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How Students With Health Conditions Can Successfully Navigate the College Transition

When Kaylee entered college, her dual diagnoses of anxiety and migraine disorder came with her. Like many students, she was unaware that she was eligible for accommodations. In high school she had a 504 Plan, but she rarely used her accommodations, and it didn’t come up in conversations with her college counselor. However, her college experience has been a real challenge. She monitors her own medications, is adapting to living with new roommates, and tries to stay on top of her classes.

Because of the transition, stress, and change in diet, both of her conditions have not been well managed, and she has had multiple migraines causing her to miss classes and assignment deadlines. Everything soon began piling up and before she knew it, she was not passing her classes and was dealing with extreme stress and anxiety. What Kaylee didn’t know is that her conditions qualify her for accommodations through the university’s disability support office.

Kaylee’s situation is not unique. Thousands of students face similar — but unnecessary — experiences each year. What can be done to remove barriers?  What do students with health conditions need to know in order to successfully navigate the college transition?

Unlike high school, college students with disabilities are required to register with the disability support office if they want to receive accommodations. Usually, students with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) receive targeted transition planning from high school to college. However, students who have a 504 Plan do not receive transition planning services, and may be unaware of the college process. In college, it becomes the student’s responsibility to advocate for accommodations and navigate the often complex terrain of university systems.

Additionally, students may be diagnosed with a health condition while they are in college and may also be unaware of  the university’s process for providing reasonable accommodations for students with health conditions. These students also need accommodations in order to be successful in college. Let’s explore the “who, why, what and how” to support college success for those with health conditions:

First, it’s essential for students with existing conditions and those with recently diagnosed conditions to know who can access accommodations. As a former university administrator, I realize the system disadvantages those who lack information.  Here’s who may not be aware of their access to accommodations:

  • Students with health conditions who don’t consider their health condition a “disability,” and therefore they don’t request accommodations, sometimes because they don’t realize they qualify for accommodations.
  • Students who do not know they have to request accommodations in college, a process that is very different from high school.
  • Newly diagnosed students who are not only dealing with the challenges of managing a health condition, but are also just learning about their condition and navigating a new university process when requesting accommodations.

Health Conditions and the Law

Next, it’s important to consider why students should know their rights and understand what protections they have under the law.

The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), the law that governs accommodations in higher education, defines disability as: “physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a person who has a history or record of such an impairment, or a person who is perceived by others as having such an impairment.” Most health conditions limit major life activities and impact a student’s ability to engage in college academics and college life. Some examples include conditions that have flare-ups where the student might need extra time to complete assignments, a single dorm room to recover, and water/snacks in the classroom and testing room. These are illustrations of the types of accommodations a student would have to request and have approved by the university’s disability support office.

Types of Health Conditions

It’s important for students to know what types of health conditions qualify for accommodations.

Any condition which impacts a student’s ability to function may qualify for accommodations. A few examples of health conditions that typically qualify for accommodations in the college setting include: migraine disorders, gastrointestinal disorders, diabetes, mental health conditions and auto-immune disorders. Many of these conditions may have been controlled in high school under the supervision of parents, with monitoring of medication, diet and environment, but once the student is away from home, the conditions change and students may need different support and skills.

Additionally, if a student is diagnosed with one of these conditions while they are in college, they may need to seek out accommodations to support their education and experience.

Preparation

Many students are not informed about how to prepare and how to request accommodations. There are a few things families and students can do to prepare for the transition:

1. Include students in meetings about their 504 plan in high school.

2. Empower students to speak directly with their healthcare providers.

3. Prepare students to manage their condition independently, including medication management and being able to articulate their needs.

4. Ensure the student is aware of the accommodations process at their university. This is usually administered through the disability support office.

If students are given the information and tools to navigate the college accommodations process and time to prepare for the transition, this can greatly enhance their ability to be successful in college.

Getty image by Ridofranz.