A learning disability is a neurological/developmental condition that is caused by a difference in how the person’s brain is “wired.” As a result, the individual has difficulty in receiving and processing information. Students with LD are as smart, creative and motivated as their peers, but they have often suffer from discrepancies between their cognitive ability and their academic performance. In most cases, students with learning impairments simply need to be taught in a way that is compatible with their unique learning styles.
We now know that brains continue to develop throughout adulthood. Recent scientific research shows that throughout a person’s lifetime, the brain possesses neuroplasticity, the capacity to rewire by forming new connections in response to experience, learning, thought and emotion.
The sooner an individual with LD begins to learn effective approaches to receiving and processing information, the sooner he or she can take steps to strengthen learning, communication, personal growth and self-esteem. As a result, finding a college that will support and nurture students with LD is critical to their academic success.
Levels of LD Support in College
Colleges range widely in the degree of support services for LD students; some provide only the accommodations that are federally-mandated by the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act), while others offer comprehensive programs that charge a separate fee in addition to tuition. In between these extremes are colleges that provide moderate support programs that vary in the frequency of meetings, types of services and training of personnel. All LD services require appropriate documentation, including psycho-education testing and evaluation.
Comprehensive or Structured Programs
Comprehensive programs provide a full range of services, are fee-based, and are staffed by personnel with expertise in the learning and social needs of LD individuals. Students meet a minimum of once a week (and often 2-3 times a week) with a professional learning specialist, academic tutor and/or ADHD coach. Students receive structured support on a regular basis throughout each semester of enrollment. The program may be offered all four years, or just for freshman year with strong follow-up services. Often, a separate application is required.
In addition to receiving accommodations and technology support, students obtain guidance on executive functioning, writing and content area skills. Services often include:
- Assistance with the transition from high school to college
- Summer transition programs (for incoming freshmen)
- Priority course registration
- Academic advisement
- Tutoring services
- Study skills training
- Time management training
- Peer support groups
- Self-advocacy assistance
- Assistive technology-based services, such as digital calendars and homework apps
- Frequent monitoring of student progress
Moderate Support Services
Most colleges provide moderate support, including services beyond what is mandated by the ADA, but not the full array of resources.
Typical characteristics of these programs include:
- Basic accommodations (see description below)
- A Learning Center, which may or not be open to all students
- A dedicated specialist with training in learning disabilities
- Centralized tutoring by peers, graduate students, and/or professionals
- Workshops or one-on-one assistance to help with organization and build study skills (not guaranteed on a weekly basis).
Basic support services include those federally mandated by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and are provided free of charge. Typically, colleges that offer basic accommodations have one staff member in the Office of Disabilities, often without a specialized background, who coordinates with faculty and other staff on campus. Services are typically decentralized, and delivered through an Academic Support Center open to all students. At these colleges, LD students must self-advocate and find content tutors within individual departments.
- Extended time to complete tests (ranging from time and a half to unlimited time)
- A quiet, distraction-reduced testing environment
- Audio textbooks and/or readers for tests, for students with visual processing issues
- Visual accommodations, such as sitting upfront.
- Note-taker in class to produce readable, well-organized notes of lectures
- Computer accommodation, or the use of the word-processing function of a computer during tests for essays and short-answer questions
- Hearing accommodations, such as captioned videos and sound amplification systems
For example, in New York State, Cornell University and Union College provide accommodations that are federally-mandated, while Hofstra, Marist and RIT provide comprehensive support programs. A variety of colleges fall in the middle, offering moderate support services. These range from small liberal arts colleges (such as Bard, Colgate, Hamilton and Skidmore) to large research universities (such as Columbia, New York University and the University of Rochester) to public institutions (such as SUNY Binghamton and SUNY New Paltz).
Two excellent sources of information about individual colleges’ support services include Bass Educational Services and College Supports for Learning Differences.
Questions to Ask a College’s Office of Disability Support Services
Once students become more aware of “best-fit” college features, and begin to narrow down their potential college list, it would be useful to visit the Office of Disability Support Services as part of your college tours. There is no downside to identifying yourself and asking questions regarding the support that your student could receive. Legally, colleges cannot discriminate against students based on disabilities, and there is no transfer of information from the Office of Disabilities to the Admissions Office during the application review process.
These questions can be modified based on a student’s individual needs, interests, and goals.
Eligibility for Services
- What documentation is required to receive accommodations and services through the Office of Disability Support Services?
- How current should the documentation be?
- What is the process for reviewing documentation and determining eligibility?
Staffing of Office of Disability Support Services
- How many staff members work in the Office of Disability Support Services and what are their responsibilities? What is their background and training?
- Do the staff members in the Office of Disability Support Services have previous experience working with other students with my disability? What types of accommodations and/or services have been provided in the past?
- Who provides tutoring services for specific classroom subjects? Is there a Writing Center and Math Center? Are they paid staff or student volunteers?
- Who would be my primary contact person in the Office of Disability Support Services?
- What accommodations and support services are available through the Office of Disability Support Services ? (See above for a list of potential services)
- Does the Office of Disability Support Services offer a distraction-reduced environment for students to take exams and/or to study?
- Are there services provided to assist freshmen students with the transition from high school to college?
- What types of assistive or adaptive technology resources are available on the campus?
- Do students have the following course options:
- Take a reduced course load
- Substitute required courses
- Waive certain graduation requirements, for example foreign language
- Are there any fees for the services offered by the Office of Disability Support Services?
LD Student Population
- What percentage of students receive assistance through the Office of Disability Support Services?
- Do you provide information about the graduation rate and/or the retention rate for students who are served by the Office of Disability Support Services?
- What are some examples of how the college culture supports students with learning disabilities?
- How are professors at the college notified about academic accommodations, and how is compliance maintained?
- What types of community resources are near the college, such as medical facilities or psychological services? Is the Office of Disability Support Services connected with any of these resources?
Every student (with or without a learning disability) has individual needs. For guidance tailored specifically to your circumstances, contact Collegiate Gateway – we’re always happy to help.