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College or Training Programs: How to Decide

If you are a high school student with an IEP who is trying to figure out whether to go to college or other post-secondary education, this article is for you. It tells you the options available and gives you guidance on how to use your IEP to prepare for them.

Your high school diploma opens the door to many exciting, new options. These might include your first full-time job, or part-time or full-time attendance at a technical school, community college, or university. You might want to obtain a certificate, an associate degree, or a diploma. With so many choices, it can be challenging to decide which path to take. Here are some ideas you may want to consider before you graduate.

Choosing your path

It is important to explore all the work and education options available to you upon graduation and beyond. Remember, you can return to school many times as your interests and goals change or as new employment opportunities become available.

Here are some choices you might want to discuss with family members and your Individualized Education Program (IEP) team.

  • Working for a few years to save money or gain work experience before going to college or another training program. This option might be attractive if you already have an interesting job that can be continued after high school graduation or if you have limited or no work experience.
  • Enrolling in a certificate program. A certificate usually takes less than one or two years to complete. It can lead to job opportunities with higher pay than most first jobs or be a step toward a future degree. Some examples of certificate programs include carpenter, chef, cosmetologist, dental assistant, and nursing assistant. If you enter a certificate program, you can still decide to complete a degree program later.
  • Entering a technical school, community college, or university degree program. These schools have a variety of admission requirements. Those with open admission typically accept anyone with a high school diploma or general educational development (GED) diploma. A few colleges require no high school diploma or GED. In general, open colleges require applicants to take a placement exam to determine at which level to begin college course work. Students may be required to take remedial courses at the college. Two-year associate degrees are generally available along with four-year degrees. A two-year degree can be applied toward a four-year degree in the future.

Other colleges and universities require applicants to meet certain criteria. These schools tend to look for students with high grade-point averages, rigorous academic preparation, high scores on the standardized college admissions tests such as the ACT or SAT, and personal qualities shown by volunteer and community work, in a personal essay, and sometimes in an interview.

Taking the first steps

You have many choices within each of these categories to explore. It is important to think about how the path you choose after high school will help you reach your future goals.

For some students, the path will be direct. For example, perhaps you want to work with animals and decide to complete a veterinarian assistant certificate. Maybe you have already volunteered at a veterinarian’s clinic or worked part-time at a clinic while in high school so you know that this career interests you. You can do an Internet search for veterinarian assistant programs in Minnesota or elsewhere. This search will give you information about schools that offer this program, their entry requirements, their programs’ cost and length, and facts about any financial support that might be available.

For others, the path will be indirect. For example, perhaps you want to do computer programming. You have taken all your high school computer classes and even taken a community education class on computer programming. You are not sure, however, if you want a two-year or four-year degree. You might start your exploration of college and university programs by doing an Internet search or receiving information from your guidance counselor.

From there, you might make a list of the schools that interest you. Ask a family member to go over your list with you and help you request more information.

As you collect the information, you will likely discover two or three schools with programs that especially appeal to you. If possible, arrange to visit your top three colleges and meet with a specialist at the Disability Resource Center. (It may be called the Disability Support Office or other similar name.) Bring your most recent special education evaluation and a list of all the accommodations you are using in high school or think you may require in college. Find out what types of academic accommodations are typically provided to students with disabilities on this campus. You also may want to ask whether this college will provide the specific accommodations that you will most likely need. Not all colleges provide the same types of accommodations.

For example, if you are using taped books and the college you are interested in only provides e-books, you might want to check if e-books will work for you. If they don’t, would the school will be willing to provide books on tape? Is a learning center available to all students for tutoring help? Ask the specialist other questions to help you determine if this is the right school for you.

You will also want to explore the campus. Can you reach the buildings efficiently? What about under snow conditions? Will you require special parking considerations? Will you be living in student housing? If so, will the housing meet your needs? What types of social activities are available on campus? Make a list of other questions you want to explore during your visit.

Paving the way

You can use your IEP to help you prepare for college or other training programs. For example, your IEP could include activities such as:

  • Taking an evening or weekend course that interests you at a community college or in an adult continuing education program. Doing so might help you try out transportation ideas, experience a new learning environment, use accommodations in a new setting, or explore your future career goals.
  • Taking courses in high school that will help prepare you for college. If appropriate, you might take a foreign language, computer training, or additional science classes.
  • Considering internships, part-time jobs, or volunteer and community service opportunities.
  • Enrolling in a pre-college program specifically designed for high school students the summer before or after their senior year. You might ask your special education teacher for ideas, check out high school programs at local colleges, look for specialized summer camps, or do an Internet search for programs that would interest you.
  • Working on your writing and math skills while still in high school with a tutor or family member. You could keep a personal journal and practice writing essays about your life experiences, current events, or topics of interest, for example.
  • Researching and applying for scholarships. Libraries, your guidance counselor, and the Internet should all have resources on scholarship options.


College or Training Programs: How to Decide, Pacer Center © 2006. Used with permission from PACER Center Inc., Minneapolis, MN, (952) 838-9000. All rights reserved.

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