Choosing A College For A Student With Learning Disabilities

Different colleges offer different levels of disability care and services. Investigate the details of these programs to ensure that your selected schools will cater to your student’s needs.


I’m often asked which colleges might be right for students described as learning disabled, the students with whom I work.

It would be convenient to have a simple, straightforward, and succinct response for students and parents who find themselves awash in the stress and frustration of the college search, but, as you might guess, it’s more complicated than that — just not in the way that you might think.

It’s true that information about a student’s disability status is important in the college search process. Colleges and college guidebooks often describe the levels of service that they offer in three categories: basic services, coordinated services, and comprehensive services.

Basic services are typically those required by the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act), and include accommodations and modifications that allow “access” to the curriculum (e.g., provision of braille texts for a student who is legally blind).

Coordinated services add another layer of service, typically by adding the availability of trained student tutors, widely available seminars and training sessions targeting areas of difficulty for students adjusting to college study, and a centrally coordinated office of disability services staffed by career professionals.

Finally, comprehensive services add even more accommodations, and often include a disability services office staffed with full-time professional instructors, regularly scheduled one-on-one meetings with a trained tutor, and performance tracking for students.

I can tell you from experience that nearly every parent finds the term “comprehensive” comforting, and most students thinks “basic” will be more than adequate. To meet in the middle of these two approaches, many families focus on colleges with coordinated services.

This approach can work — many, many colleges have programs or decentralized offerings that can be described as coordinated service programs.

The advice I have for those families is to give adequate weight to disability services as one of many criteria guiding the college search, but to resist the temptation to make it the sole criterion to include (or exclude) schools for consideration. This is especially important for the very talented students who might otherwise be considering very selective colleges, which often downplay the extent of the services that they offer.

In advising my own students and their parents, I’m careful to call attention to the campus culture, and especially the academic culture, of the schools they are considering.

For many academically talented students, it will be important to find like-minded, serious students with whom to make connections, and equally important to have specific tutoring options available.

Class size and professor accessibility are two similarly critical criteria to consider. Many selective undergraduate colleges depend less on large lecture sections and teaching assistants than do larger universities, though larger universities are most likely to offer coordinated services.

As I mentioned, parents often press for the most comprehensive option, while students described as learning disabled would often like to divest themselves of that label after high school.

When a school’s disability services become one of a host of criteria for consideration in the college selection process, the options can be more nuanced (and, perhaps, more attractive to students and their parents alike), ensuring a supportive and beneficial college experience.