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The Hidden Cost of Higher Education for Students With Disabilities

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“Congratulations! You have been admitted to the University of Southern California!”

Words could not explain how happy I was to become the first person in my family to pursue a master’s degree. But beyond feeling the pressure of being a first-generation graduate student, I had another worry. How would I navigate as a hard-of-hearing student in a post-pandemic world? Stress started to settle in as I received an email about paying for USC moments after my acceptance letter. The cost of tuition is an alarming $43,000! Unfortunately, my disability comes with its own financial hardships. At the moment, I was in need of new hearing aids, which my insurance did not cover. The cost, at the minimum of these, was nearly $,2000. The cost and the stress of being a graduate student were beginning to feel impossible.

Being a graduate student at USC comes with many expenses. Many graduate students enter USC with accumulated debt from their undergraduate studies. According to the Association of Public & Land-Grant Universities, the typical debt for students completing an undergraduate degree at a four-year public university amounts to $26,000. These loans, with interest, can take up to an average of 21 years to be fully paid. Master’s programs at USC, like mine, also add costs to the accumulated debt. According to USC Financial Aid, the average full-time graduate student’s one-year tuition is $43,000. After completing any two-year master’s degree, this amount would total $86,000, with an additional $25,000 if a student chooses on/off campus housing. Therefore, leaving a student’s post-education debt at an astonishing $112,000 – $137,000! If you think that’s a lot. I hate to break it to you, but there’s more.

You would not believe the total debt students with disabilities have in one year. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a disability is any physical or mental impairment significantly limiting one or more major life activities. USC today has nearly 4,000 out of 49,000 students living with a disability. Many of them face out-of-pocket costs in managing their disabilities. My audiology exams and hearing aids become additional expenses I must pay for with my own money. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the average person with a disability in California spends approximately $20,000 in healthcare expenditures annually related to their disability. That’s almost half of a USC graduate student’s tuition! Considering all the above, this leaves graduate students with disabilities with $150k in education debt!

So far, we have learned that, financially, students with disabilities are not the same as non-disabled students. Exploring why many graduate students with disabilities struggle financially, we realize that universities do not fully understand disability education. By incorporating disability support centers on campuses to provide accommodations, many believe students with disabilities would be OK.

For example, it’s easy for a university to assume a student with a wheelchair would only need elevator access and transportation. But what if a student can’t even afford their wheelchair? What happens then? Beyond the provided accommodations, universities must ask themselves: How is the lack of financial support disregarded as a form of ableism? According to Ableism 101 by Access Living, ableism is discrimination towards people with disabilities within the assumption that people with disabilities are to be “fixed.” So university students with disabilities are forced to be “fixed” by accepting equal treatment of paying for university costs under the assumption that they are like non-disabled students.

It’s time to make a change! The USC Office of Students Accessibility Services (OSAS) must support graduate students with disabilities by offering more financial support resources. One way this can be done is by adding a database of disability-related scholarships on their webpage’s “More Resources” tab, many of which can come from websites like A few other ways USC Financial Aid can help is by allocating university funds to create a USC-based scholarship for students with disability. Or even better, to create a trust fund that distributes emergency funds to students with disability-related needs. Graduate students, like myself, would then have some leverage in navigating disability-related costs and reducing some of the $150,000 post-education debt.

With that being said, without financial support, students with disabilities will continue to struggle. If so, acceptance letters should display the reality for these students: “Welcome to the University of Southern California, where your disability will place you in debt! Good Luck!”

Getty image by vm

Originally published: April 12, 2023
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