College admissions and learning disabilities

Question: What should I be thinking about as I begin the college search for my son with a learning disability?

Answer: The first thing to consider is whether your student is prepared academically, socially and emotionally to enter college. While there are record numbers of learning disabled students attending college since 1990, a student with learning disabilities (LD) or Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) often faces many hurdles in order to be successful. It is crucial that your student takes college prep courses and perhaps even an honors or AP course in high school with accommodations to be prepared for the rigor that college will expect from him or her. By taking college level work in the last year or two of high school, a student with LD can better gauge if he has the academic preparation, study skills and independence to make it on his own at college. High school is a great time to work with specialists who can offer support in terms of using accommodations that might be offered in college such as note-taking, books on tape and outlining software, to name a few. Students need to come equipped not only to be able to articulate what is their disability and how it affects their learning but also discuss what accommodations have been successfully used in the past.

Currently, many learning disabled students enter college needing remedial skills in reading, writing and math which necessitate their taking lower level courses that will not count toward their general credits. You might want to consider having your student take her general education requirements at a community college, which offers smaller classes, faculty who may be more sensitive to the needs of a learning disabled student and may offer more extensive remedial support. Assuming the student makes good grades, he or she will then have the option to transfer to a four-year college with the additional skills, emotional maturity and confidence to tackle his major. Since many students with LD or ADHD take less than a full load of classes, they rarely get through college in four years. This makes college a very expensive undertaking at a private institution, especially if you pay for additional tutoring support.

Another surprise which students face when they leave high school is learning that there are very different rules governing post-secondary education from high school. In high school you may have received services because you had an Individualized Educational Plan (IEP) or were granted accommodations based on your 504. Colleges and universities provide help under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the American Disabilities Act and will ensure that they do not discriminate on the basis of a disability. How it differs from high school is that colleges do not need to alter the essential elements of learning. Therefore, a college can refuse to waive classes, reduce coursework, provide alternative testing or change the course in any way, regardless of the limitations posed by a disability. Colleges are not required to provide a student with aide time even if she had it in high school; tutoring; readers or open-book tests. Colleges do not need to waive any courses or requirements needed to fulfill the major.

A second surprise which students face is learning that their IEP or 504, even if current, does not carry over into high school. Colleges will require that students with a disability provide current (usually within the last three years) documentation of a disability and how it affects a student’s ability to learn. Since disability departments may have discrete things they are looking for in the report and the qualifications of the person providing the report, it is important to research each school you are interested in for its documentation requirements. The accommodations you received in high school may not carry over in college as disability officers will provide accommodations based on eligibility determined by the current report. While you do not need to disclose your disability when you apply to college, you are wise to be as honest and open with the disability department once you are accepted.

The most important consideration for students and their families when looking at colleges is to explore the level of help available from each school. Some offer comprehensive help with a large staff support and unlimited tutoring while a disability office may only create a list of eligible accommodations and expect a student to find support through campus-wide math or writing labs. When I work with students, I suggest that they put the disability office first on the list on their college tour and come armed with all the questions they will need answered to ensure it will offer the level of support they will need to be successful. A good place to start researching schools is to peruse through “The K and W Guide to Colleges for Students with Learning Disabilities,” written by Princeton Review or Peterson’s Colleges, which has programs for students with learning disabilities or Attention Deficit disorders.

Joan Franklin is the owner of The College Source, an Independent College Consulting Practice ( She is also a certified school counselor in the Issaquah School District. She lives and practices on Mercer Island and can be reached at 232-5626 or

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