• Elizabeth Hamblet

College Admissions and Graduation Requirements: What Students with Disabilities Should Know

I see a lot of discussions online about foreign language requirements for admission to college. (I don't use the term "waiver" because the credits typically don't go away – students usually have to take substitute courses.) I find that this is a place where people make assumptions that are often inaccurate.

Admissions Criteria Aren't Considered Discriminatory

I have seen people state that schools that don't accept students who haven't taken a certain number of years of foreign language (FL) or math are discriminating against those with learning disabilities, and that students who don’t get in can bring a complaint. Unless a student can prove that a college's admissions requirements were designed to screen out students with disabilities, they won't be found to be discriminatory. Simply requiring FL or math is unlikely to be viewed as discriminating against these students, as there may be non-disability-related reasons why students haven’t taken the courses required for admission. For example, they may attend a school that doesn’t offer them, or that doesn’t offer enough of them to satisfy those requirements.

What this means is that no one should exempt a high school student from FL or math without talking to the student about the potential consequences, i.e., that it can reduce the number of schools for which they eligible for admission. Students should be fully aware of how this could affect them and have the final say in whether to take these classes or not. (This is a perfect opportunity for them to practice self-determination.) This discussion has to take place in the 8th grade IEP meeting, since it will have implications for course selection for 9th grade.

Check Admissions Requirements for Yourself

I have also seen people state that all Ivy League colleges or state universities require FL. This may be true across all schools in a state’s university system, but I would caution students about making assumptions about other categories of schools - they should check each school's requirements individually. Someone has created an online list of schools that don't require FL. That site's disclaimer notes that the information is likely incomplete. (That's positive - it means that there are likely more schools that haven't been included in the list.) There's no official government-provided list of which schools do this, so if the school a student likes isn't on one of these online lists, make sure they check that school's requirements.

Schools May Accept Students Anyway, but Ask Questions about College Degree Completion

Students should be aware that colleges may show flexibility on any of their requirements. The University of California does this formally through their Admission by Examination or Admission by Exception process. Other schools may make exceptions in a less formal way, too. But just because one student who didn't take the required courses gets in, it doesn't mean that all students who didn't take them should also expect to be admitted. Like so much in the admissions process, each case is specific only to that student at that college at that time, so students should be careful about making any assumptions.

Even if they get into a college where they don't meet the requirements, students may not be done thinking about those admissions requirements. There are still two potential scenarios in which they could find themselves.

1) The first possibility is that some schools will waive course requirements for the purposes of admission but may then make students take courses in the area that the student was missing in order to graduate. While preparing a professional development presentation, I came across this from the University of Central Florida:

Students who have not satisfied the Foreign Language Admission Requirement ...at the time they are admitted to the University must satisfy this requirement prior to graduation. This requirement applies to all undergraduates and is separate from the UCF Foreign Language proficiency requirement.

Before they enroll, students who are admitted to a school despite not having met the requirements should ask whether that school will require them to take the missing courses, and whether they will consider substitutions for students found eligible for them.

2) The second, more common scenario is that colleges - regardless of their admission policies - can require students to take a number of math or FL classes in order to graduate, even if students' high school waived them or their documentation recommends a waiver. Colleges always have to consider whether they'd provide a substitution for required classes, but they don't have to grant them if the relevant administrators and faculty members feel it would mean a fundamental alteration to the school's requirements.

Try to Ask Questions During the College Search

The challenge for students applying at colleges is that - in order to get a substitution - students have to go through the disability registration/review process, and many colleges won't let students do that until they have been accepted. (They typically don't have the time and resources to do this for every student applying. That said – it’s worth asking.) This means that students may not know whether the colleges to which they're applying will offer them a substitution. During students’ search, I suggest they ask the disability services offices (DS) whether substitutions are common, but recognize that doesn't this doesn’t mean that they will necessarily receive one. [I recommend that students be cautious about asking Admissions staff about substitutions; they may not have an accurate sense of the school's policy.]

The University of Georgia explains their process here. Notice that while the Disability Resource Center is involved in the first part of the process, they send the recommendation to another committee; they don’t make the final decision. (My understanding is that this type of process is fairly common.) What this means is that even if the disability services office recommends a substitution, it might not be approved. Students can ask DS staff whether the students they recommend for substitutions typically receive them.

Even if they can get a substitution for the college's general requirements, students should be aware that some courses may not be available for substitution within some fields of study. Students who want to major in International Business will likely have to take FL, just as those who want to go into Engineering will likely have to take certain kinds of Math or Physics classes, and students who want to major in Psychology may have to take Statistics.

Register at the Start of College and Request the Substitution

Once they enroll, it’s important that students who want a substitution register with DS and make their request immediately. At some schools, the substitute courses aren't available every semester. I've seen students have to take an extra semester to finish up because the class they needed wasn't available in spring of their last year. Note that the University of Georgia warns students it can take a full semester to get a substitution approved.

For those students whose substitution requests are approved, their school will provide a list of their own courses that are allowable to meet the requirement. Other schools may allow students to take substitute courses elsewhere. It’s important that students make sure that the course they want to take is acceptable as a substitute. For example, the University of Florida says substitute courses are offered at the community colleges, but "it is the student’s responsibility to obtain written verification from his/her college that these courses will be accepted for his/her degree."

Here's my advice for current high school students: College Math and Foreign Language Requirements and Learning Disabilities – What You Should Know

Here’s my advice for current college students: Advice on Math and Foreign Language Requirements for Students with Disabilities

For more information about the topics discussed here, click on

College admissions advice

College accommodations

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For full coverage of all of these topics, read my book, From High School To College:

Steps to Success for Students with Disabilities.



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©2017-2020 Elizabeth C. Hamblet