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Navigating the College Search Process With a Learning Difference

By Amy, IvyWise Principal College Admissions Counselor

As a college counselor and a mother of a child with a learning disability (LD), I know the concerns that many families have before, during, and after the college search and admissions process. It’s important for parents and students to know their options, and since information and policy are constantly changing, research and expert advice are key to successfully navigating this confusing landscape.

Research is important and knowledge a powerful tool, as parents of high school age kids with LDs already know. After my daughter was diagnosed with a significant vision disability, information and advocacy became my paramount concerns as we navigated 504 Plans and IEPs. My main goals have been to do what is best for my daughter, while also giving her the tools to advocate for herself when it comes time for her to leave home for college. Information is constantly changing, so families need to stay abreast of the latest developments, or consult with an expert who does, in order to effectively navigate the college admissions process with a student with an LD.

Research is Key
Students and parents need to be well-educated on their legal rights and responsibilities before heading to college (or into the workforce, as the case may be.) There are many agencies and resources provided by each state to help families in this area. Start with a simple online search by typing in your state of residence along with key words such as disability rights, resource, transition services, and advocacy into a search engine.

Families should also research the benefits of assistive and adaptive technology, which can easily be done online, too. The market for adaptive and assistive technology is always evolving for students with LDs, so it is imperative to keep updated on new devices and apps for students. These can be incredibly supportive for independent learning in college.

The College Search Process
Parents and their students with LDs need to think about their goals after high school and prepare themselves well before their senior year, starting even as they approach the transition into high school. It is vital, once it is age-appropriate, for students to conduct self-analysis to completely comprehend their LD to better advocate for themselves once they are in college. Students will need to evaluate their personal and academic strengths and weaknesses. This will help them become more open about their specific needs and prepare them to make proper adjustments necessary to a life of independence on campus.

In the end, whether you’re applying to college with an LD or not, fit is paramount. Students should do their homework to find colleges that meet not only their academic goals with consideration to their LDs, but also their personal and social goals. While support and accommodations are important, they can’t compensate for the lack of fit in other areas of a student’s college experience. Understanding a school’s resources and approach to supporting students with LDs is an important aspect of finding a best-fit college, while also considering the traditional elements of the college itself like academic programs, size, location, and more.

LDs in College
The biggest shift from high school to college is that, in most cases, students – not the parents – will be responsible for making decisions about accommodations or requirements in order to ensure their own success in the classroom. (Parents wishing to retain decision-making status for students past their minority status need to make legal arrangements like conservatorship in order to do so.)

While there are resources on campus to help students obtain the proper accommodations, universities are not required to design a special academic program for students with LDs. They are required to provide accommodating services that will remove obstacles for students with LDs, but not any personalized therapy, for example. The Office of Student Disability Services (OSDS) or equivalent will require students to provide documentation in order to obtain the necessary support for their educational independence. Students should meet with an administrator in this office in order to better understand their level of responsibility as they transition from high school to college.

Students with LDs need to empower themselves in secondary school to be well prepared for college. Knowing what resources are available, what they’re required to do, and how to eliminate hurdles will be the key to their success. Families can set the example of thorough research and assertive follow through, making it is less intimidating for young adults with LDs to become an advocate for themselves once they get to campus.

Here are some key tips to consider as you approach the college admissions process for students who may need accommodations for an LD at college:

Learn about colleges’ support services for students with disabilities.
When preparing to apply to college with a student with an LD, it is important to be proactive. First, families should obtain a copy of each college’s ‘Documentation Guidelines for Services Eligibility and Determination’ for a particular disability. This will provide information on what documentation is needed in order get approved for support as an enrolled student, and it can take some time to gather all the required information. Students approved for support may qualify for preferential course scheduling, extended time, and/or assisted technology, for example.

Ask for the philosophy of the learning disabilities office.
This can vary from college to college. Do they promote a campus culture that characterizes the attitude of caring, respect, and inclusion? Are they committed to an environment that removes the obstacles in front of the student so they have an opportunity for success during their college experience? A student should evaluate each school’s philosophy, approach to LDs, and their services, just as you would compare one university to another. Discover the pros and cons of services for students with disabilities through understanding the mission of each office.

Schedule an intake meeting with the OSDS if it is not already offered.
These meetings will help parents and students fully comprehend the increased independent approach required in college versus secondary school, help you to determine appropriate accommodations and support services, and how to work with professors, as well as what new adaptive technology options and mobile apps may be available to students. This intake meeting can help students better learn about a college’s services and whether or not they are a good fit for the student’s needs and goals.

Ask questions about how the OSDS office will communicate with you and your student.
Since students will be in charge of decisions in regards to accommodations and requirements, it’s important that both parents and students understand how the OSDS office will communicate with students and what any correspondence will contain. If parents are making decisions under a conservatorship, how often can they expect updates from the school and what information will they receive? It’s important to set expectations about meeting, progress, and updates upfront, so that students are aware of what’s required in order to ensure accommodations don’t expire and there is no lapse in communication.

Additional Resources
Here are some additional resources and links that can help families navigating the college search process with a student with a learning difference educate themselves on what to expect and how to proceed with the admissions process.

  • General Information on Learning Disabilities: This resource provides general information for parents on LDs, different types of LDs, and support offered to students with LDs.
  • US Department of Labor – Disability Resources: A U.S. government web portal that provides information about disability-related programs and services. This site focuses on benefits, civil rights, community life, education, employment, emergency, health, housing, technology and transportation for people with disabilities.
  • US Department of Education: The US Department of Education website has a number of resources to inform families of their protections under federal laws as well as Section 504 guidance.
  • LD Online: LD Online is a resource for educators and families that covers a number of topics for students with LDs, including how to navigate the college search process.
  • Understood.org: Through Understood, 15 nonprofit organizations have joined forces to support parents of the one in five children with learning and attention issues throughout their journey. This website includes resources on how to work with your student’s school to ensure they’re getting the best support possible, along with resources on how to manage other common challenges.
  • National Center for Learning Disabilities: The NCLD website offers a plethora of resources for parents, students, and educators. One NCLD program includes Understood (mentioned above) as well as programs for students to help them connect with and support others through Friends of Quinn
  • Your State’s Department of Vocational Rehabilitation (VR): Provides a wealth of resources for employment opportunities for people with disability within each state to help them to pursue their career and is state supported. This can include a career development center for adults looking for job search support as well as knowledge of their rights within the work force.

For more information on resources for college bound students with LDs, visit our Helpful Links section of our website.

Applying to college can be a high-stakes process for all students, and the concern of campus support for an LD can add another layer of uncertainty to this already complicated process. At IvyWise we have the knowledge and experience to help students of all learning needs successfully navigate this process. For more information on IvyWise’s college prep services and how we can assist students with learning differences applying to college, contact us at 212-262-3500 or at [email protected]

To learn more About Amy, click here to read her biography and watch her video!