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College Success for Students with Learning Differences

Guidelines for assessments, resources, and services.

College Success
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The CDC reports that approximately 6.1 million American children have been diagnosed with ADHD in 2016. Approximately, 4.4 million students have been diagnosed with anxiety, 1 in 59 children have been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, and 1 in 5 children in the U.S. have learning disabilities and attention issues. It is also not uncommon for some children to present with complex issues cutting across these categories.

Although schools may provide accommodation plans (504s) and Individualized Educational Plans (IEPs) to facilitate students' elementary, middle, and high school success, many students and parents inquire if they can attend college, what type of college could they attend, and if they can succeed in college.

It is often overwhelming for a student struggling with learning, performance, grades, and achievement difficulties. Families grapple with confusing application, educational, and mental health systems to navigate the steps necessary to accurately identify their child’s exact diagnoses, the best college match for the student, and the effective resources and interventions necessary to help the student succeed and thrive in college.

There are multiple steps that can occur to ensure the success of your student applying, being accepted to, and succeeding in the college that is the best fit for their abilities and strengths.

Assessment Recommendations:

If you suspect or recognize that your student is struggling with attention, hyperactivity, learning challenges, social skills, academic achievement, depression, or anxiety, the first step recommended is:

  • Early intervention is prevention.
  • Meet with the teachers and school/college psychologist to gather detailed information.
  • Ask for a school observation by your school psychologist.
  • Request the school/college for a standardized assessment targeting specific domains.
  • Seek a consultation and assessment by a licensed clinical psychologist specializing in neuro-cognitive and developmental assessments.
  • Domains to be assessed could include attention, intellectual and academic functioning, symptoms, social, emotional, and developmental skills, and executive functioning.
  • The assessment measures utilized should be state-of-the-art, standardized, and normed measures.
  • Performance-based tests should be included in the assessment.
  • Parent, teacher, and self-reports with standardized and normed measures should be included in the assessment.
  • Blind and independent school and home observations could be included in the assessment.
  • The comprehensive battery will provide you with a highly accurate cognitive, academic, socio-emotional, and developmental map of your student.
  • The report should provide you with specific scores, diagnoses, and detailed psycho-social, cognitive, and academic recommended interventions that will facilitate your student’s development and success.
  • The report can also include a recommendation for a 504 or an IEP, and recommendations for college resources and support services.

Consultation with an Educational Specialist:

Consult with an educational specialist who has expertise in learning differences. Educational specialists have expertise in educational planning, college and school admissions counseling and placement, executive functioning coaching, and academic support.

In interviewing Jennifer Fordham, M.A., Educational Consultant at Aspiring Families, Center for Mental Health and Wellness, Ms. Fordham recommends that families:

  • Do a college search via reliable data for a “good fit.”
  • Explore and identify services for college students with learning differences.
  • Consider non-conventional options for success for each student based on unique needs and strengths.

According to Ms. Fordham, a key factor in a college student’s is self-advocacy. This entails:

  • Understanding your own needs.
  • Actively seeking out assistance.
  • Resilience and independence.


Many parents and students ask if they should disclose their learning differences on their college application. Ms. Fordham and other educational specialists typically recommend doing so. The disclosure allows for a better fit in acceptance, as you want to ensure the student lands at a college that is familiar, adept, and capable of supporting students’ exceptional needs.

College Fit:

Ms. Fordham strongly emphasizes the importance of a “good college fit” for the student’s needs and lists a number of factors that families should take into consideration when applying to colleges, which include:

  • Support Services and Resources (what are the on-campus resources available to the student?)
  • Geography (how close does the student need to be to home?)
  • Size (does the student do better in a smaller size class and smaller campus?)
  • Approach to learning (does the student do better with hands-on, applied based learning, lecture based learning, on-line learning, group learning, 1:1 learning, etc?)
  • Programs and majors (do the programs offered match the student’s interests, strengths, and passions?)

Data Sources:

Although there are several options to gather information on colleges, Ms. Fordham recommends the following two sources as excellent platforms for accurate facts about colleges, including services and resources for students with learning differences:

Common Data Set: Name of college +

College Score Card

Tiers of Services and Resources:

Ms. Fordham describes how it is essential to identify the varying levels of services and support offered at different colleges. In her expertise of college campuses, Ms. Fordham lists four tiers of services that families should inquire into:


  • No Learning Center or specialized staff.


  • Learning Center with specialists.
  • Study skills, organizational, and advocacy support.
  • Peer and professional tutoring and workshops.
  • Special testing environments and support.
  • Assistive technology.


  • Full time director and robust staff.
  • Complete suite services.
  • Test proctors, mentors, professional tutors.
  • Support groups.
  • Summer bridge programs.
  • Supervision by case managers.

Autism Support:

  • All the above.
  • Structured social and life skills support.
  • Specialized housing with support and supervision.

Mental Health Support:

1 in 5 college students report suicidal thoughts, 3 out of 5 students report overwhelming anxiety, and 2 out of 5 students report being too depressed to function (National College Health Assessment, 2018). Ms. Fordham explains how this data highlights the necessity of ensuring that students have access to free and unlimited specialized mental health services on campus for students to foster emotional support and success.

Alternative Educational Options:

In her extensive work with students with learning differences, Ms. Fordham is keen to think outside the box and encourages families to consider other excellent options available for all students:

  • Community and junior colleges.
  • Trade and vocational programs.
  • Fifth-year high school.
  • Early college high school.
  • Gap year.
  • Comprehensive Transitional Support Programs: College Living Experience and College Internship Programs.

In sum, Ms. Fordham, M.A., educational specialist and consultant at Aspiring Families, Center for Mental Health and Wellness, provides students and families with excellent guidelines, tips, and resources that can facilitate students’ success in applying and succeeding at the best fit college and educational path for their unique strengths and vulnerabilities.

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