A Guide to Determining Fit for Students with Learning Differences

Posted by Shannon Freeborn on 3/2/2021

The idea of college, and all that word connotes, is often overwhelming for students and parents. From applications to transitioning to a new life on a college campus, the college process comes with a myriad of academic, social, and emotional challenges and triumphs. The idea of college, and all that word connotes, takes on a unique set of circumstances and concerns for the families of, and students with, learning differences. 
Because learning differences are lifelong and can affect all areas of an individual’s life— academic, social, emotional—it is essential to find a collegiate environment that can provide the appropriate level of services and accommodations that are not only required by law but necessary to ensure student success. 
Determining Fit
The level of services and types of accommodations necessary for a student with learning differences to be successful in an educational environment varies significantly from person to person, depending on the type and severity of their disability. For this reason, there is not a “one size fits all” approach. 
For all students, there must be a marriage of fit and match. How is a school a fit for a student’s unique set of likes and dislikes? How does their academic history match with the school’s statistics and acceptance data? In addition to traditional fit criteria, a significant consideration for students with learning differences is the level of services provided by an institution and how those services align with a student’s individualized learning needs. 
The level of intended services should be commensurate with the support a student received in high school. For example, students receiving the highest level of high school support through an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) should consider an equally high or higher level of academic college support. During high school, most students have built-in support systems in family, friends, and community. While transitioning to college, students not only have to manage their own learning needs but, for many, also balance all of their executive functioning demands for the first time. Combining these two factors in a new learning environment can be challenging. High school students with a lower level of support, called a 504 Plan mandated by the Americans with Disabilities Act, may be academically successful at a college providing basic accommodations.
Consequently, it is essential to assess students’ level of accommodations in high school and target the appropriate tier of services necessary for college success.
Tiers of Services
Support provided by an institution falls into three general categories: Tier One (basic accommodations required under the American’s with Disabilities Act), Tier Two (Coordinated Services beyond basic 504 accommodations mandated under the ADA), and Tier Three (Structured Comprehensive Programs). 
Tier One | Accommodations
At this level of support, colleges are required to provide under federal ADA mandates for students who have physical or learning disabilities. This is the level of support available at most colleges and universities around the country. For instance, services offered may include but are not limited to extended testing time for students with processing disorders, preferred seating, lecture notes, and books on tape. In general, these are basic accommodations similar to the types of accommodations students with a 504 Plan have received in high school. Tier One support works well for students with strong self-advocacy skills.
Tier Two | Coordinated Services level support
This is a step up from basic accommodations. Students must meet the same admission requirements as all other students and then apply for services. Coordinated services may include but are not limited to coaching and or tutoring in specific subjects (typically writing and math), assistance with planning, academic skills, syllabi, calendar coordinating, time management, and other executive functioning strategies. This support level could be appropriate for both students who had IEP’s in high school and students with high school 504 Plans. As a general rule, institutions with Coordinated Services are a good fit for strong self-advocates, especially if students have an accurate sense of when they are starting to get overwhelmed by the academic workload and seek help before tests and exams. This tier of service works for students who understand their learning challenges and have found successful workarounds while in high school. Services may or may not be an extra fee outside of regular tuition.
Tier Three | Structured Comprehensive Programs
This is the highest support available at the collegiate level. These programs are limited in number and typically require extra tuition and or fees. Students share their disability upfront and apply both for admission to the college and admission to the program. Typically, students enrolled in comprehensive programs meet individually with a trained professional, such as a learning specialist, a minimum of once or twice a week. Instruction provides students strategies to supplement learning and create a detailed plan for success. Typically, comprehensive programs serve students with language-based learning disabilities such as dyslexia, processing issues, and ADD/ADHD. In general, comprehensive programs are ideal for students who understand their challenges and know they need significant support and regular, mandatory prearranged opportunities to check in with a professional to be successful. This support level is appropriate for students with an IEP in high school and/or part of the school’s Learning Skills program.