If you have a learning disability, you probably already know how to advocate for yourself. You know the jargon -- when you say you need “accommodations,” you’re not talking about a room at the Holiday Inn -- and you know how to maneuver through your high school classes with the right support and strategies.
Now get ready for the next challenge: finding a college.
You’re entering a whole new frontier: While federal law is pretty straightforward about what K-12 public schools must provide for students with LDs, it gets a bit vague when outlining what colleges must do. As a result, you and your parents must do a lot of research to figure out which schools offer the kind of environment you need to succeed.
Start with this list of tips and a bit of advice: Don’t be shy about telling admissions reps about your LD. Your goal here is to find a school that’s the right fit for how you learn, so the more upfront you can be, the better.
Get help on the SAT and ACT. Students with LDs might quality for accommodations -- such as extra time, an assistant to read the questions aloud or a private testing area—but you must apply for this help before you register for the tests. Both have approval processes that can take a while. Find out more (and download the required forms) at www.princetonreview.com/learning-disabilities-sat-act.aspx.
By the way, college admissions committees will not know that you took the test with accommodations, so there’s no reason not to apply.
Ask. You’ll probably find a wide range of answers to the question, “What sort of support do you have for students with LDs?” Don’t get discouraged. Each year, more colleges add staff and formalize programs for students who learn differently, but some still have a long way to go. If you inquire about services and the answer seems vague, ask if there’s someone else who might know more.
And because there are no standardized terms for the support services colleges might offer, you need to ask for detailed descriptions of the services. If a college rep says the school’s services are basic (also dubbed “self-directed” or “limited”), it means they meet the minimum requirements of the law, which are ambiguous. You can probably count on such accommodations as untimed tests and help with note taking.
If the rep says the services are “coordinated,” that’s good news. These colleges offer more advanced services, such as study-skills classes, tutors and staff trained to support students with LDs.
Ask again. When you schedule your visit, ask to meet with a student who receives support services. You’re not outing yourself: A college cannot discriminate on the basis of disability, so you’re not limiting your chances of admission by identifying yourself as learning disabled.
While you’re on campus, ask about how many freshmen with LDs return for their sophomore year. This stat is called retention rate. Compare the answer to the school’s overall retention rate. It’s a red flag if those numbers are very different.
Document it. Once you’ve been admitted to schools and chosen where you’ll enroll, you’ll need to provide documentation of your disability if you want support. It’s tempting not to mention your LD—to be like “normal” kids once you reach campus. But send in your documentation now, and you
can decide later if you want or need support. At least you’ll have the option.
Colleges require different documents, but you’ll likely need a note from a doctor or psychologist. A copy of your IEP, if you have one, probably won’t fly.
Give yourself props. It’s a big deal to find a college that suits your skills, interests, personality and learning style. Congratulate yourself on small steps, and remember that you’re entitled to good information and answers to your questions. The payoff is sweet: a college experience that makes advocating for yourself totally worthwhile.
Here, a couple of tips to ease you into college life.
Ask about bridge programs. Some colleges offer bridge programs that help students adjust to on-campus life by providing extra support, smaller classes and help with organization.
Find out about fees. Some colleges provide free academic support to students; some charge fees for tutors or access to special technology. Get this info ahead of time, and be sure it’s built into your financial aid package.