Finding the Right Fit

For students who learn differently, finding the right college fit is crucial for college success. This sounds easy enough, but how do you know where to start? After all, there are 2000+ colleges in the United States and they vary tremendously in the way they serve the needs of students with learning differences. The support services for students with learning differences, including ADHD, Asperger’s and Autism, can be divided into three broad categories: comprehensive support programs, moderate support services, and basic ADA compliance.

A comprehensive support program is similar to a resource room in high school. Students typically need to apply separately to the program when they apply to the college, and the application often requires an interview. The number of students accepted each year is limited in order to keep the student to professional ratio low, so there is always personal attention for the students in the program. Students meet with learning specialists regularly, between one and three times a week. These programs will assist students with some or all of the following: academic tutoring, remedial tutoring, ADHD coaching (assistance with time management, organization, scheduling), mentoring, and social skills support.

Moderate support services comprise the largest of the three categories, being offered by the majority of colleges across the country. These colleges typically offer services and accommodations above and beyond what is mandated by the ADA and include a staff of professionals that have a sincere interest in assisting students with learning differences. The professionals on staff will typically help students learn to be self-advocates, and might advocate for the student with professors if a student is initially unable to do so. While the department is run by a professional with a background in learning disabilities, the tutoring might be conducted by peers, graduate students, and/or professionals. There is typically a Learning Center where students can take exams in a distraction-reduced test environment, receive assistance in time management and organization and meet with tutors and coaches one-on-one.

In accordance with Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Amendment Act of 1990 (ADA), as amended, colleges are required to provide reasonable accommodations for students with documented disabilities, a practice referred to as ADA Compliance. Unfortunately, some colleges adhere to the minimum standards required by law, providing very basic accommodations without regard to what individual students might need. In such colleges, there is typically a decentralized approach to assisting students. Students receive their accommodations through the Office of Disability Services, which is headed by a Dean of Students or other school official, often without a background in learning disabilities. There is no central learning center, although there is often an Academic Support Center available to all students; instead of a distraction-reduced testing environment, students make arrangements directly with their professors whenever there is an exam. It is the student’s responsibility to find content tutors, which are available through each individual department. There are only peer tutors available. For students who are self-sufficient, can advocate for themselves, and need a minimal amount of support, this level of support might be sufficient. However, it is generally not a supportive enough environment for the majority of students with learning differences.

Aside from the actual accommodations, there is a marked difference among colleges in the culture of understanding and acceptance of students who learn differently. A good learning specialist will educate faculty by offering workshops and posting information for professors to understand their students’ learning styles. The learning specialist will assist students in advocating with professors, and help them become good self-advocates.

The only way to know which colleges have the right environment for your child is to visit campuses and ask questions. The more research you do ahead of time, the more likely your child will find the right fit college.