HomeArticlesStudents with Learning Differences and the College Search

Dear Estelle. Do colleges offer the same support services as secondary schools to students with learning differences?  Steve, our son, has received assistance with his schoolwork from experienced special education teachers since 4th grade. These teachers have provided quality emotional and academic support, which has allowed him to retain his grade level with classmates. He has an IEP, which we review with his teachers and counselor yearly.  Can we expect the same assistance when he attends college next year?   RW, Parent, Centennial

Excellent question considering high school seniors and their families are currently planning for college. Students generally are concerned whether they can successfully maintain their academic work once in college.  For those with learning differences, other issues must also be considered.  Primarily, what kind of support is available? Must the student seek it out himself? Is new documentation necessary or can an applicant simply send his IEP and continue as in high school? Do support services require an additional fee? Do Federal laws require colleges to provide services?

Frankly, once a family has grounding in high school special education services, it is easy to see why they are shocked to see how these services change at the college level. Disability services at many colleges only remotely resemble those to which families have become accustomed. Therefore it is crucial for students and families when approaching the college planning process to take into consideration the types of services that colleges offer and make this an integral component of the total college selection process.

For learning disabilities, the documentation that students were identified with in high school usually suffices for college. If documentation is older than 3-5 years, colleges may request updated information. It is the student’s responsibility to update his testing and not the college. The IEP and 504 written at the high school level expire once a student enters college. Parents assuming these plans are still valid will be surprised to discover that colleges aren’t bound by the same rules as secondary schools.

Laws i.e. Section 504 and Americans with Disabilities Act demand far less of colleges than the IDEA law requires of high schools. Unlike K-12, colleges aren’t responsible for finding out which students have a disability.  To qualify for services students must self-identify and submit documentation requesting services. Bottom line?  Only students who request services will have an opportunity for accommodations. Another caveat, colleges want to make students independent learners and consequently might not offer the same accommodations available to the high school student.

Commonly approved accommodations include time and a half for test-taking, permission to record lectures, and access to texts in alternate formats. Tutoring like that offered in high schools will frequently be different. Colleges aren’t required to provide tutoring but often do at a much-reduced level and frequently by students.  Even for students with disabilities, the law does not require one-to-one instruction with special techniques or tutoring with a qualified teacher.

Study guides that are commonly available to high school students may be nonexistent at the college level. Also unavailable may be alternative formats of testing. Sometimes note taking will be available but colleges prefer assisting students in personally developing these skills. A college may offer a digital recorder in lieu of a live note taker.

Extended time to complete papers and out-of-class assignments may/may not be offered by professors. Many colleges believe that giving extra time contributes to additional time-management problems. On many campuses, tutoring centers provide assistance with time management and planning issues.

Parents who have been integrally involved with their student’s disabilities at the secondary level may be disappointed to find their involvement unacceptable because legally college students are considered adults. Many colleges will not allow parents to make accommodation requests for their children even though the parents are paying the bills. The students are expected to be responsible for requesting assistance.

In summary, it is important for students and families to understand the significant changes in services when transitioning from high school to college. Of utmost importance, students must learn the skills of self-advocacy early; parents need to “back off” and let students take charge of their educations.  Although colleges are required to provide services to those with disabilities, those services vary considerably from one college to another. Minimal services are usually free whereas comprehensive services can add significantly to the tuition tab.

Research for disability services should be undertaken for every college a student is considering.  This can usually start on the college homepage with a link to its disability services.  When making campus visits, be sure to include an appointment with the disability office to ascertain exactly what a college will offer to a student with learning issues. Check what resources are available. Talk to students who use support services on campus.  For students who have received significant support in high school, having similar services available may be crucial for college success.
A good website: www.ahead.org

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