Answers to Some Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about College for Students with Disabilities

Answers to Some Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about College for Students with Disabilities

Also available as a PDF download.

“Do colleges have to provide services for students with learning disabilities and ADD?”

The short answer is “yes,”  – almost every school in the country, from community colleges through Ivy League schools has to make accommodations for students with disabilities.  But there are crucial changes in the disability service environment that families should understand.   Moving into the college environment means a change to the service model, though as long as students know what to expect, they will find the system easy to navigate.

At college, students have to identify themselves to the disability services office if they want accommodations; it is not a college’s responsibility to identify such students and offer them services.  Students accustomed to letting the school staff and parents do everything for them will find that nothing happens with regard to accommodations and services unless they initiate the process and follow-up with forms and any procedures.

Services can be very different from what they received in high school because services there are designed to help students achieve their maximum potential.  In college, the law merely requires schools to provide access to the curriculum; in other words, colleges have to create a “level playing field.”  Because the legal requirement is so minimal, colleges have a lot of latitude in determining what accommodations are reasonable for students.  Students accustomed to having certain very supportive services, such as being handed study guides prepared by teachers before their exams, need to do their research to find schools that offer such supports, though they may still find some accommodations unavailable anywhere at the college level.  Students with IEPs and 504 plans should know that their plans do not have any legal application at college, and that their college is not required to provide any of the accommodations listed in their plan.  Those who use simple, minimal accommodations, however, are likely to find their usual accommodations available to them at college.

For many parents, the answer to this question is “yes.”  Once they are aware of the differences their child will face, they have the information they need in order begin asking the right questions and planning ahead.

During students’ college search, students should use the Internet and any college tours they take to gather information about the services and accommodations available.  Students should feel very comfortable calling colleges’ disability services office to ask questions.  They should be reassured that no one at that office will call the admissions office to let them know that the student called and likely has a disability.  So they should make sure that they get all of the information they seek without fear of it affecting their application.

By law, schools have to provide minimal accommodations, such as testing accommodations, though what accommodations are available will vary based on each student’s particular needs.  Schools will also offer access to texts in alternative formats (such as audio books) to students who qualify for this service.  Notetakers may be available, too.  Some schools may have special support groups or offer workshops.  Those schools that go beyond the minimum supports may offer such services as access to a learning specialist or site licenses for special software for students’ personal computer.


“My child is only entering high school now. Do I really have to think about college today?”

If you don’t want to limit your child’s choices, the answer may be “yes.”  Some high schools are very accommodating to students with learning disabilities and ADD.  Such accommodation can take the form of very supportive services or serious academic adjustments, such as waiving basic academic requirements.  While such accommodations may make your child’s life easier, they may limit the choices of colleges later.  Some colleges require two years of high school foreign language or certain proficiencies in math, and they do not have to waive these entrance requirements.  Students who don’t meet these requirements are considered “not otherwise qualified” for admission, so the law does not require colleges to bend their rules.  At colleges willing to waive the math or foreign language admissions requirement, admission may be conditional, requiring the student to take such classes at college.  Since college classes tend to move much more quickly and often don’t allow students to earn some part of their grade by simply completing the homework or taking weekly quizzes, your child may be better off taking these courses at high school, where the pace and expectations will be more appropriate.

Now that you understand the differences in the laws requiring accommodations, you may also want to consider the services your student is receiving.  Certainly, it is wonderful to have your student’s teachers provide study guides or notes, but you have to consider the possible absence of these in your student’s future at college.  If your student is accustomed to such services, you may want to plan with the child study team to begin direct instruction of such skills as note-taking, organization, study strategies, and time management so that your student will be truly ready to face the demands of the college environment (of course, learning these skills would benefit any student).  It may also be a good idea to ask your student’s teachers what accommodations she or he is truly using.  Sometimes the accommodations that are written into a plan aren’t helpful. You may want to phase out accommodations that your student doesn’t feel are useful.

Now that you understand how the college disability services model works, you and your student know what to do.  Be sure to keep an open mind about your student’s post-secondary options. Some may need a break before facing four more years of academic work.  They can intern or take a job while they consider their options.  Some may discover a job field that they like and for which they don’t need a college degree, saving them the struggle and you the money.  Remember that there are many satisfying career options out there that don’t require a college degree.

But if your student wants to go to college, make sure that s/he does the research to make sure s/he chooses the right school that will provide the appropriate level of support.


For much more on transition to college for students with disabilities, read Elizabeth’s book 7 Steps to Success: High School to College Transition Strategies for Students with Disabilities.