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Understanding Learning Differences and What Services Colleges Offer

For parents of children with learning disabilities, here's what you should know about services colleges provide and what your student needs for individual support.

When it came time for Nicoletta LaMarca Sacco’s son, who has autism spectrum disorder, to pursue education beyond high school, the family decided he should live at home and commute to his college, Parsons School of Design. They weren’t sure how it would go. One of their son’s struggles is executive function—the ability to plan, manage time, organize, and prioritize, all skills needed for college. Managing classes proved difficult, and he failed several. Now, at age 21, he’s regrouping and pursuing another path outside of the traditional classroom. 

If your student has a learning disability, ADHD, or autism spectrum disorder, you might be wondering how they’ll handle college and what services are available to them. With the right accommodations and support, many students successfully navigate college, but it depends on their learning differences and individual temperament. Here’s what parents should know. 

What qualifies for accommodations? 

Typically, any learning disability that has been properly documented by a licensed tester is eligible for accommodations. The report should be “a neuropsychological or a psychoeducational assessment that is less than three years old identifying that the student has a documented disability and listing recommended accommodations,” says Samantha Feinman, director of New Frontiers in Learning, an organization that provides customized executive-function coaching. 

Most of the time, a student must provide the report to their college’s office of disability services and register with the office to be eligible. The K & W Guide to Colleges for Students with Learning Differences, by Marybeth Kravets and Imy F. Wax, lays out general guidelines for documentation in three categories: Learning Disabilities, ADHD, and autism spectrum disorder (ASD). The guide includes questions for families to ask the disability or accessibility services office and questions the office might ask your student.

Related: How to Start the College Search for Students With Disabilities

What colleges provide—and what they don’t 

The postsecondary landscape differs greatly from high school, and it can be overwhelming to figure it out. The US Department of Education website provides an overview of the differences. Accommodations in college fall under the American Disabilities Act (ADA), not the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) that governs K-12 education. Colleges are required by law to provide accommodations under the ADA’s Section 504, a broad federal civil rights law that protects individuals with a disability from discrimination. Typical accommodations for learning disabilities include things like extended time or alternative locations for an exam, assigned note-takers, priority registrations, substitutions of classes, and recorded lectures. 

Section 504 drawbacks

What Section 504 doesn’t require colleges to provide is a “free appropriate public education” (FAPE)—as required in K-12 schools—so college support might cost extra money. Colleges also won’t reduce the rigor of the curriculum, and they expect students to be self-starters. You’ll need to evaluate each school’s accommodations and supplementary support based on your student’s needs. 

“Identify what’s available, how often, the process for using it, whether it costs extra, and also evaluate whether your child will actually use the support,” Feinman says. Some colleges provide specific, extensive support for LD, ADHD, and ASD students, like skills classes and support groups, while others provide standard services that all students access, like peer tutoring and advising. “Supports in college aren’t an entitlement,” Feinman says. “They’re available, but students must follow through on using them. That requires students to be able to recognize they need help with something, identify where to go to receive help, and then follow through with using what’s available.” It’s a big shift for students who have had robust support throughout high school. 

Accommodations shouldn’t be the only reason to choose a school

No matter how extensive a college’s support, experts caution against choosing a school for that reason alone. “The student has to feel connected in some way to the whole environment of the college,” says Wax, an educational consultant, psychotherapist, and founder of The Aspire Group. The K & W Guide features an academic assessment for the college selection process and outlines 338 schools with programs or services for LD, ADHD, and ASD students. It divides programs into three tiers: 

  • Structured programs: Comprehensive and highly structured services; usually additional fees required
  • Coordinated services: Less comprehensive services; students request as needed 
  • Services: Least comprehensive services; basic services that may come with limitations

Related: Infographic: College Accommodations for Learning Disabilities

What does my student need to be able to do independently? 

Even comprehensive structured programs require independence. “No matter what might be offered in the program, the student is still spending most of their time on an open campus with all the decision-making that one has to do as a student,” Wax says. Living on campus requires students to be able to get themselves up in the morning, get to class, organize academic responsibilities, meet deadlines, eat meals in the dining hall, handle independent living skills, and navigate their social environment. 

On top of that, students need to advocate for themselves and understand how to access support. For example, which services are available by appointment and which offer walk-ins? Students need to know who they are as a learner, what they’re good at, and what they struggle with, Feinman says. During the college search, help your student figure out what questions they should ask the disability or accessibility services office. Develop a working understanding with your student of what their testing indicates they need and why these supports should be available in college, Wax says.

Related: 10 Uncommon Questions to Ask in Your College Search

The importance of self-identifying 

Many LD students don’t want to self-identify to a college, or they register with the disabilities office and then never return. It’s common for students to want to start fresh, and it may take a semester or two before realizing they want the support, Wax says. Even so, registering with a disability or accessibility office early is useful so the safety net is there when the student is ready. 

If a college charges an extra fee (sometimes in the range of $6,000 or more), Wax recommends paying for it so resources are available, but know that your student might not use them immediately. Feinman reminds her students that successful people are successful because they know how to ask for help and where to find it. Willingness to use support services is a sign of maturity. “Developing a relationship with a counselor in the disabilities office can be powerful because that person can advocate for the student on campus and help them problem-solve,” she says.  

Related: College Search and Scholarship Resources for Students With Learning Disabilities

What to do before college

Experts agree that students need to begin working on independence skills as early as possible. Parents may hesitate to back off just when academic stakes feel high, but high school is the time when students need the chance to understand themselves as a learner and have space to handle things—or not. “I’ve learned that smoothing the path for your kid is one of the worst things you can do,” LaMarca Sacco says. 

Explore college readiness

One way to test your student’s college readiness is to send them to a college summer program with a dorm setting while they’re still in high school. Use this experience to have a conversation about college, Wax says. “What was challenging, what was easy, what do you think you need to be prepared for?” Students should also take college-bound classes to prepare them academically. LaMarca Sacco recommends helping your student identify a major before heading off to college because academic uncertainty adds stress.

Consider community college

For students who struggle with executive function, community college might be the next best step because they can attend part-time and gradually add classes each term as they build their academic and organizational skills. 

Recognizing that a path can have zigs and zags will likely be part of the process. LaMarca Sacco says because each student is so individual, it’s hard to know until you try it whether traditional college will work or not, but her family wouldn’t change the way they handled it because it revealed a new direction for their son.

Find great colleges with the right accommodations on CollegeXpress. 

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