College Admission for Students with Learning Disabilities

on July 5, 2017

It’s not uncommon for students to head off to college with learning disabilities.


One in five freshmen (22%) polled in a nationwide UCLA survey said they had at least one learning disability or psychological disorder.


If you have a teenager who has a learning disability or mental health issue, evaluating colleges will be even more challenging.


Here are seven things that you need to know:


1. Decide whether to disclose the disability.


A critical question that torments parents and teenagers is this one:


Should we disclose a disability?


Families fear that divulging a learning disability will destroy a student’s admission chances.


Students do not have to share this information with a college and the federal government prohibits colleges from asking.  Experts, however, strongly suggest disclosing the news.         


“It’s very important that they tell their story,” says Joan Luber Jacobs, an educational consultant in Del Mar, CA, who works with LD students.” The disability explains why a child may have a strong grade point average but the test scores are very low. If they self disclose that they have a language processing disorder, for instance, they can explain why the test scores are low.”


A good place to reveal a learning difference is on the section of an application that asks for any additional, relevant information. Some students also choose to write their college essay about their disability.


Jacobs said disclosing a learning difference shouldn’t hurt or help the chances for admission.


When students ultimately decide not to disclose a disability, it’s important that they notify the college’s disability office as soon they are accepted.

2. Book an appointment with the disability office.


When evaluating colleges, it’s crucial that you visit each institution’s disability office to get an idea of what accommodations and services are available.


Any college that accepts federal funding must provide support services for learning disabled students and make “reasonable” accommodations, but the law doesn’t say what those services need to be. The services can vary significantly from campus to campus.


Families fear that the admission office will learn if they pay a visit to a college’s disability office. That, however, shouldn’t happen. By federal law, a disability service office can’t disclose information that you provided to an admission office.


3. Ask the right questions.


Here is an excellent first question to ask the college’s disability office:


With your services, what kind of student is successful here?


At some universities, students with learning issues have to be a strong advocate for their needs while at others there is more hand holding.


Here are some more questions to ask:

  • What accommodations do you offer?
  • What do you need to do to qualify for them?
  • What assistive technology devices do you offer?
  • Do you have an AT expert on staff?
  • Does the college have Kurzweil devices to scan books that can be listened to on a laptop?
  • What do you consider the most difficult majors or classes for DL students on this campus?
  • Do you have a transitional summer program?
  • Can students with disabilities skip foreign language requirements?
  • Do you have math and writing labs?
  • If a professor is not in compliance regarding the student’s needed accommodations, how is the situation resolved?
  • What is the four-year graduation rate for students with this type of disability?
  • Are there organized support groups for students with disabilities?
  • Will you connect me to students with disabilities to get their perspectives?

When applicable, check out mental health services. The UCLA survey indicates that there has been an explosion of college students experiencing mental health problems, as well as seeking treatment.


4. Check for special programs.


Just about any college should provide common accommodations such as extended time for tests, note takers and early course registration.


Some institutions go well beyond these offerings. Some provide separate programs that are far more involved and sometimes require an additional fee. Here is a sampling of these institutions:

  • American University (DC)
  • Boston University (MA)
  • High Point University (NC)
  • Marist College (NY)
  • Muskingum University (OH)
  • University of Arizona
  • University of Denver (CO)
  • Westminster College (MO)

Another alternative is to hire a coach to help. Jacobs said she has had clients hire graduate students at their universities to assist them with time management. 


5. Make sure paperwork is in order.


To be legally qualified for accommodations, student must have undergone testing at age 16 or later. Students can’t rely on an Individualized Education Program (IEP) or 504 plan that are used in high schools to qualify for disability service in college.


Students are responsible for registering with a college’s Office of Disability Services before their first semester and preferably by June 1. After that initial semester, students must complete a request for letters of accommodations at the beginning of every semester. Students must email these letters to their professors.


6. Consider test-optional colleges.


Students who do poorly on standardized tests, should consider applying to test-optional colleges and universities. At these institutions, test scores are optional or their impact is minimized.


More than 900 colleges are test optional. Many of these institutions are nonselective, but there are a significant percentage of highly selective liberal arts colleges on the list. In fact, half of the top 100 liberal arts colleges on U.S. New & World Report’s list are test optional including Bowdoin, Smith, Wesleyan, Bates, Bryn Mawr, Pitzer and Holy Cross.


There aren’t as many high selective universities that have embraced test-optional policies, but those that have include Wake Forest, George Washington, Brandeis and American universities.


You can find the list of these institutions at FairTest: The National Center for Fair and Open Testing, which is a nonprofit that advocates against standardized testing.


7. Students need to be proactive. In high school, parents, school counselors and teachers can all be involved in making sure a student with a disability can do his or her best. In college, it’s the student’s responsibility to advocate for him or herself.  This can be an especially scary prospect for parents who have been the main advocates.


Parents can ask their teenagers to waive their rights to privacy through the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). By signing a waiver, a college can share information about the student with his or her parents.


Lynn O’Shaughnessy is a best-selling author, speaker and journalist. Her book, The College Solution: A Guide for Everyone Looking for the Right School at the Right Price, is available on

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