During this time of year, high school juniors and seniors are hard at work preparing for college entrance exams, writing the perfect admission essay, touring colleges, and eagerly awaiting decision letters from their institutions of choice. While this can be an exciting yet stressful time for all students, students with learning differences have another level of factors they need to take into consideration when choosing the right college. It is important for these students to not only consider the skills necessary to set themselves up for success but to also be aware of the supports available to them at the colleges where they are considering.
There are several different factors that differentiate the postsecondary environment from the high school setting that students with learning differences are typically accustomed to: first and foremost, college is not a right, but a privilege. Colleges have the right to choose which applicants they wish to accept, as well as the right to dismiss students that do not meet the institution’s specific academic and/or behavioral code of conduct. Second, supports for students with disabilities at the postsecondary level fall under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), rather than the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). While IDEA requires that high schools identify and provide appropriate services to students with disabilities, ADA requires that colleges make reasonable accommodations available to students, such as extra time on exams or a note taker. One of the biggest differences between these two laws is that while it is the high school’s responsibility to identify and provide appropriate services under IDEA, it is the student’s responsibility at the college level under ADA to seek out supports, as well as provide justification for the need to access such supports. Finally, students typically turn 18 during their transition from high school to college. According to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), parents do not have direct access to the students’ educational records as they did when students were in high school. In order for parents to receive information from universities regarding student records, students need to give written permission to the institutions allowing them to communicate with parents.
Differences in students’ rights and the law can be overwhelming during the college transition process. However, there are several skill areas that students can develop to increase their chances of success, specifically in the areas of general executive functioning skills, self-monitoring and self-advocacy, and social engagement. Further, there are several factors students with disabilities can consider and several questions they can ask when choosing the right college for their needs.
Executive functioning includes skills such as time management, scheduling, organization, prioritizing, and multitasking. Prior to leaving for college, students should be able to get themselves up in the morning by using an alarm clock. They should learn how to leave themselves enough time to get to appointments, taking into account responsibilities such as showering, eating, and the amount of time it takes to travel to the appointment. Students should learn to use a planner to organize responsibilities, as well as follow and refer back to the planner on a daily basis to keep up with appointments, course work deadlines, and other responsibilities. In terms of self-monitoring and self-advocacy, students should have a plan in place to inquire about being approved for testing accommodations, as well as have access to the paperwork needed by the college to be approved for such supports. Once approved for accommodations, students need to learn the protocol in how to access the supports, which can be different from school to school. In terms of academic responsibilities, students need to understand that professors may not seek them out when their assignments are late or when they have missed an exam; therefore, students need to proactively check in with their professors to make sure that they are on track with their work and in good academic standing in each of their courses. Regarding social engagement and communication, students can practice identifying social cues, as well as how to respond appropriately in a variety of social situations with professors and peers. For those students living on campus, they should also investigate the different housing options, as well as be prepared for the pros and cons that come along with living with a roommate.
When students are investigating colleges, most take into account the type of campus (e.g., rural vs. urban, size of campus, etc.), the types of degrees and academic programs offered, and living arrangements (e.g., living in housing vs. commuting) when making their final decision. Students with learning differences need to consider these types of factors but also may have additional concerns in terms of access to academic, social engagement, and/or career development supports. Some questions to consider during this decision making process are:
Finally, sometimes the services that the college has available may not be enough to help assist the student in the transition from high school to college. It is important to also identify outside programs, agencies, and other resources that may be helpful in supporting students on the road to college success. With the right balance of support, students with learning differences can make strides towards success at the postsecondary level and beyond.