attitudes, persistence, and achievement down the road.

Even students whose disabilities make a matriculated college program out of reach can look for level-three colleges that provide transition programs often referred to as college experience programs.

The Think College! website provides a variety of search tools middle school students can use to look for college experience programs based on the following attributes: entry requirements, amount of inclusion, opportunity to take regular college classes for credit or audit, on-campus housing, student’s independence skills, location, and cost. There is also a dedicated tool just for middle school students. As they work on their self-advocacy skills, students can be engaged in developing profiles of colleges that meet their changing needs for support.

3. Build a Growth Mindset

It has been said that the most important thing that parents and teachers can do for middle grade students is teach them how to get along on their own. Colleges at each of the three levels I have described do that for students with a wide range of abilities.

Particularly in the types of colleges referred to here as level-two or level-three colleges, students with diverse learning issues and special needs are exposed to structured programs and curriculum designed to help them gain independence, hone thinking skills, and navigate life’s challenges.

Plant the Seeds

All too often we fail to visualize college opportunities for special needs students, promoting instead the “no way” mentality. Only recently has the landscape of colleges changed so that more opportunities are available to support a broader range of student abilities. Certainly when my son was in middle school we were not encouraged to think college.

Middle level teachers can plant the seeds for a growth mindset in students and their parents (and other teachers, too) who are unaware that rich college and career experiences are available. Special needs students who are motivated to become independent and who learn to be self-advocates in the middle grades can succeed in level-two or level-three colleges even though they have received significant special services in public school, score below average on tests of ability, and have difficulty with reading, writing, and math skills that would make traditional degree programs a struggle.

A college experience that builds rich and diverse career readiness skills and opportunities for social and emotional growth can make a tremendous difference in the lives of special needs students.