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

As the parent of a child with a learning disability (LD) or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), you may have had sleepless nights worrying about his or her difficulties and you’ve probably spent a lot of time getting him or her evaluated and seeking the proper instruction and supports. Once your child is in high school, the next concern may be college. Can he even go to college? What supports are there? How does she get in?

When your college-bound teen has a learning disability

It’s hard to know where to get reliable advice and, unfortunately, there is a lot of misinformation “out there.” Part of the reason for this is that high school special education teachers’ training typically doesn’t cover what happens for students with LD and ADHD at college, so some may not be knowledgeable. At one professional development program I gave, teachers told me that their district moved all students from IEPs to 504 plans because they believed that colleges must follow those plans. (They do not.)

There are also a lot of advice pieces on the Internet posted by well-meaning people who aren’t attuned to the nuances of college disability accommodations. I know you’re worried and I want you to have the information you need so that you know what to expect and can prepare your child properly.

4 Frequent Questions About Teens Who Have a Learning Disability

1. Should my child go to college?

This is a question that all parents should ask themselves, in part because the career their student wants to pursue might not require a college degree, and also because college completion rates indicate that college isn’t the right place for everyone.

If I had one metric to use in deciding whether college was a good idea, it would be independence. The danger I see for some students with LD and ADHD is that they have too many supports in high school. Having your child tutored every day may get him the grades to get into a certain kind of school, but how will he do when he doesn’t have someone helping him organize his time, prioritize what to do first and break down long-term assignments?

In high school, your child should be identifying his learning strengths and weaknesses as well as learning the strategies he needs to work independently, especially in his areas of weakness so that he knows how to work independently. Beyond academics, all students should be able to manage getting up on time, do laundry, make and keep appointments, and handle other basic adult responsibilities.

Remember – even if your student isn’t ready for a traditional four-year college right after high school, this doesn’t mean he will never go. He can start at a community college, where he can develop the needed skills for college success while spending more time at home working on developing structure for himself; he might later transfer to a four-year school. Or he might want to consider a gap year doing something non-academic so that he doesn’t have to worry about school while developing his independent living skills.

2. Should she be careful to hide her disability when she applies to college?

Colleges are not allowed to ask your child if she has a disability, so it’s totally up to her whether or not she wants to discuss it some way. There are no statistics showing what percent of the students admitted to colleges have LD or ADHD, and even if we had a number, we know it would be inaccurately low because it would only include students who self-reported that they have a disability.

I can tell you that nearly every college in the country has to provide accommodations (the only schools exempted are those that don’t take federal funds and are private and religious). But don’t assume that only certain kinds of schools provide strong supports. Some of the most-selective colleges have great disability services (DS) offices, so this means they are admitting students with LD and ADHD. If your student wants colleges to know about her LD, she should feel comfortable telling them, and she should ask a counselor about an effective way to frame the discussion.

One persistent myth is that discussing their disability puts students at an advantage in admissions because colleges are looking to increase the diversity of their student body. There are no statistics to support this, and I have yet to find anyone who will confirm this statement (including college counselors and admissions directors I have interviewed). Related to this myth about disability being an advantage in admissions is another myth that states that colleges have to accept a certain quota of students with disabilities. This is simply untrue.

I don’t want you to take any of this to mean that students shouldn’t disclose their disability in some way in their applications if they want to do so – just understand that there is no guarantee that doing so will grant her some advantage. And don’t discourage him from disclosing if he wants to or if an advisor you trust suggests that he do it.

When I interviewed the Dean of Undergraduate Admissions at Yale, he said that he thinks that disclosure can help admissions officers understand variations or positive turnarounds in a student’s profile. And the fact that there isn’t a quota of students that colleges have to accept shouldn’t scare you, either. 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.

3. Will the college follow his IEP (504 plan)?

To put it simply – no it won’t. Part of the reason for this is that students’ plans “expire” when they graduate from high school; they’re no longer legally valid. Colleges are subject to different laws (or parts of laws) than K-12 schools, they don’t write “plans,” and they don’t have to provide the same accommodations your student previously received simply because her high school thought the accommodations were appropriate.

But this isn’t a reason to be concerned. Colleges do provide accommodations, and it is likely that your child’s school will provide the same adjustments if she currently uses the kinds of accommodations typically offered at college, such as extended time for tests or permission to use a laptop to take notes. This doesn’t have to do with the selectivity of the college – Ivy League schools and community colleges are subject to the same rules and typically offer the same accommodations.

But I like to be sure parents know that colleges don’t typically write “plans” because that word implies a level of service, coordination, and progress reporting that isn’t found at the college level.

It’s important to know that – across all school types – what colleges consider to be “modifications,” such as reducing the number of pages a student has to write or providing more-frequent tests (rather than just a midterm and final), are not required in the law and are rarely approved. And while a professor may decide to give the class a list of terms to know for the exam, no one is responsible for making your child a study guide or telling her what will be on the exam.

If your child is receiving these kinds of adjustments in high school, the best way to prepare her for college is to move her off of them while making sure she learns strategies to help her to meet typical requirements without the support of a tutor. If she cannot handle the work expectations in a typical high school classroom, you should consider talking to her guidance counselor about various post-high school options, including a vocational program or community college.

Accommodations are a topic about which I see a lot of incorrect information on the Internet. You’ll find posts indicating that students can get extended time for papers and projects. This simply isn’t true; this is not an accommodation typically granted at most schools. The same is true for what some call “alternative tests” or “alternative assignments.” Students usually have to take all kinds of tests regardless of their disability (essay, multiple choice) and complete the same assignments as their peers.

They typically will get accommodated for tests (e.g., they may get three hours to take exams when their classmates get two hours), but they don’t generally get accommodated for assignments, since they are expected to devote as much time as they need outside of class to get them done and can access help at the tutoring and writing centers, just like their classmates.

Speaking of tutoring, it’s important to know that colleges don’t have to employ disability specialists for their DS offices or tutoring centers, and most schools don’t. This is why it’s so important for your student to know how her disability affects her and how she can work most effectively. Some schools, like the one where I work, offer specialists for free, but students may be limited in how many appointments they can have each week. Even at schools with special fee-for-service LD or ADHD programs, students generally can’t see someone every day, because the goal is to help them be more independent.

4. How does he get access to accommodations?

Unlike high schools, colleges do not have to find students with disabilities and offer them services; they just have to make information about their disability accommodations available to students. Students have to locate the office or contact person in charge of disability accommodations and follow the registration process, which typically includes completing a form, providing documentation of their disability, and may also involve an intake appointment.

It’s so important for students to understand their disability and be aware of the accommodations they receive in high school because the registration form will likely ask them what accommodations they want to request (rather than the school suggesting what they should have).

Despite all of the hard work you’ve put into making sure your child had the right services and supports in high school, research indicates there’s a good likelihood he won’t register for disability services at college (only a fraction of students does). Your best bet is to make sure he understands how his disability affects his academic functioning and what supports he’s using now.

It is important that he knows that he has to register in order to get accommodations, and how to do it. (In studies looking at why students delay their registration with the disability services office, students cite lack of knowledge about all of these points as reasons they don’t register until later. Late registration is often prompted by low grades.)

Assure him that the letter that the DS office will provide him to give to his professors will only say what accommodations are approved, not what his disability is, and no one but the people involved in his accommodations even need to know he’s registered. (Stigma is one reason students cite for why they don’t register). Make sure he knows that he can register at any time but if he doesn’t do well on his first exams, he doesn’t get to retake those exams with his accommodations, and the grades don’t magically go away.  Encourage him to think of registering with DS right after he enrolls as an “insurance policy” – he’ll have access to accommodations if he needs them, but assure him his college can’t “make him” use them if he doesn’t.

Knowing what your student should and shouldn’t expect at the college level should help you to make sure that she receives the right preparation in high school. Evaluate the supports and instruction your child is receiving and make sure that she builds the skills she needs to achieve her goal of making a successful transition to college. This will make her feel more confident about her ability to do well there, and it should help you feel more confident, too.


Learning Disabilities: How to Succeed at College from Day One 

Community College Was the Best Choice For Me: Here’s Why









About Elizabeth Hamblet

Elizabeth C. Hamblet has worked as a learning disabilities specialist in college disability services offices for two decades. In addition to working at a university, she is a nationally-requested speaker on preparing students with disabilities for successful college transition.

Hamblet is the author of Seven Steps to College Success: A Pathway for Students with Disabilities and a concise guide on transition, and her work has appeared in numerous journals and online platforms. She offers advice and information on her website and shares resources on numerous social media platforms.

Read more posts by Elizabeth

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