Make sure your child is aware of the process to receive support for their learning disability in college

I recently met Marylee Palmer of By Design College Consulting in Lexington, MA who provides various college prep services. Her specialty within the field is helping students with learning disabilities succeed as they apply to and attend college. While I’ve met plenty of families who have a child utilizing an Individualized Education Program (IEP) or 504 plan, I was personally unaware that these didn’t follow the student through college. This is an especially frustrating revelation as it can take quite a bit of time through trial and error to recognize and develop a successful program.

During my conversation with Marylee I wanted to better understand a student’s rights. She explained that “the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is legally bound to provide a public school education alongside accommodations that allow a student to succeed and learn. Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504  simply requires access to education, meaning students can’t be discriminated against for having a disability. It also requires them to have an office related to coordinating access.” These offices are referred to as disability or accessibility offices.

There’s no time to waste

It likely took some time for your child’s IEP to be developed and diagnosed as your child advanced through about 12 years of schooling. The administration and faculty tracked progress, provided feedback, and made adjustments as needed. In college your child is alone and starting with a clean slate in an entirely different community. With college only being four years and significantly more expensive than public high school you don’t have the luxury to feel things out during the first year. In fact, your child will have a semester under their belt within 4 months!

Kids transition to adults with the passage of a single summer

You, the parent or guardian, were the point of contact during high school and to a large degree held responsible for their success. You were provided progress reports, invited to parent teacher conference, and regularly informed of local resources. College is a different story. The student is now the point of contact and your involvement is left to your child’s discretion. You may not know their grades are slipping until it’s too late. With that said, it’s extremely important for the student to become their own advocate. Read “How to teach your child to become their own IEP advocate as they head to college for more information. 

Marylee helps with self-advocacy and teaches the student how to manage unstructured days. “Students have large gaps of time in college that they never had in high school. It’s important that they manage it wisely to complete schoolwork,” says Palmer. They also have to be willing to access the available services. “Students with learning disabilities no longer want to be ID’d as such. Frankly, that can be the kiss of death for most of these kids.”

Don't lose hope if your child is headed to college with a learning disability. There are ways to receive assistance, it's just different from what you've seen in high school!

How best to move forward

Q: When does this process start?

While not required, it’s not unreasonable to start working with a college consultant as early as 8th or 9th grade. The engagement at this stage would be significantly different then hiring someone strictly for the college search process during 11th grade. The earlier you engage, the more time the consultant will have to work with your child to stand on their own two feet and learn self-advocacy, both critical skills for college. A consultant may also work as an advocate for the child and family to ensure the student takes the correct course load in high school that supports their college goals. For instance, certain degrees may require a concentration in mathematics, science, arts or honors programs. In addition, its possible that students with learning disabilities are mistakenly placed in standard classes without accommodations rather than honors with accommodation. Palmer says, “It’s very possible that a student with a learning disability can complete honor’s level coursework with the correct accommodation in place.”

Q: Does having an IEP plan affect a decision on admissions? 

The ADA and Section 504 protects students from discrimination when they get to college, as well during the admissions process. There is no need to disclose the fact you’ve utilized an IEP. The school will only be receiving your factual transcript and will likely request a recommendation from the guidance counselor and possibly a teacher. The only give away to your disability would be if you attended a school undeniably specializing in learning disabilities or if you chose to disclose your diagnosis to explain a temporary dip in grades.

Q: Are some disability/accessibility offices better than others, or is it standard?

Prior to applying, its important to understand that there are three main categories for disability or accessibility offices. The offerings within the categories can also vary.

  1. Basic – the campus is providing the minimum amount of support in order to comply with the ADA law.
  2. Moderate/Coordinated – they may coordinate academic adjustments, provide support for executive function skills, offer limited counseling and student coaching to teach self-advocacy skills.
  3. Comprehensive – staff is trained on various learning disabilities, run separate orientation programs that prior to the full class joining, coordinate accommodations among various campus offices, provide workshops, academic monitoring, limited or ongoing counseling, and coaching to support self-advocacy and transition of responsibility over time.

Q: I’m in! Now what? 

Once accepted, a student will go through the process to receive accommodations. “You’ll need to submit current testing within the last three years that clearly documents the diagnosis and recommended accommodation,” says Palmer. She adds that, “Wording on your paperwork is extremely important.” Once submitted, the college will review and determine what they can or will provide. It’s of paramount importance to remember that colleges are reactive to providing information related to help with disabilities, whereas high schools have become very proactive. The ball is in your court!

Q: What’s the value in hiring a college consultant?

Weeding through the hundreds of colleges in the Princeton Review can be overwhelming, especially when there are so many variables to finding a good fit. For those with learning disabilities, she saves significant time and frustration because “it takes a long time to understand how the law works, the language to access the services, the subtle loopholes to get around standard process and the expectation of services.” I’d argue that her services are akin to getting an inspection on a new home. There is simply too much at stake and ways to be unprepared (expensive tuition, self-confidence, and grades… just to name a few!