Busting College Admissions Myths For Those With Learning Disabilities

“Wait – how do students with learning disabilities get into highly-selective universities?”

This question frequently follows when I tell people who I work as a learning specialist at the disability services office of a highly-selective university. Underlying this question is one of many myths and misunderstandings about college admissions for students with learning disabilities and ADHD.

Though I don’t work with the admissions office at all in my job (another myth), I hear a number of things about admissions and college fit that just aren’t true, and I worry that students and their families are getting bad advice from well-meaning people who don’t know the facts. I’ve tried to address the most common ones hoping that the explanations will make families feel empowered.

college admission myths about learning disability
Myths surrounding college admissions for people with learning disabilities and ADHD (Shutterstock/

Students with learning disabilities can succeed in college

Myth: Students with learning disabilities and ADHD should be directed exclusively toward colleges that have special programs for them, or toward community colleges because the academic demands are often different from those in traditional four-year schools.

Facts: Students with learning disabilities or ADHD are not a homogenous group, so no one rule applies in the college search.  Programs such as those provided (for a fee) at schools like the University of Arizona or Muskingum University are appropriate for students who still need a lot of outside support in order to manage their academics, or they might be appropriate for students who were identified late in high school and haven’t had a chance to learn helpful strategies or be introduced to assistive technology.

Community colleges can be a great starting place for all kinds of students, especially those who don’t know what they want to study yet and don’t want to spend a lot of money while they explore different subjects. Community colleges tend to be good places for students who have not been working up to college expectations to have an “on-ramp” to a more traditional environment, though this, too, is not exclusively the case for students with learning disabilities or ADHD.  If students have been taking challenging coursework and managing themselves independently, there is no reason why they should not transition directly into a four-year school from high school.

Myth: Bright students with learning disabilities and ADHD shouldn’t aim for the Ivy League and similar schools because they don’t have to provide accommodations.

Facts: The assumption that schools get to decide whether or not they’ll accommodate based on how hard it is to get admitted to them is incorrect. Any college that accepts federal funds (in the form of student grants and loans) has to provide basic accommodations, and even schools that don’t take that money also have to be both private and religious in order to be exempt, so that leaves very few schools that don’t have to comply with the relevant laws.

All of the Ivy League colleges and other highly selective schools, state university flagships, etc., provide disability accommodations, and some (like my own workplace) go beyond the minimum the law requires in providing supports (though this isn’t generalizable to all colleges. It’s always a very individualized situation from school to school).

Myth: Students with learning disabilities and ADHD don’t get accepted to highly selective schools.

Facts: I’ve heard people say, “If you’re smart enough to get into X school, you can’t have a learning disability.” Having worked with numerous academically gifted students who also had learning disabilities or ADHD (what we call “twice-exceptional” students), I can tell you that this simply isn’t true. These students are studying everywhere, and many of them are going on to graduate degrees, law school, and medical schools, where they will also find accommodations available.

Myth: Students getting into highly selective colleges who claim to have learning disabilities or ADHD must be faking it to gain an advantage in the admissions process.

Facts: As I mentioned in my first post for Grown and Flown, there is no truth to the oft-repeated rumor that colleges have to accept a certain quota of students with disabilities, or that they are seeking them out as part of their diversity initiatives.  So anyone falsely claiming to have a disability for this sole purpose will be disappointed.

Myth: Students with learning disabilities or ADHD who get into highly selective colleges aren’tmeeting the same standards as their typical peers.

Facts: There is no “other door” for students with disabilities, as you’ll see if you try looking on schools’ admissions pages. Students with disabilities are expected to meet the same requirements, and while colleges can certainly chooseto admit those whose scores are not as high as others’ or who didn’t take four years of foreign language or another required class, they don’t haveto do so.

I can’t tell you whether college are accepting students with disabilities who don’t meet their requirements (I’ve seen no data on this, and I don’t think schools are actually recording these numbers if they are).  But I also can’t tell you whether they’re accepting other kinds of students (e.g., legacies, Olympic competitors) who don’t meet the requirements, either. So don’t make any assumptions!

Myth: Students should not mention their disability at all if they want to get into highly selective schools.

Facts: When the National Center for Education Statistics last looked, students with disabilities represented eleven percent of the entirety of students enrolled at colleges around the country (there was no breakdown of that number by disability type). But NCES didn’t ask how many students with disabilities were being admitted or rejected by schools, and – again – I think it’s safe to say that no college is keeping statistics on this.

Even if schools were counting, the numbers would only represent a count of students who actually disclosed their disability in some way in their application packet. But since students don’t have to disclose their disability in the admissions process, and college are not allowed to ask, we would have to assume that – outside of any such counts – there would be students admitted and rejected who hadn’t disclosed, so any number would not provide a complete picture.

What this means is that parents shouldn’t believe anyone who says that disclosing is a no-no.I interviewed deans of admission at Dickinson and Yale Universities for my book, and they both said that disclosing can be helpful in certain situations.

Myths: Even if they can get in, students with learning disabilities and ADHD shouldn’t go to highly selective schools because the accommodations they’ll provide won’t be as supportive as those at other schools.  And they should focus on private colleges instead of public ones because private schools are more interested in making students happy and will provide more supports.

Facts: Just as you can’t make any global assumptions about whether students with disabilities should attend a school with a special program, you can’t make any kind of generalization about how supportive schools in any kind of category (public vs. private, community college vs. Ivy League) will be. It’s important to know that the law only requires that colleges assign someone to be in charge of students’ accommodations, but it doesn’t set limits on how many students that person can be expected to handle, and it doesn’t require colleges to do more than provide basic accommodations. Colleges can choose to go beyond those minimal requirements, but that is a very individualized decision from school to school within various categories (i.e., Ivy League, Big 10, engineering schools).

While one state university may have a well-staffed office and additional resources (like a full-time assistive technology specialist on staff), another might not. And the level of staffing and supports cannot be assumed based on whether schools are private or public – a state university might have better supports than a nearby expensive private school. The only way to know what schools offer is to research this by reviewing their websites and asking questions of the staff.

(This leads me to another myth. I assure you that if you call a disability services office to ask about the accommodations and supports, the staff member will not ask for your student’s name and send it to the admissions office. It makes me sad that people worry about this, but I’ve had parents ask me about it, and I assure you it’s not true.)

Remember–just because someone you know heard something about these issues doesn’t mean that any of it is true. I’m hoping that this post will provide parents and students with some comfort, and that it will help ensure that students are not dissuaded from attending schools for which they are qualified on the basis of  misleading myths and misunderstandings.

More to Read:

My Teen Has a Learning Disability, Should He Go to College?

About Elizabeth Hamblet

Elizabeth C. Hamblet, author of the book From High School to College: Steps to Success for Students With Disabilities, is a learning consultant. She has worked at the college level for 20 years after having started her career in the field as a high school special education teacher and case manager. In addition to working as a college consultant, she is a nationally-requested speaker who gives presentations to professionals and parents about how to prepare students with disabilities for success at college. Hamblet's work has appeared in national journals and online platforms, including Understood.org and ADDitudemag.com. She offers advice and information on her website at www.LDadvisory.com. You can connect with her at Facebook.com/LDadvisory and on Twitter @echamblet.

Read more posts by Elizabeth

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