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Academic Support Programs for Students with Learning Differences

Jes Colebrook, PhD

Sending a student with learning differences to college can be a nerve-racking experience. As their parent or guardian, you have been their fiercest advocate for their educational needs. You have sat through hours of meetings, listening to experts tell you not what your student’s strengths are, but what their deficits are; how your student is behind others in the classroom, or disruptive to others’ learning; what they can’t do and how to fix them, rather than what they can do and how to build upon that. 

There is no off switch for the parent-as-advocate when your student graduates high school. When it comes time to trust their well-being to another educational institution, you want to be sure that they’ll have access to the supports you know they will need to be successful.

Not every college or university will have a program designed specifically to help students with learning differences. But for those that do, there are certain components you can look for and specific questions you can ask to calm the quiet fear that your student will struggle while navigating a new environment.

Partnering with the Disability/Accessibility Services Office

Once a student graduates high school, they are no longer covered by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the U.S.’s special education law. Graduates who enter the workforce or attend a post-secondary institution are covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). 

ADA protects students from discrimination by ensuring they have equal access to educational material. This is accomplished through a disability or accessibility services office (the office is called different things at different schools), a requirement for universities that receive federal funding. Students with disabilities submit their documentation to this office, as well as make requests for accommodations.

Ideally, an academic support program for students with learning differences has a close relationship with the accessibility services office on campus. This allows the academic support program staff to review student documentation and gain a better understanding of a student’s unique learning needs. It also provides the student with a team of support to ensure they are having their learning needs met. 

Questions to ask about the academic support program’s relationship with the accessibility services program include:

  • Do academic support program staff have access to students’ disability documentation?
  • How closely does your office work with the accessibility services office?

Academic Coaching

Academic coaches go by a variety of titles depending on the program. In addition to Academic Coach, other titles include Learning Specialist, Academic Counselor and Case Manager.

The relationship your student develops with this person can be invaluable for their college experience. It’s important that your student view this person as a primary resource on campus to help them navigate their learning needs and access issues. 

Consider how much time your student will need to spend with this person. Some programs offer 30 minutes a week, while others offer 60 minutes a week, and still others twice a week at 60 minutes per meeting for first-year students (and then once a week for all other years). Ask if your student will work with this particular individual for the entire time they are enrolled in the academic support program, or do they meet with whomever is available. Be sure to share any individualized or specific information about your student with the program, so that they can try to determine who would make the best fit. 

Most importantly, once your student has started school, give them time to develop this relationship. It can take a semester or longer for your student to feel comfortable with this new person, and it can take just as long for the academic coach to get to know your student’s personality. 


Tutoring is a crucial component of college success for students with learning differences. Most colleges offer tutoring through the writing center and quantitative (math) center. An academic support program may offer its own tutoring services for students enrolled in the program. 

If so, questions to ask include:

  • Who is their general population of tutors — current undergraduate students, graduate students or professionals in their field?
  • Do the tutors receive specialized training, particularly related to working with students with learning differences?
  • How frequently can students meet with tutors? It’s important to know if the fee for the program includes the cost of tutoring, or if the cost changes after a certain amount of time. 
  • Does the program provide tutors in any subject or only certain, more general education subjects?
  • How is tutoring structured? Must students sign up ahead of time, or are tutors available for drop-in sessions? Is there only group tutoring, or is one-on-one tutoring available?

Unique Opportunities for Students

For a student with a physical disability or an “invisible” disability, it can be difficult to find your place on campus if you feel different and separate from the other students. It may seem like academics come naturally to all other students, that no one else is struggling, and that everyone is making friends quite easily. 

For our students, knowing there is a place on campus with others who have shared educational experiences and obstacles can be powerful. Ask the academic support program if they offer extracurricular opportunities for their enrolled students. This may include peer mentoring, program outings, weekly get-togethers or volunteering in the local community. 

The Numbers

  1. The cost of academic support programs in higher education institutions varies from program to program. Websites may not provide this information. Because of this, it’s a good idea for prospective families to visit the program while you are touring campus. Ask if you may sit down with someone and discuss what your student will have access to. Some programs may have current or recently graduated students you can speak with as well. 
  2. Compare programs to one another. If you’re paying more for Program A but receiving fewer individualized services than Program B, is the difference in cost worth it? The answer to this question will depend on family income, student scholarships, financial aid, etc. Ask the program if they offer scholarships for students who demonstrate financial need.
  3. It’s also important to ask about retention and persistence to graduation rates compared to students not enrolled in the academic support program. For students with disabilities, persistence rates on average tend to be lower than for students without disabilities, so you can expect there to be a difference. However, when you compare academic support programs to one another, you may find that some have higher retention and persistence to graduation rates than others. This may be an indication of how impactful the program is for students.

With the growing success of special education services in K–12 systems, more and more students with disabilities are enrolling in college. As overwhelming as it can be to think about sending your child with a learning differences to college, the world of higher education is catching up to the needs of this student population.

Armed with the right information and the right questions, you can help your student find the college and academic support that is the best fit for their needs — and for your peace of mind.

Jes Colebrook, Ph.D. is an Academic Counselor in the Learning Effectiveness Program at the University of Denver and the family liaison for the department. Jes is also a Family-School Partnering consultant with the Colorado Department of Education, specializing in partnering with families of students with learning differences.
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