My son has a severe learning disability but has done pretty well in high school because he gets a lot of help. He is under a 504 plan and gets extra time and can take tests in a private room. He also gets tutored. We are in the middle of his sophomore year. What happens to him in college? When should I start working on this?


Jill Berkowicz, Educator, Adjunct Professor, Author

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Ms. Gilbert's answer (above) is comprehensive and I expect it will help you a great deal. I'd like to add that the support your son is receiving in high school is surely aimed to helping him become more independent. The goal of interventions is to gradually help students to know what he or she needs in order to learn. Speak to your son's high school about how they are going about accomplishing that. I also suggest you and your son start looking for colleges that welcome students with learning challenges. Here is a list, albeit a couple of years old..that can be a starting point. You son is lucky to have such a thoughtful and forward thinking parent.

Nedda Gilbert, MSW, Educational Consultant, and Author

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This is such an important issue to address. And I'm really glad you are thinking ahead. The gap between services in high school and college can be significant. So it's critical you prepare your learning disabled child for the transition to college.

Please forgive the long answer here - I really want to be informative. The topic warrants my providing you as much information as possible. Navigating college disability services can be difficult. I hope to offer you an overview, as well as direction so you can be effective in advocating for your son.

To begin with, the college environment is substantially and legally different from the special education environment of K - 12. It’s never too early to get ready for this big change. In the K-12 environment, your high school student may have become dependent on a school learning specialist, or on teachers bearing much of the responsibility for his/her learning. This kind of support drops off in college. Your child will bear the greatest responsibility for his academic performance. So you may need time to wean your son off the reliance on others. You’ll also need time to research what accommodations are available at each college and whether you child is eligible for accommodations.

Learning disabled (and mentally impaired) students are protected by tough anti-discrimination laws. Both the American Disabilities Act (ADA), and the Federal Disabilities Act of 1973 not only offer protections for disabled students, but go so far as to dictate formal academic supports. These are heavily oriented around student success. From K – 12, students receive tremendous assistance including opportunities to boost their grades. Poor or failing grades may be adjusted after a student gets a do-over, or is re-tested. The laws don’t require schools to make these adjustments. It’s just that disabled students often get rescued.

As a high school student, your child likely benefits from a specialized learning plan developed by the school. This is put in place for any student who can document his/her disabilities. Providing documentation is a simple process. A medical diagnosis or pediatrician’s note is typically all that’s needed to qualify as a disabled student and kick off an Individual Education Plan (IEP) or a 504 plan, (504s provide accommodations, but not specialized instruction.)

At the college level, the laws change dramatically. So do the documentation standards and responsibilities of the school. Your son may have an IEP, but it won’t transfer to college. The 504 plan is also not applicable. Section 504 of the Federal Disabilities Act prohibits discrimination against anyone with an impairment. But here’s the biggest change - at the college level - Section 504 does not mandate specific or formalized services. It only assures a student’s right to “equal access.” This is where disabled students find themselves in a free fall. The burden to succeed is shifted away from the school, and to the student. Success is now the responsibility of your child. Access is the responsibility of the school. In college, disabled students aren’t rescued; they’re left to stand on their own.

You’ll see the term “equal access” used frequently in the formal communications of the college disability office. Disability staff emphasize this language to communicate they’re operating within the letter of the law. But be forewarned, they’re also making a statement: you’ll find minimal supports here. (Many years ago Harvard University routinely sent a notification letter to all accepted students cautioning that if a student had been admitted and had a disability – remember that status is blind to the school – and relied on extensive supports in high school - Harvard might not be right for them).

Under equal access each college has the right to dictate what constitutes equal access. They also have the right to determine what accommodations they offer. Specialized instruction - unless offered in a unique program - is rare.

There are other big changes. Colleges have the legal right to determine their own documentation standards for eligible disabilities. And they have the right to deny a student accommodations until satisfactory documentation is provided. Doctor’s notes carry little weight here; at the college level documentation may consist of a range of psycho-educational tests that can cost upwards of $5000.00.

However, taking and doing poorly on these tests is no guarantee of qualifying as a disabled student. A 2009 amendment to the ADA laws allowed college disability offices to toughen their criteria. Under the old guidelines, if you were capable of an A but your disability damned you to a B or C, college supports were put in place to lift you to your true potential. The new standard is that if you can function as well as an average person, you aren’t disabled. Colleges let the statistics – student’s scores on the psych-evaluative testing – tell the story. The schools want evidence of low scores on the right tests, but more importantly, low scores that are less than average. Of note, the ADA amendment also put in place three year testing intervals for eligibility.

There are other realities to being disabled in college. College students are seen as adults by the school – even if a child is not yet 18. The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 (FERPA) was designed to protect the privacy of educational records and to establish the rights of students to review their records. The true impact of this law is that your child is officially in charge of his/her college life. Parents have no part in the process. FERPA prohibits you from communicating with the college about your child, or advocating for their needs. Your child will have to follow the school’s protocols for dealing with the disability. This is a conundrum for many parents and students. By nature, learning and emotionally disabled students may find it difficult to manage this level of responsibility.

If your child is within three year of applying to college, it’s a good idea to start contacting the school’s student disability offices. As a prospective parent, your child is not yet covered under FERPA. The school should dialogue with you at this time. Although colleges do not formally accept an IEP or 504, many schools take the accommodations history into account. You need to learn at what schools this is so.

I hope the above helps you and your child! Best of luck and success in securing the right supports for your son.

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