Teens With LD and/or AD/HD: Shopping for College Options

If your child has a learning disability, here's how to find a college whose offerings are a good match for his strengths and needs.

By Loring Brinckerhoff, Ph.D.

An increasing number of students with learning disabilities (LD) and/or Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (AD/HD) realize that, in order to be better prepared for adult life and the world of work, additional training beyond high school is essential. High school guidance personnel can play a critical role in apprising students of a variety of postsecondary options available to them - ranging from open admission community colleges to highly competitive Ivy League institutions. When guidance support is not available to high school students, or is minimal, parents are often left to their own devices at trying to find the best "postsecondary match" for their son or daughter.

This article will highlight some practical ways that high school students and their parents can effectively work together to identify postsecondary institutions and LD support services that match the student's interests, abilities, and needs. I will discuss the range of support services available to prospective students. In addition, I will make a number of suggestions on how a college-bound student with LD or AD/HD can utilize a transition planning portfolio (TPP) to enhance her chances of gaining entrance into the college of her choice. The good news is that there are now over 1,200 colleges in the United States and Canada that offer students with learning disabilities and/or AD/HD some level of support services. To illustrate the variety and type of LD support services currently available to students, I will profile two postsecondary institutions which offer either basic support services or a comprehensive LD program.

Sorting out College Options

To begin, students need to be instructed in how to use college resource guides or directories, and the latest computer-guided software to assist them in the college search process (Mangrum & Strichart, 1997). Internet sites like Collegenet.com, Collegeview.com, and Collegelink.com allow prospective students to search for colleges based on factors such as:

Students can then use the "hot links" from these sites to go to the homepages of the individual colleges for more information, to compare and contrast school offerings, or to apply online (Brinckerhoff, McGuire & Shaw, 2002). Based on this initial search, catalogs can be downloaded or requested by mail for a more detailed analysis.

Community and technical colleges are a very popular option for students with LD since they allow students to try out college course work while simultaneously maintaining the support of friends and the familiar routines of living at home. Since nearly all community colleges have open admissions policies, smaller class ratios, comparatively low tuition rates, and a wide range of vocational, remedial, and developmental courses, they are often an appealing first choice for students with learning disabilities (Brinckerhoff, et al., 2002). Another advantage of community colleges is that they do not require standardized entrance examinations such as the ACT or SAT. Some students with LD may elect to pursue careers in technical areas that deemphasize reading and writing skills and capitalize hands-on experience. For others, a technical college curriculum that specifically emphasizes mathematics, science, or engineering may be a more appropriate choice. Some students may meet more success in college settings that feature a co-op curriculum that focuses on both coursework and work experience rather than in an institution with a more traditional liberal arts curriculum (Brinckerhoff, et al. 2002). Regardless of the college setting, students with LD and/or AD/HD need to start early planning for the transition from high school to college.

Finding the Right Balance of College Offerings & LD Support Services

As students scan webpages looking for institutions of higher education, they should make a list of the schools that are the most interesting in terms of location, level of competition, and curriculum offerings. Students should be advised to choose the college first, and the learning support, second. Typically, this is not done, and parents initially shop for the "LD services" that they have heard about, and don't consider whether or not the institution is really the best fit for their son or daughter given the course offerings, curriculum, and faculty/student ratio. After a student has identified 6 to 8 institutions that are at the appropriate level of competitiveness (selective, highly selective, most selective) based on the popular college guides, she should think carefully about the level of LD support services she may need in college. By cross matching the institution with the level of support services necessary, she can generate a list of 3 or 4 schools to investigate fully. Further consultation with some of the LD-specific college guides can be helpful as well. Once the list is narrowed down, the student and her parents should plan to visit a campus, take a walking tour, sit-in on a class, and visit a dormitory room, computer lab, and library. A student with LD who presents herself better orally than in writing, should consider scheduling an interview with the admissions office and with the LD support service office. If the institution she is considering has a highly-rated LD support services office, there should be no harm in disclosing the disability in the interview. If, however, the school does not have strong services for students with learning disabilities, it might be better not to discuss the learning disability or AD/HD openly at this early stage of the application process.

LD Support Services: Basic Services or a Comprehensive Program?

Campus support services for students with LD vary from one institution to the next. Various support models exist and run the gamut from very basic services to comprehensive programs. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), each college and university must provide a minimal level of support to students with LD and AD/HD - at no cost - to ensure that "reasonable accommodations" are available (e.g., textbooks in an audio format, note takers, additional time on examinations, provision for course substitutions, reduced course load). The most loosely defined, or basic, services are those where there is a disability contact person on campus who typically wears many hats. He may have some limited training in disability matters, but may in fact be an attorney, counselor, or nurse. These generic support services are available to ensure equal educational opportunity for any student with a disability but little more. This individual typically consults with other offices on campus, like the writing lab or tutorial program, to support students who are considered to be "at risk." More and more campuses are hiring at least one individual to serve as the designated point person for all disability matters. It is simply too complex a job to have the responsibilities for students with disabilities fragmented across several staff members.

Basic LD Support Services

An example of a one-person operation, with a wide range of support services, is Babson College, in Wellesley, MA. Babson is a campus with 1,600 undergraduates, 14 miles west of Boston. Approximately 70 registered undergraduate students were served by the Students with Disabilities office during the 2002-2003 school year. The program includes one full-time staff member. Remediation and support is provided one-on-one in small groups and in class-size groups for study skills and time management. Programs for college survival skills, medication management, and written composition skills are provided through on-campus or off-campus services. Faculty members are notified by the coordinator of the Students with Disabilities Office regarding all accommodation needs. For admission to the program, students are required to submit a psychoeducational report. The application deadline to the LD program is rolling/continuous.

Other colleges that offer similar basic LD support services: Clark University; The College of William & Mary; Mount Holyoke College; and San Diego State University.

Comprehensive LD Support Services

Comprehensive college LD programs that go beyond the legally mandated services are characterized by having more than one person who directs the support services. Typically the director or coordinator has expertise in learning disabilities, and oversees a staff of several full-time professionals and part-time tutors. In addition to the basic accommodations noted above, these campus offices typically have:

In some instances, because of the specialized nature of the services provided, these comprehensive programs offer a limited number of "slots" for students with learning disabilities and require a special application and an additional fee. Some of newest innovations in these settings include AD/HD peer coaching, technology prep tutorials, and technology lending libraries for students. Sometimes this model includes in-house diagnostic testing as part of the program. Subject matter tutoring may also be available in addition to learning strategy instruction.

An example of a comprehensive LD support program is the Strategic Alternative Learning Techniques (SALT) Center at The University of Arizona, in Tucson. The University of Arizona has over 28,000 undergraduate students, and approximately 500 registered undergraduates were served by SALT staff during 2002-2003. The SALT Center is located in a beautiful new building on campus and houses a full-time staff of 22 professionals, who serve as AD/HD coaches, counselors, graduate assistants, peer mentors, LD specialists, technology specialists, and peer tutors. The SALT program offers a one-day mandatory orientation program for new students before registration. Subject area tutoring is provided from graduate assistants, professional tutors, and trained peer tutors. Additional support in the areas of career planning, learning strategies, self-advocacy, stress management, practical computer skills, test taking, time management, and writing skills are provided collaboratively with on-campus and off-campus services. An extensive website includes written policies and procedures regarding course substitutions, LD accommodations, and documentation requirements. For students seeking support beyond the mandated services, an additional fee of $1,600 to $3,900 applies, depending on the level of service desired.

Other colleges that offer similar comprehensive LD support services: Curry College; Stanford University; University of Connecticut; University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill; University of Georgia.

Developing a Transition Planning Portfolio

The transition planning portfolio (TPP) is a personal file that the student develops and maintains throughout the high school transition planning process. It may consist of three or more sections that are tabbed for easy referencing. An artist carrying case with a handle would be the ideal size for the portfolio, although the traditional paper and pencil sections may soon give way to a series of electronic file folders contained in a personal website or in an "e-portfolio."

The transition planning portfolio is not only an organizational tool, but it is also a repository of support materials for a student to use to market or "package" herself. The transition planning portfolio should be nearly complete by the end of tenth grade with updates inserted as warranted. The development of the portfolio could be accomplished as an "independent study" project or as part of a summer transition program between the junior and senior years of high school. IEPs crafted within this time frame should include a transition planning objective such as: "By the conclusion of 10th grade, Christine will have assembled her own personal transition planning portfolio."

One of the keys to success for any student with LD and/or AD/HD is to be able to articulate what her disability is all about, how it impacts her day-to-day functioning, and how she has learned to compensate for it. In order to field interview questions about her disability, it is useful for the student to write a brief 1-2 page essay about her LD and/or AD/HD. This exercise of putting on paper the exact nature of the disability is often extremely helpful. It can serve as a springboard for discussion between the student, the LD specialist or school psychologist, and the parents. Parts of the essay could even be folded into an admissions essay. In any case, the student should plan ahead and decide whether or not she will disclose her disability at any stage of the college application process. If an applicant chooses to reveal her disability, she should tie the disclosure in with her documentation and present a rationale for the disclosure (e.g., explain why certain requirements such as foreign languages have not been met, or why certain grades are lower than expected). Students might also suggest in the essay that admissions personnel focus on some of the unique abilities that were noted by the evaluator who conducted the psychoeducational or neuropsychological testing.

Today is an exciting time for high school students with LD and AD/HD to be looking for postsecondary options. Students with learning disabilities need to do their research carefully to be sure that the kind of support they need is in place at postsecondary institutions they are considering (Block, 2003). It is hoped that this article will help students chart their own destinies as they find the perfect "postsecondary match."

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