Transition to College for Students with Learning Differences

  • Preparing for college is a long and detailed process for all students. Researching and selecting a school that meets students’ academic, social, and emotional needs is vital for success. Still, it is especially crucial for college-bound students with learning differences. To facilitate a smooth transition to college, it is essential to understand and take the necessary steps to ensure an academic “fit.” 


    How does the law differ from high school to college?

    It is essential to understand how the laws change from high school to college. Colleges and universities must provide reasonable accommodations to qualified students, but once in college, the accommodation request and burden of proof shifts to the student.

    • The IEP is terminated at high school graduation. 
    • Colleges use a 504 plan under the ADA for securing accommodations/services in college.
    • To receive services, students must advocate for themselves and provide proof of their disability.
    • Students must provide proof of their psycho-educational evaluation. Most colleges require students to be evaluated within the last three years at age 16 or older to grant accommodations.
    • Be sure to make a copy of your current 504/IEP Plan and/or your most recent psycho-educational testing to request accommodations in college. 


    What type of support should I expect to find in college?

    It is also essential to understand how the type and availability of services vary by college. Assessing the accommodations and level of services a student received in high school is critical to match the appropriate level necessary from a college. Students should consider:

    • What accommodations are used in high school? What accommodations are officially stated on the IEP or 504 Plan? 
    • How strong are the student’s self-advocacy skills? Does the student seek help when needed? Do they ask for clarification of assignments? Do they reach out in advance of deadlines to ask for an extension or get help on an assignment?
    • Can they articulate their learning difference? Students should understand the impact of their learning difference and how their diagnosis allows for specific accommodations to determine if an intended college can meet their needs.


    Colleges offer three levels of academic support. The level of support varies by institution, and students should target colleges that provide a level of support proportional to the level they receive in high school:

    • Tier One or Basic Support: This is the level of support all colleges must provide under the federal ADA mandate. These are self-directed programs where the student requests and receives basic accommodations, like extended time or note-taking. Tier One support works well for students with strong self-advocacy skills and a 504 plan.
    • Tier Two or Coordinated Services: A step up from what the basic law requires. Typically, offers students additional support in tutoring, skills classes, academic planning, and executive function strategies. Works well for students with either a 504 or an IEP in high school.
    • Tier Three or Structured Programs: The highest level of academic support in the college setting. These are comprehensive programs designed to monitor student progress by specialized staff. Tier Three programs typically charge an extra fee for their services. Works well for students with an IEP in high school.




    Should I disclose my learning disability in my college application?

    Ultimately, this is your decision. Some factors to consider:

    • If a student’s transcript reveals they were in resource or learning skills class, disclose. 
    • If a student’s transcript shows a weakness in a specific discipline due to learning differences, the student might choose to disclose the reason for the struggles.
    • If the student showed growth and progress in high school and learned strategies to successfully navigate their learning differences, they might choose to disclose.
    • Students with learning differences have often developed strong self-advocacy skills and shown an ability to deal with setbacks or obstacles that make them strong candidates for college. They would want to share this information.  


    How do I get extended testing time on Standardized Testing?

    Test accommodations are offered by the College Board and ACT for students with learning differences. Accommodations may include extra time (typically 50% more time) on standardized tests, additional breaks and longer break time between portions of an exam, or the use of a calculator.

    For students to qualify for any of these test accommodations, they must provide medical and neuropsychological documentation showing that they suffer from a specific neurological, learning, or cognitive disorder that puts them at a disadvantage when they compete with their peers who do not suffer from these disorders. Accommodations must be pre-arranged with the testing service before the administration of the test. Follow the steps below to secure accommodations on the appropriate testing platform’s website.