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College planning for students with learning issues

Is college the best choice for your teen with a learning disability? Check out these expert guidelines for making an informed decision about postsecondary education.

By Loring Brinckerhoff, Ph.D.

In the ideal world, every student with a learning disability (LD) or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (AD/HD) would be a master at charting her own destiny after high school. In reality, it is often her parents who orchestrate the transition planning process. Nevertheless, such teenagers should be encouraged to participate actively in planning their transition to young adulthood — including the prospect of attending college.

This article will explain the differences between high school and college; this information can help students with learning and/or attention problems make an informed decision regarding postsecondary education. For students who've decided college is right for them, the article also outlines the essential steps towards independence that high school students with LD and/or AD/HD need to take before applying to college.

Differences between high school and college

If a high school student is to make an informed decision about attending college, and plan effectively for her transition to postsecondary education, she (and her multidisciplinary team, if applicable) needs to be aware of the many inherent differences between high school and college settings (Brinckerhoff, McGuire & Shaw, 2002).

Time in class and access to teachers

Two of the biggest differences between high school and college concern the amount of in-class time and opportunities for direct teacher contact. High school students are in class approximately six hours a day, and it is not unusual for them to have contact with their teachers four or five times a week. In comparison, college classes may meet only once or twice a week, thus, the opportunities for direct teacher contact are much more limited. In college, faculty members often have limited office hours, making it difficult for students to find time to meet with their professors. With the advent of online courses, this is changing, but having direct access to the instructor of the course, rather than a teaching assistant (TA), is still a concern.

Time spent studying

Typically, high school students spend a limited amount of time completing homework assignments at home. Instead, they often work on assignments during a study hall or resource room period. In contrast, college students must learn how to budget study time for themselves. As a general rule, for every hour of class time, college students need to spend three hours of out of class time preparing assignments. For students with LD and/or ADHD this rule of thumb should be doubled, given the time needed for rewriting lecture notes, reading, or listening to audio textbooks, and integrating course materials from a variety of sources (e.g., texts, lecture notes, lab assignments).

Support services

Many high school students with LD become accustomed to special education personnel, learning specialists, or library personnel who are willing to drop what they are doing and "rescue" them before an upcoming term paper or mid-term examination. Most college campuses have a disability services office, but few have the personnel to provide drop-in hours for last-minute term paper editing, test preparation, or content tutoring.

Class size

High school classrooms typically contain 25 to 30 students, in comparison to many college classrooms, which consist of large lecture halls for 200 to 300 students. During the freshman and sophomore years, students are routinely herded into large, impersonal auditoriums with tiny desks for core courses, such as Introduction to Western Civilization or Psychology 101. These settings many be efficient for the broad dissemination of information, but for students with AD/HD and/or organization problems, they can be very distracting.

Comments from readers

"We need to know if our child should write his college essay on his LD. How he has worked with it with the school and his love for learning because of the help he got from his IEP/ now 504 plan. "
"We are looking for a charter school (9th - 12th grade) in the Gilbert area that works with childeren that have AD/HD."