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Helping Students With Disabilities and Learning Differences Transition to College

Suzanne Shaffer


The transition from high school to college can be overwhelming and confusing for most students. But for students with learning and attention issues, transitioning to college will have added hurdles. My son had a minor learning disability, and during his first semester of college, it was partially responsible for his poor performance even though he had previously found ways in school to compensate for it.

Recent statistics from Yale University show that approximately 11% of U.S. undergraduates register a disability with their school. ​​In high school, 94% of students with learning disabilities get some kind of help. In college, only 17% of these students take advantage of resources provided by their school.

The National Center for Learning Disabilities recently released The State of Learning Disabilities: Understanding the 1 in 5. It highlights the fact that students with learning differences attend four-year colleges at half the rate of other students. Additionally, those who do attend college are less likely to complete it. These students, though successfully navigating their disability in high school, are struggling once they enter college.

If you have a student with a learning difference or other disability, what do you need to know as a parent to get them ready for college and prepare them for the transition?

1. Make self-advocacy a priority.

Students with learning differences in high school are no longer guaranteed the special education and accommodations when entering college. This means your student must know how to be their own self-advocate.

Too many students do not disclose their disability or request accommodations with their college. In fact, less than one in 20 students with disabilities disclose them when entering college. When a student makes the choice to distance themself from that label in college, it can be detrimental to their success — not only academically but emotionally. College can be even more challenging for these students without the necessary accommodations.

Self-advocacy is an essential skill your student should master before entering college, especially if they have a disability. You will not be there to speak for them and are no longer automatically in the loop. In high school, you were legally entitled to be a part of the process. In college, the law (FERPA) protects your student’s privacy and in order to discuss their disability with anyone on campus, you will need permission from both your child and the school.

Read more about the importance of full disclosure >

2. Support in college will be different from support in high school.

Colleges don’t fall under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). That’s why there are no IEPs. This means colleges don’t have to provide the same level of support and services a student might have gotten in high school.

After students graduate from high school, their legal protections change. In high school, the IDEA applies — that’s aimed at supporting student success through the assignment of supports and services, and it’s legally incumbent upon the school district to identify needs and provide services.

After your student turns 18, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which focuses on providing equal access to educational programs, becomes the legal guide for support and services. Under Section 504, a college or university is not responsible for identifying students with disabilities and ensuring effective support services. The students become responsible to self-disclose their disability, provide evidence of need in the form of evaluations, obtain accommodations, and self-monitor their effectiveness.

In addition, when your student turns 18, the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) protects the privacy of student education records. As mentioned previously, unless given permission by the student, a student’s parents cannot call the professors to check on progress (a form of advocacy) the way they could in high school.

Recently, in an effort to provide more protection and help for students with disabilities, Congress has taken steps to prevent students with disabilities from being denied accommodations or services. The Respond, Innovate, Support, and Empower (RISE) Act  has been introduced in the House and the Senate.  The RISE Act will ensure that students with disabilities thrive in college by providing more information for parents, increasing access to accommodations for students, and providing training and resources for college faculty and staff.

3. Your child must register as a student with disabilities to get accommodations.

After applying and being accepted to college, your student must register as a student with disabilities and request accommodations. This happens with the disability services office, not the admissions office.

Even though your student may have mentioned the disability in their application or written about it in their essay, it will not guarantee they receive accommodations. Admissions offices typically won’t look at these things before admitting a student. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, they’re not allowed to accept or request any information about a student’s disabilities.

The process typically involves completing a registration or application form. Students may have to log into the school’s system with a student ID to do that, or they may be able to print the form. After registering, your student will typically have a one-on-one meeting with someone from disability services and be able to discuss their needs at this meeting.

4. Seek help from the disability services office on campus.

Your student’s college should have a disability services office. The name of the office might not have the word disability in it however. You can also look for words like access, equity, or accommodations. These centers should coordinate with professors and other campus departments to help your student with the transition to college.

This is where your student can find help with services and accommodations which might include assistive technology, note takers, and extra time for tests. They can also help your student with reduced class loads, priority class registration, housing and parking accommodations, and other services.

It may, however, be difficult to find information about the services offered at the college. The NCLD reports that nearly three-quarters of parents surveyed stated it was difficult to find information related to disability services on campus. More than half stated the process to secure accommodations was difficult and unclear.

Causing more complications for these students, less than half of colleges that require documentation of a disability will accept a student’s IEP or 504 plan as verification of their disability. This means many students are required to get additional evaluations before receiving accommodation, causing many students to give up and attend college without the added help.

Learn more about how to request disability supports in college >

5. Different schools offer different levels of support.

All colleges that get federal funds are required to ensure equal access to students with disabilities. That means they have to provide reasonable accommodations.

Here are some other typical accommodations in college:

  • Having a note-taker for class lectures
  • Being provided audiobooks of the textbooks
  • Making audio recordings of lectures
  • Using a laptop computer in the classroom
  • Taking exams in a distraction-reduced room

Some colleges go beyond that and provide a greater range of support. Some colleges may have professional tutors with a background in learning and thinking differences, for instance. Some might run study skills and time management workshops.

6. Just because a college promises accommodations, doesn’t mean they will follow through.

Anna Wasko, a new freshman in college, was promised accommodations and the college never followed through. Anna enrolled in college thinking she had done everything to make sure the college would make the necessary accommodations for her. She describes her experiences:

“One of my most challenging times was my first year of college. I talked to the school before I even bothered to apply to it to make sure that they could provide me with what I needed: they could provide the books on tape; they could provide the notetakers. They didn’t have the books on tape. They couldn’t provide the notes. And my safety net was 2000 miles away.”

Her parents pulled her out of the college after learning of her distress, and helped her search for colleges that were willing to put in the effort to accommodate her learning difference. They found one and met with the head of the disability services who worked with Anna to ensure she received the necessary accommodations.

Anna’s story underscores the importance of self-advocacy. Your student must communicate regularly with disability services regarding the accommodations they were promised.

6. Support from parents and educators is crucial for your student to succeed.

Even though you can’t be as involved in your student’s educational pursuit as it relates to their disability, it's crucial you be supportive in other ways. Listen to their concerns and encourage them to self-advocate and follow up with disability services regularly.

They should also seek support from their professors and other educators while in college. There is no shame in asking for help and admitting they are struggling. Many times, the professor will be willing to provide additional tutoring or add accommodations if necessary.

For more information about transitioning into college with disabilities, follow these links:

Suzanne Shaffer counsels students and families through her blog, Parenting for College. Her advice has been featured in print and online on Huffington Post, Yahoo Finance, U.S. News College, TeenLife, Smart College Visit, Road2College and more.
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