Choosing a College for a Student With Learning Disabilities

I’m often asked which colleges might be right for students described as learning disabled, the students with whom I work.

It would be convenient to have a simple, straightforward, and succinct response for students and parents who find themselves awash in the stress and frustration of the college search, but, as you might guess, it’s more complicated than that — but not in the way that you might think.

It’s true that information about a student’s disability status is important in the college search process. Colleges and college guidebooks often describe the levels of service that they offer in three categories: basic services, coordinated services, and comprehensive services.

Basic services are typically those required by the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) and include accommodations and modifications that allow “access” to the curriculum (e.g., provision of Braille texts to a blind student).

Coordinated services add another layer of service, typically by adding the availability of trained student tutors, widely available seminars, or training sessions targeting areas of difficulty for students adjusting to college study, and a centrally coordinated office of disability services staffed by career professionals.

Finally, comprehensive services add even more services, often including a disability services office staffed with full-time professional tutors, regularly scheduled one-on-one meetings with a professional tutor, and performance tracking for students.

I can tell you from experience that nearly every parent finds the term “comprehensive” comforting, and every student thinks basic will be adequate. To bridge that gap, many families focus on college with coordinated services, feeling like they have met in the middle.

This approach can work — many, many colleges have programs or decentralized offerings that can be described as coordinated service programs.

The advice I have for those families is to give adequate weight to disability services as one of many criteria guiding the college search and to resist the temptation to make it the sole criterion for including a school for consideration. This is especially important for the very talented students who might otherwise be considering very selective colleges, which often downplay the extent of the services that they offer.

In advising my own students and their parents, I’m careful to call attention to the campus culture, and especially the academic culture, of the schools they are considering.

For many academically talented students, it will be important to find like-minded, serious students with whom to make connections, as well as have specific tutoring options available.

Class size and professor accessibility are two similarly important criteria to consider. Many selective undergraduate colleges depend less on large lecture sections and teaching assistants than larger universities, which may offer coordinated services.

As I mentioned, parents often press for the “belt and suspenders” option while students described as learning disabled would often like to divest themselves of that label after high school.

When disabilities services becomes one of a host of criteria for consideration, the options can be more nuanced and, perhaps, attractive both to students and their parents, ensuring a supportive and beneficial college experience.