by Teresa Theofanos Collins, Gina Gerrato Greenhaus
The college search process can be a daunting task for any student, but even more so for a student with a learning challenge. Parents are often worried about how colleges will view their students’ grades and test scores in light of a learning disability, anxiety, depression or ADHD. As Independent Educational Consultants, we suggest that you begin by examining your student’s academic profile. Do their grades, test scores, and choice of coursework reflect their true academic abilities or has the learning disability or disabilities prevented them from achieving academic success? Were the accommodations put in place early enough in high school to impact grades and has the student benefitted by the accommodations? Has the student shown an upward progression in grades? These are just some of the many questions to consider when assisting your child. Parents also worry that their child does not understand their lack of executive functioning skills and how it affects their classroom performance, causing them to be highly distracted. In many cases these students have had a lot of assistance during high school with subject tutoring, learning specialists, and therapists to help manage anxiety, mood and motivation. It makes sense that they would need some outside help during their first year of college.
Although the first step is to examine the student’s transcript and test scores, this is not the only information that a college will review. If the student is able to articulate their understanding of their strengths and challenges, how it has impacted them, what they have learned about themselves and their accommodations, and how they plan to succeed in college, this will speak volumes to colleges. For students who have had numerous challenges in high school and have received accommodations that have helped them to be successful, the transition to high school can be much less stressful than their peers.
The next step is to help your student find supportive college environments where your student can grow and succeed. The level of support will be an important factor to consider when creating your initial list of colleges. When approaching the college search, remember that not all colleges will be equipped to support the needs of your student. It your child has a learning disability, you will need to be a savvy consumer who can recognize the differences as the level of support can vary widely from one school to another. You need to know how to distinguish the minimum supports offered from a more comprehensive model. The best way to begin is by searching on a college website for “disability support services.” Below, find a description of each type of college disability support programs from the most basic to increasingly expanding services.
Learning Support Programs in College
By law, all colleges must comply by offering minimal services for student with disabilities. At this level there are no professional learning specialists on staff. The responsibility for reviewing documentation and awarding basic accommodations usually falls on the Dean of Students. There are no specific services for students with learning disabilities; students utilize the writing center, math center, and study skills assistance available to all students at the school.
Students with disabilities have their own dedicated Learning Center that serves their needs in addition to the writing center, math center and study skills center available to all students. This means that the disability support staff are Masters Level trained professionals who are well versed in the challenges of your students. These centers offer a much wider range of accommodations, assistive technology, and support to students, and may have professional tutors and coaches on staff.
Students with disabilities not only have their own dedicated Learning Center, but an additional fee-based program is offered to those who need a structured learning program. Typically students meet weekly or biweekly with a professional who can help them with study skills, organizational skills, and time management and will address any difficulties that the student is having and advocate on behalf of the students. There is a separate application and review process for acceptance into these programs in addition to the admissions application.
When visiting colleges with your high school junior or senior, we suggest you include an appointment with the disabilities office on campus. Note that you and your student’s impressions as your student may be spending considerable time in the office and will need to feel comfortable. In addition, if your student will be applying to college in the next two years, we suggest learning more about the differences between the K-12 system and the college system for students with disabilities. There are significant differences between high school and college when it comes to applicable laws, documentation, self-advocacy and student responsibilities.
Some of the most common challenges that can cause students to struggle significantly:
- Students are unable to articulate their challenges to the disability coordinator and with professors and unprepared to advocate for themselves in and out of the classroom. many students are intimidated by talking to a professor and do not seek help or make connections with a staff member who can help.
- Students are unprepared for the academic challenges and do not have the academic foundation to succeed in a selective major or selective university.
- Students often hold the mistaken belief that they can manage in college without accommodations and do not utilize the accommodations granted them in college until it’s too late in the semester to benefit from them.
- Students are unprepared to manage their time and fall behind in their study and coursework and do not seek out the tutoring or coaching services until it’s too late in the semester.
Types of Accommodations Offered in College
You need to determine what kinds of accommodations are available in college for your student’s particular disability. Here are a few of the most common accommodations that you will see in colleges. (These examples are from Colorado State Office of Disabilities)
For Students with ADHD
- Extra time on tests
- Priority registration
- Access to a testing room with less distraction during mid-terms and exam finals
- Note taking support
- Use of computer during classes
For Students with Anxiety
Flexible matriculation requirements including:
- Extended time to complete degree program
- Flexible course requirements
- Alternative housing options: living in a single room as opposed to having a roommate
- Course load flexibility: taking a part-time load the first semester
- Alternative format: textbooks and print materials can be converted to alternative formats for students
- Alternative testing arrangements: extra time; a quiet, separate room; provision of a reader/scribe; and use of a computer, including adaptive software and hardware
- Note-taking support
- Priority registration
For Students with Dyslexia or Other Language Based/Auditory Processing Disorders
- Alternative format: textbooks and print materials can be converted to alternative formats for students. Film and video material with captions included.
- Alternative testing arrangements: extra time, less distracting environment, provision of a reader/scribe, and use of a computer, including adaptive software and hardware
- Preferential classroom seating: sitting where the student can see the board and professor’s face
- Use of computer during classes or access to taped lectures
- Note-taking support
After your student has accepted the admissions offer, you may begin contacting the disabilities office for instructions on requesting accommodations. Each university will have a different process, but the most common practice is to submit the student’s psychoeducational report that includes their diagnosis, online or in person, at the first meeting with the disabilities office. The testing report must come from a licensed educational psychologist. Some colleges will accept an IEP but others may not and this will vary from school to school. The disability office will have an application link posted on their webpage. Students are encouraged to complete this paperwork as it is best for them to take the lead role in answering the questions about their challenges.
It is important for the student to understand the kinds of accommodations they may need and to document what has made the most impact at the high school level. Some of these questions will include a statement about the student’s diagnosis and how this impacts them in the classroom. Other questions directly ask which accommodations the student would like to request. For students who are coming from smaller private high schools, where the accommodations were built into the program, it may help to have a meeting with the learning center or with some of the teachers who offered them the flexibility to be successful. After paperwork is submitted, the student will schedule an appointment to meet with the director of the office of disabilities. We suggest a practice interview with students before the meeting to ensure that the student feels comfortable discussing their disability and its impact and advocating for the accommodations that they feel they need to be successful at the college level.
Timeline for success
- First Semester of Junior Year in High School: College search for students with LD and ADHD- Set up an appointment with a college advisor who has an understanding of your learning issues and can help you set up a timeline that includes identifying colleges where you can be successful.
- Second Semester of Junior Year: If your student has significant learning challenges, this is a good time to update your students testing and make sure that your accommodations are in place. Arrange a meeting with your educational consulting team, which includes your tutors, educational therapist, college counselor and psychologist. Make it clear that your goal is to transition to college in one year and request help setting milestones to reach this goal.
- Spring or Summer of Junior Year: When visiting colleges, include a meeting with those in the disabilities office. Can you distinguish the differences between the basic and moderate services, for example? Note how comfortable your student feels while visiting these offices. Do they see themselves comfortably walking into the office and utilizing their services while in college?
- Senior Year: Apply to colleges on your final list. Will your student disclose their disability? If they choose to disclose, seek assistance from your consultant when crafting this written statement.
- Spring of Senior Year: Once accepted, visit the colleges on your final list once more during admitted students day or on another day and speak with students on campus before you make your final decision. Visit the disabilities office again to assess your student’s level of comfort.
- After You Deposit and High School Graduation: Apply for accommodations and make sure your testing is up to date. Prepare for the interview in the office of disabilities by meeting with your educational support team. In some cases, we suggest that students use the summer to do more educational therapy in order to sharpen their academic skill set. Sometimes a student may practice their skills by taking a summer class.
- Prepare for the fall: For students with ADHD you may consider working with an academic coach during the first semester in college. Students with anxiety should continue to work with their therapist over the summer and make sure to find a counselor on campus or look for local options near the campus.
The college search process and the transition to college can be difficult for even the most prepared student. For students with a variety of learning disabilities there are many important factors to consider for assistance with the challenges ahead. With the guidance of an Independent Educational Consultant and your student’s educational support team, you and your child can choose from colleges that will be the best fit to support your individual student. We have addressed the types of learning support programs in college, the major differences your student will need to understand to navigate disability supports in college versus high school, the kinds of accommodations offered at colleges, key factors in ensuring your child’s success, and a timeline for success. Taking the time and effort to consider all of these factors ahead of time when putting together a college plan is the key to your child’s successful future. If you have difficulty deciphering the options, you may benefit from professional advisement from an independent college consultant who is familiar with the process and these programs.
Teresa Theofanos Collins, principal and founder of Alpha College Admissions Consulting, LLC. in the Richmond, Virginia area, believes that every student is unique and the process for getting into the right college should be too. The college planning and selection process is highly individualized for each student based upon their academic, social, and financial goals. We empower students to create an application that reflects their true selves to maximize admission to best-fit colleges. www.alphacac.com.
Gina Gerrato Greenhaus founded Greenhaus College Consulting to assist students and their families through the maze of college admissions and create a winning strategy to successfully transition from high school to college. Her success comes from developing trust with students, partnering with their families, as well as mentoring and coaching. For San Diego families looking for more information on how to best approach the college search process, contact www.greenhauscollegeconsulting.com