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Learning Disabilities in College: 7 Things to Know and Do

A college's disability services office can only help you if you have learning differences, but these are the things to know and do before choosing a school.

If you have a learning difference such as autism, dyslexia, or ADHD, it’s important to know about the process for seeking services and accommodations as you prepare for college. Disability services work very differently in college than they do in high school—one of the key differences being that students, not staff or parents, are responsible for self-advocating for their needs. Here are some of the most important things to know about disability services and steps to take before you head off to college.

What to know about disability services in your college search

  • Exploring disability accommodations will not adversely impact admission decisions. Disability services offices are completely separate from admission offices and are committed to maintaining a student’s privacy. There are a few exceptions, such as colleges where students apply to learning disability support programs concurrent with their college applications. In these situations, the two offices may communicate during the admission decision process; however, a student’s disclosure of a disability is generally more likely to be helpful than harmful.
  • There is a difference between accommodations and support services. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) mandates that all US colleges make reasonable efforts to accommodate the needs of students with disabilities—for example, allowing students to sit in the front row of class or to take tests in a distraction-reduced environment. However, some students need additional support services to succeed in college, such as academic coaching to help with time management and study skills. These services are only available at certain colleges (often for an additional fee) and may be provided by a separate office for academic or student success.
  • Writing about your condition in your college applications may shed light on other parts of your application. You’re not obligated to disclose your diagnosis when applying to college. However, if it would help an admission committee understand your situation better, then it may be to your advantage to use the “additional information” section of the Common Application (or school-specific application, if they have a similar section) to write about your disability. Examples could include changing high schools because of your disability or an upward trend in your grades resulting from diagnosis and treatment.

Related: Understanding Learning Differences and What Services Colleges Offer

Steps to take for your needs

  • Research student disability services during the college search process. That way, you can be sure you’ll be satisfied with the services you’ll receive when the time comes to make your final college decision. If you’re having trouble finding disability services in your research, be sure to search for “accessibility services,” as many college offices are shifting to this word usage. Whether you’re touring schools virtually or in person, make an appointment with the disability or accessibility office and have a list of questions ready.
  • Prepare questions for the disability office in advance. For specific suggestions, see our post on the Best Questions to Ask the Student Disabilities Office. Having this list of questions will help you find out more easily if the accommodations you need will be available—and note that modifications of the curriculum (e.g., reduced/simplified assignments) are not typically provided.
  • Gather the documentation you’ll need to obtain accommodations. Students with learning disabilities, ADHD, or autism typically need documentation of a neuropsychological evaluation conducted within three years of starting college. (Each college sets their own requirements, but this is a common expectation.) These evaluations can be expensive, though they’re sometimes covered by health insurance. Check to see if your school district can perform the testing. A few colleges provide low-cost testing or referrals for students who need updated documentation, but it isn’t common. At a minimum, test reports should specify the student’s diagnosis and recommended accommodations/services. IEP or 504 plans from high school are generally not considered sufficient documentation.
  • Sign a FERPA waiver. If you want parent access to student information (e.g., health, academic standing, etc.), the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) is something to take care of sooner rather than later. Without a FERPA waiver signed by the student, parents can’t “check in” with a college on concerns about their student’s grades or mental health. 

Related: Infographic: College Accommodations for Learning Disabilities

Learning differences in college don’t have to be a huge barrier for students—that’s why colleges offer accommodations. Colleges want all their students to be able to learn to the best of their ability, so don’t be shy about seeking information regarding learning accommodations at your schools of interest. It will only benefit you in the long run and set you up for success.

Still looking for your best-fit school? Check out our list of Colleges Where Students With Learning Differences Succeed.

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About Eric Endlich, PhD

Eric Endlich, PhD

Eric Endlich, PhD, is a clinical psychologist and the founder of Top College Consultants®, serving students and families worldwide. Dr. Endlich has taught psychology courses at Suffolk UniversityTufts UniversityBoston College, and UMass Boston. He is a longtime writer and advisor for Oakstone Publishing, a clinical advisory board member for the Asperger/Autism Network, and a Learning Differences/Neurodiversity Committee member with the Independent Educational Consultants Association. Dr. Endlich presents nationally on autism, learning differences, and college admission and is quoted regularly by media such as ForbesBusiness InsiderThe Hechinger Report, and U.S. News & World Report.


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