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7 Things Students with Learning Differences Need to Know About the Transition to College

Updated: May 29, 2022

When I think back on my first year of college, my memories are centered around change and newness. The jump from high school to college altered just about every aspect of the life I had been used to, and I quickly realized I would need to adapt my habits and my mindset to keep myself afloat.

Every first-year college student faces this sort of transition, largely because going to college coincides with the stage of life that our culture associates with the onset of adulthood and independence. For students with learning disabilities, the K-12 to college transition comes with added challenges, so it is especially vital to consider how to best approach it. In this post, I’ll touch on seven key ideas that clarify how students with LDs (learning differences) can receive support in college, with the goal of providing those students with a recommended blueprint for success. Click any link below to jump to that section, or scroll to read through the entire list.

What are the primary differences between how K-12 schools and colleges/universities provide support to students with LDs?

In the K-12 system, schools are responsible for identifying learning disabilities in their students and providing the necessary support services to promote success for those students. Success is basically considered a right for each student, and the job of school districts and individual schools is to do whatever it takes to get all students to passing grades, promotion to the next grade level, and, ultimately, high school graduation.

Unfortunately, that triumphant procession of caps and gowns marks the moment when success ceases to be acknowledged as a right, a truth easily understood by high school graduates who enter the workforce just as well as those who enroll at a junior college or 4-year university. In college, success is treated more as an opportunity extended to students, including those with LDs. What does that mean? Primarily, it signifies a shift in responsibility from the educational institution to the student.

Don’t fret, though: this shift doesn’t mean that students with LDs are completely on their own when it comes to managing their learning challenges in college. Support services are available to students with LDs, but they are intended to provide equal access to the academic curriculum rather than guaranteed success. In a way, it’s like saying “here are the tools and resources you need to succeed, but it’s up to you to take advantage of them,” as opposed to the K-12 approach, which holds administrators and teachers accountable for all students crossing the finish line.

Why does higher education focus on access instead of success?

The question of success vs. access mostly has to do with laws. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, with its clever acronym IDEA, ensures that K-12 schools provide all students with a “Free Appropriate Public Education” (not so cleverly acronym’d as FAPE). The law was passed in the United States in 1975 as the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, then re-authorized and (wisely) re-named in 1990. Without getting too deep into the weeds of legalese, IDEA focuses on the implementation of six elements, including the aforementioned FAPE and the concept of Individualized Education Programs (IEPs). Students with diagnosed LDs in K-12 generally receive either an IEP or a 504 plan (more on that shortly), with specific provisions to help each student based on their unique challenges. The protections of IDEA are designed to ensure that schools are fostering an academic environment in which all students receive the support they need to succeed.

College students are not afforded the same legal protections under IDEA. As a result, colleges and universities are not legally accountable for the success of their students with LDs. An easy shorthand to understand this difference is to think about the first letter in the acronym FAPE: any parent of a college student can tell you that a college education is many things, but free is not one of them (even for students on full-ride scholarships, someone is covering that $70,000/year tab). However, students with LDs in college do have more limited legal support in the form of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The Rehabilitation Act and the ADA focus on ensuring that people with disabilities are not discriminated against, and one mode of doing so is to make education more accessible to students with disabilities of every kind. Thus, the support services made available to college students with LDs are intended to provide equal access to the content of their courses.

How do support services in college compare to those provided in high school?

There are two different terms frequently used to denote the support services offered to students with special needs: modifications and accommodations. It’s not uncommon for these words to be used interchangeably in a special education context, but it’s more accurate and useful to think of them as having distinct meanings. Modifications are generally more drastic adjustments to the curriculum, instructional methods, and/or assessments in a student’s classes. Accommodations prescribe limited changes, typically modifying a student’s learning or testing environment rather than making significant alterations to the actual content or instruction in a given course. As it pertains to the two different levels of education, K-12 students with LDs can be assigned both modifications and accommodations, depending on how severe a particular student’s learning challenges are. College students, on the other hand, receive only accommodations and never modifications.

What are some examples of modifications and accommodations?

Common examples of modifications, which are only offered to K-12 students, include:

  • Fewer questions to answer on a given assignment

  • Lower page/word count requirement on essay assignments

  • Reading materials at a lower level than classmates

  • More limited requirements to pass a class or be promoted to the next grade

  • Alternative options for completing assignments (i.e. a project or recorded speech rather than a 5-page essay)

Accommodations, the more limited support services available to both high school and college students, can include:

  • Assistive technology

  • Extra time and/or a private room when taking exams

  • Priority seating

  • Note-taking assistance

  • Verbal instructions shared in written/typed form

Who is responsible in college for making sure that the appropriate services are provided to students with LDs?

Responsibility is a very important word when discussing the transition from high school to college - for all students, not only those with LDs. Throughout the K-12 years, students with LDs can count on the school system to take the initiative in diagnosing disabilities, creating an IEP or 504 plan that prescribes support services, and implementing those modifications and accommodations consistently. The efficiency of the system in individual cases is a debatable question for another day, but the intended effect is a collaborative effort between school/district administrators, education specialists, teachers, classroom aides, and parents; in this system, the responsibility for a student’s success is shared to varying degrees by each of those individuals.

If this entire post can be summarized in one short sentence, it is basically this: In college, the responsibility shifts to the student. Colleges do have designated departments and/or offices to assist students with disabilities, but they are not responsible for diagnosing disabilities or initiating support services. Instead, it falls on the student to seek out those services by contacting the appropriate office and completing the necessary steps to receive accommodations. After that initial process, students with LDs in college must then ensure that the prescribed accommodations are, in fact, being implemented by individual professors; this can mean a student must approach one or more professors if services are not being provided at a given time.

Furthermore, students with LDs are responsible for taking the initiative to learn about and make use of resources like tutoring and office hours. To be clear, though, being a student with LDs in college is not a “me against the world” proposition: the staff members of disability services offices are there specifically for the purpose of helping students with special needs, and they should always be available to consult with and answer questions. It’s just that the student is expected to take the initial step and seek out help.

How do students with LDs qualify for support services in college?

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: the method of qualifying for support services in K-12 is mostly not the student’s responsibility. Instead, it is generally initiated by one or more of the individuals involved in the collaborative network of parents, teachers, specialists, and administrators. I would estimate that it is most frequently a student’s parents or teachers who begin the process of diagnosing a learning disability, based on academic performance or other factors. Once initiated, the process through which a student receives support services continues to churn until its intended goal of high school graduation has been reached, like a perfectly calibrated Rube-Goldberg contraption.

The means of qualifying for services in college, on the other hand, are student-centric. Although each college’s disability services office has its own set of procedures for the new student to complete, generally it requires a few steps: obtaining documentation of the disability, contacting the disability services office to schedule a consultation, and waiting for the office’s decision on which services will be offered. Fortunately, it is not a grueling process, but it does require official paperwork and decisive action on the student’s part. There are no IEPs or 504 plans in college, but students who were previously assigned such a plan in K-12 will have a much easier time receiving services in college than students who have not previously been diagnosed with a disability.

What is the single most important factor to help students with LDs succeed in college?

The key to success in college for students with LDs lies in a principle that has been an undercurrent of everything discussed in this post so far: self-advocacy. The most important factor in determining whether students with LDs will reach their higher education goals is the extent to which a given student is willing to be proactive and seek out the resources needed to make the most of the opportunity. The expectation in college is that all students will be treated as adults who claim responsibility for the creation and attainment of their own goals. Therefore, the value of self-advocacy also extends to students with learning differences who have never been diagnosed with a disability; for example, if you are a college student who learns best by doing, seek out a college environment that prioritizes hands-on experience and talk to your professors about potential ways to expand your kinesthetic learning opportunities.

I hope that this overview doesn’t seem to imply that college is not the place for students with LDs - nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the range of higher education options available to students is very wide, extending from the traditional lecture/text-based approach to flexible, learner-centered campuses that offer many opportunities for hands-on learning and/or self-directed curriculum. In other words, no matter what a student’s unique learning style is, there is very likely to be a school or a specific program that fits that student just right.

Again, my intent with this post is not to discourage or scare anyone away, but to make sure that students with LDs are properly prepared for what to expect. Preparation means not just being informed, but also taking the steps before the transition that will make it as smooth as possible. What I’m referring to primarily is the value of beginning to self-advocate and gradually taking on more independence while still in high school. Additionally, it makes the process of qualifying for support services much more efficient if a student has already received an LD diagnosis and/or has been assigned an IEP or 504 plan while still in K-12. High school students: ask your parents if you can start taking on some of the responsibilities you still depend on them for. Parents: convey the importance of self-advocacy to your child(ren) with LDs and give them opportunities to practice more independent decision-making before they are thrust into a new world of responsibilities and great expectations.

As a final word, I would be remiss to not touch on how the college search process overlaps with these considerations. When it comes to deciding where to apply to college and where to attend ultimately, the details are all-important. Students with LDs should definitely consider the quality of support services provided at a school with as much weight as other college criteria like location, quality of specific academic programs, and campus culture. Not all disability services offices are created equal, so it’s important to research these details as part of the list-building and final decision process. In order to kickstart your research, I will be sharing a follow-up post in the coming weeks that profiles a few colleges and universities with especially strong programs and resources for students with LDs, along with some suggestions for further reading on this topic. Until then, stay tuned and stay safe!



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