top of page
  • Lauren Tropp

College Planning Considerations for Students with Learning Differences

A student is working, pen on paper, with a cup in the background.

While this blog provides an introduction to some considerations for college planning for students with learning differences, it is not a comprehensive approach to meeting any particular student’s needs. Each student is unique. In order to develop a set of individualized considerations for a specific student’s pathway to college, an educational consultant needs to get to know a student’s goals, academic needs, and unique set of gifts and challenges.

There are several items for families to consider early on during the college process for students with learning differences:

  • The difference between accommodations provided in K-12 and at college

  • Various levels of support programs/services available at colleges

  • The need for prior documentation of a diagnosis as well as use of accommodations to receive accommodations or to enroll in a learning support program

In order to understand the differences in accommodations available to students, you must first understand why they differ.

  • K-12 accommodations and services are governed by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). A major goal of IDEA is for a student’s education to meet their unique needs and prepare them for further education, employment, and independent living. ** The stated goal of IDEA is often termed “success.” The burden is placed on the school to ensure a student gets what they need.

  • College accommodations are governed by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the goal of which is to allow “access” to education. While many accommodations are offered, they are often less extensive than those provided in a high school setting. In addition, the burden for implementation is on the student: the student must self-identify as having a learning disability or other basis for accommodations, which will then only be implemented at the student’s request.

How do resources and accommodations differ from high school to college? Some examples:

  • In high school, when appropriate, students can be provided with a modified curriculum. Colleges do not provide curriculum modifications.

  • While in high school, accommodations can be made for any class. In college, some courses or majors do not provide accommodations in terms of the standard for performing the role for which the course is meant to prepare a student. One example is that typically nursing courses do not allow extra time as an accommodation, even if a student is granted this accommodation for their other courses. The rationale for this is that in the nursing field, time is of the essence because nurses must make quick decisions and take immediate action in time-constrained situations. If they can’t do so, they are putting the lives of patients at risk.

  • The burden for providing accommodations in high school is placed on the school and school employees.

  • In college, the student is responsible for identifying and documenting their disability as required by the accessibility or disability services office at the college. Once they have been granted accommodations, the student bears responsibility for notifying each professor they have, each time they take a class. They must make their arrangements for necessary accommodations directly with each professor once accommodations have been approved by disability services.

  • Extra time applies to most, if not all, assignments in high school.

  • In college settings, professors do not typically grant extra time for long-term assignments; completing them is viewed as a time management issue rather than an issue of limited time for completion.

  • There are other limitations on what is required in college settings: Necessary accommodations do not include services that place the college under undue financial or other burdens.


College accommodations require a degree of documentation not always required by high schools, especially private/parochial schools. Students typically need a full battery of adult educational testing at the age of 16 or older, within 2 years prior to college enrollment to substantiate the need for accommodations or to apply for a learning support program open only to those with a diagnosis. Often this testing is a challenge to arrange quickly, so keep this in mind if retesting will be needed for your child to apply to a learning support program or to receive accommodations at college.

It is extremely important for students to continue the accommodations they utilized in high school as they transition to college. Later, they can decide with expert help whether they should reduce the level of support provided by these accommodations.

One mistake that students often make is to assume that since they have performed well academically in high school, they no longer NEED their accommodations. This is akin to someone who takes medication for high blood pressure saying they no longer need the medication because their blood pressure (while on medication) is normal. The accommodations are typically what have ensured the high level of performance is achievable.

The transition to college is challenging for all students. They have a degree of freedom, often without academic accountability, that is generally unprecedented for them. With few hours actually spent in class and at least twice as many hours required outside of class to complete independent work, this transition reflects a schedule almost exactly the opposite of their high school experience, where most learning is guided in the classroom and then reinforced with a small amount of independent work outside of school.

Learning Support Programs

Some learning support programs only support students with specific diagnoses. Many offer support to those with processing issues, anxiety, ADHD, dyslexia, dyscalculia or myriad others. Check with each college which specific diagnoses are targeted by their learning support program.

Many of these programs may not include or meet the social needs of students on the autism spectrum. There are often separate programs that support students both academically and socially for those with needs centered around autism; those who need both support components should undertake a college search centered around their unique combination of challenges.

While all colleges provide basic levels of content-specific/skill-specific tutoring (in writing, math, sciences, and many popular courses)—sometimes by professionals, sometimes by peers—learning support programs have additional offerings that provide structured support for students. These specialized programs are staffed by professional learning specialists, typically with at least a master’s degree. Many, but not all, of these programs require a student to provide documentation of a diagnosed learning disability. More colleges are recognizing the need for these support programs so new ones crop up frequently.

There can be different levels of support offered, even within one college or university

Accommodations: these are legally mandated (as explained above)

  • Generally these include extended time, quiet testing space, some assistive technology, and notetaking

  • CHECK with the individual college, as these vary widely

Service level: often includes tutoring or coaching and other resources found in comprehensive support programs but differ somewhat in scope/availability

  • Require students to recognize when they need help and to plan early enough to schedule a meeting

  • Students may be able to access services weekly but only based on the availability of appointments

Comprehensive/program level: students can use the program as they make the transition to college and then either wean off or stop the initial level of support if it is no longer necessary.

  • These structured programs, which often require students to sign an agreement in order to participate, pair students with a professional who serves as an academic coach and meets with them on a set schedule, typically once or twice a week. Services can include executive function coaching, time management skill building, identification of areas of strength or weakness, compensatory strategies, referral to subject area or general skills tutoring, as well as referrals to other supports, such as mental health professionals. Some programs help students with social skills or integration, too.

  • Often, these programs include oversight components that allow the academic coach to contact parents if a student is struggling and that ensure faculty take note of and share any signs a student might need additional support. The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) protects students' educational privacy; however, some programs require that students sign a waiver to allow parent notification.

  • These programs often require an application process due to limited seats being available for these in-demand services.

  • Almost all comprehensive programs have separate fees--they range widely but can be quite pricey. Be sure to ask whether there is financial assistance available to fund the student if that is a consideration. Some colleges offer special scholarships to those participating in the learning support program or consider the cost of the program in determining financial aid awards. **


1 view0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page