What Learning Disabled Students Can Expect at College
Inclusive education and related advancements have raised the expectations for students with learning disabilities. They’re educated alongside their typical peers in K–12, and they’re also attending college—even the most competitive institutions. Accommodations are available in college, but the system is different. Understanding how these accommodations work can help families to make an informed decision about higher education.
Q: My child wants to go to a competitive school. Will he have access to disability accommodations, or does he have to go to a community college?
A: All colleges—private and public, community colleges, and Ivy League schools—have to make accommodations for students with disabilities (except for about four in the country). But they work differently because colleges are covered by different laws. In K–12, students typically receive adjustments under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and its amendments (IDEA 2004). IDEA 2004 says schools have to find students who might have disabilities, test them and, if they qualify, offer them specialized instruction and other supports; but that only applies to students in the K–12 system.
Colleges are covered by Section 504 of the Americans with Disabilities Act and its Amendments (ADAAA), which are anti-discrimination laws, not education laws. These laws say colleges have to provide students with disabilities accommodations that offer them access to their programs to level the playing field. Accommodations are available to those who qualify, but there aren’t formal plans or annual meetings with professors and other staff members. Other services in high school, such as individualized instruction and special classes, also are not available.
Although Section 504 covers colleges, high school 504 plans are not valid for use at college. They essentially expire when students graduate from high school, as do IEPs. This means colleges are not required to honor anything written into one of these plans, although they may choose to do so.
Q: What is the disability services (DS) system like at college?
A: Because college students are legally considered adults, they’re responsible for asking for accommodations; many schools won’t allow parents to do this because arranging accommodations for students who won’t use them (which would seem to be the case if they don’t ask for them) doesn’t make sense. Also, college students have to handle other paperwork responsibilities (like class registration), so asking them to register for services themselves is appropriate.
For those using minimal accommodations (e.g., extended test time or handheld spellcheckers), there may be little or no change. But colleges aren’t required to offer accommodations they think go beyond providing access to programs. Just because a student has used an accommodation in high school or an adjustment is recommended in the testing report, it doesn’t obligate colleges to offer it.
For instance, some schools don’t offer extended time for projects and papers because college students aren’t in class as many hours a week as high schoolers; they’re expected to use the extra time to manage their assignments. Instead of extended deadlines, the more appropriate accommodation may be for them to take fewer classes. And students typically have to complete other tasks, such as letting DS know they have upcoming exams or requesting their textbooks in alternative formats. Schools don’t check with professors about exam schedules or reading assignments. Students must handle these responsibilities themselves to receive their accommodations.
Q: How can I prepare my student for the changes at college?
A: Students and parents should talk with the high school child study team about the accommodations students use and the possibility of adapting them to adjustments that promote independence, as students will need independent study skills and self-management skills at college. While some families may worry about a student’s GPA suffering from the removal of certain accommodations, they should know that transition experts say preparing students to function independently to the best of their ability is better training for college than providing them with supports that are unlikely to be available to them there. Doing this will also give you a realistic sense of your child’s abilities.
Q: Can we find out about services at colleges he’s considering?
A: Once you know what changes to expect, your family can look into Disability Services as part of the college search. Find the Disability Services web page for the colleges your student is considering. Check which accommodations they commonly grant, what technology is available, and what other sources of help there might be, such as a tutoring center.
Some colleges offer fee-for-service programs (check to see if they’re staffed by people with disability-related backgrounds, if this is important to your student). Others may offer free special study groups or workshops. The more information you see about the supports available, the more likely a school offers a supportive environment. Make sure your student leads this search, as he’s the one to whom the information is important.
On college visits, go to the Disability Services office (call ahead to see if you can meet with the director). Ask which technologies they offer, and if DS is an office or a center for learning and testing. This information can help your student to decide which college is the best match for her.
Once your child receives his college acceptances, he can ask their DS offices to review his documentation and tell him the accommodations for which he’s eligible. This may help her to choose between schools that are otherwise similar.
After she enrolls, review the school’s disability services website together. Look at the documentation requirements for your student’s disability; make sure she has the necessary paperwork. If you’re unsure whether her documentation meets the standard, call Disability Services and ask; you’ll find them helpful. While you’re on the website, make sure she understands the process for requesting accommodations; the information will be on the site. Before she graduates from high school, have her work with a member of the child study team to compose a list of accommodations she wants to request at college. These should be appropriate for the college environment; she should be able to explain how they help her.
Now that you understand the college disability services model, you can help your student prepare for success. Keep in mind, though, that college isn’t for everyone. Many students are exhausted after high school. Some may need an academic break. They can intern or take a job while they weigh their options. Some may discover a field they like for which they don’t need a degree, saving them the struggle and you the money. Keep an open mind.
Elizabeth C. Hamblet of Princeton, NJ is the author of 7 Steps for Success: High School to College Transition Strategies for Students with Disabilities. For more info, visit Elizabeth Hamblet's website.