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What Does Disability Support Look Like in College?

Helping students who are neurodiverse or have learning differences to succeed.

Key points

  • Colleges vary in the level of support offered and it is different than in high school.
  • In college, the student owns the privilege of information.
  • Pay attention to the college’s culture of learning differences.

Dr. Miranda Melcher co-authored this post.

There are many differences between the support that a student who is neurodiverse and/or has learning differences (LDs) received in high school versus what colleges provide. The disability service model at college is very different from the one high schoolers (and their parents) are used to. Colleges tend to offer different types of support. That’s why it’s important to learn as much as you can about disability services in college.

Some schools have special programs for students who learn and think differently. These schools may have helpful services, but that doesn’t mean they’re all a good fit for each student. Colleges work under different laws than public schools. They’re only required to offer accommodations to “level the playing field” for kids with documented disabilities—no individualized education plans (IEPs) or 504 plans in college. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the law that provides students with IEPs, no longer applies to them once they graduate from high school.

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 still protects students from discrimination when they get to college. So does the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)—a federal civil rights law that protects people with disabilities from discrimination.

Another big difference is that in college the student owns the privilege of information. That means that, unlike high schools, colleges are not allowed to send progress reports to parents unless students permit them to do this. This can be relieving for the student and anxiety-provoking for the family and support team. The Buckley Amendment of the Family Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 (FERPA) was designed to prevent the release of educational records (and other information) to third parties without the permission of the student.

Since many parents have been very involved in arranging and monitoring supportive services and accommodations for their children, this can be a tough adjustment for everyone. Counselors should help families understand why student services cannot discuss how the students are doing, or how often, for example, they participate in tutoring. This highlights how their self-advocacy (see previous post) will significantly impact their college success. Students can, however, choose to sign a release of information through student support services that would allow their parents or counselors access to their records and conversations with the college staff.

How to get disability support in college

The process of applying for accommodations happens separately from the college application process. It usually begins after your child has been accepted and has enrolled in college. Colleges vary in their requirements for documentation, and the student has to seek out the office themselves and determine what documents are needed. Documentation will then need to be sent to the appropriate office to make sure that there is no further testing or other kinds of information that must be provided for students to access the help they will need once school starts.

If the student’s documentation is seen as insufficient, it may be necessary to have further or more recent testing done. For example, if a student requests a substitution for a foreign language graduation requirement but there is nothing in the documentation that explains why the student would have difficulty learning a foreign language and there is no recommendation that the student be granted a substitution, additional testing may be requested. This is why the presentation of a student’s documentation and a meeting with the service provider should be held as soon as possible.

We recommend arranging a meeting quickly to have accommodations or services available immediately when classes begin. Typically, at these meetings, students will discuss what accommodations they need, and an agreement will be arrived at that works for the student and fits in with the institution’s policies. As stated in our previous post, this requires the student to be an advocate for themselves and explain what they need, which they may not have had to do in high school.

Researching which colleges might offer the best support

Start by exploring each school’s disability services office’s page on its Web site. As the schedules, types of classes, and types of assignments might be different from high school, some students who needed accommodations in high school may not need them in college. For example, a student with a math learning disability may be able to avoid taking math classes in college, meaning that any math class–related accommodations from high school no longer apply. Similarly, new challenges might come up in college that were not present in high school. For example, students with LDs around organization might struggle more with punctuality and scheduling without the same rigid structure as a high-school timetable.

If they will need more hands-on help with things like breaking down assignments, suggests that you might want to search for schools that provide such a service. You may decide to look at schools that have programs for which they charge a fee. In that case, they suggest that you be sure to ask some questions about what the program provides. They offer 10 things to consider including

  • Does the college have general resources like a writing center and tutoring services?
  • Is there an additional fee for the program of interest?
  • What specific documentation of disability is required?
  • Will documentation need to be updated each year? If so, at what cost?
  • How easy is it to personalize the help a student gets in this program?

Paying attention to the college’s cultures of learning differences

When you visit college and university support programs, which is strongly advised, it is evident that there are varying philosophies on all of the above points. For students with LDs, an additional element to consider is how different colleges work with students with LDs.

At more desirable colleges, counselors who work with students with LDs welcome the students with open arms. The counselors are willing to spend considerable time with students, making sure the student understands what is being offered to them. These colleges see it as part of their mission to help students with LDs become successful in their quest to become college graduates. In addition to the work they do with students, they make the effort to educate the faculty about different kinds of LDs, so that professors can be more supportive in the classroom and lecture hall.

Others might focus more on describing all the hoops that students must go through to obtain accommodations, rather than providing information about what the college has to offer. Sometimes the LDs support center is located in cramped quarters that are poorly maintained and—in a word—unwelcoming.

Another sign of the college culture is related to how busy the centers are. In these times of severe budget cuts, the staffing of LD support programs has often been cut drastically. When visiting, if you see long lines and lots of frustrated students, this is not a good sign. It’s worthwhile to have a conversation with two or three students who are receiving services or accommodations to find out how easy (or difficult) it is to get the help they need.

Dr. Miranda Melcher is an expert on neurodiverse inclusive education and co-authors the book NVLD and Developmental Visual-Spatial Disorder in Children.



Some colleges that include social support:

Adelphi University, NY – Bridges Program

Dean College, MA – Arch Program

Manhattanville College, NY, Pathways and Connections (ASD and

related diagnoses)

McDaniel College, MD – Mentorship Advantage Program

University of Denver, CO – Learning Effectiveness Program

Specific LD colleges

Landmark College – VT

Beacon College – FL

A list of 15 specialized college programs:…

Top College Consultants. Neurodiversity in college.…

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