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College planning for students with learning issues

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By Loring Brinckerhoff, Ph.D.

Essential steps toward independence

Comprehensive transition planning needs to focus on a coordinated set of student-centered activities that should be linked with the student's transition goals (National Joint Committee on Learning Disabilities, 1994). High school guidance counselors, school psychologists, and parents need to support the student as she plans postsecondary options. This can be accomplished formally (if the student has an IEP) or informally. Together the team should craft a realistic transition plan that describes:

  • Where the student plans to go after high school
  • What needs to be done now so she can reach her goals
  • Who needs to be involved in this process
  • Who will implement and monitor the prescribed transition activities and review progress along the way with the student

A Timetable for Transition Planning for Students with Learning Disabilities and ADHD (Brinckerhoff, McGuire & Shaw, 2002) is designed to help students gradually assume greater responsibility for their own learning outcomes and view the postsecondary, multi-year planning process as a series of coordinated steps that involve input from several supporting players.

Junior year: Assuring a firm foundation

The junior year is perhaps the most critical year for high school students as they lay the final groundwork for their postsecondary experience. The proposed academic program for junior year should be selected with considerable thought, given that college admissions officers look very carefully for any changes or trends in the educational rigors in the program of study. Depending on a student's postsecondary goals, she should be advised that if she elects to take only two or three college-preparatory classes per semester, she might not appear to be prepared for a competitive college curriculum that typically consists of four or five courses. Guidance counselors should address these issues early on to be sure that the student and parents understand the ramifications of such choices.

Students with LD should not be routinely waived out of high school course requirements (e.g., foreign language or math) without careful consideration of the implications waivers may have on the college admission process. It is also better for a student to take the most rigorous course load she can manage (with accommodations) and earn good grades than to fill the transcript with fluff courses like "Free-Flight Frisbee 101."

Practicing self-advocacy and using accommodations

It is not unusual for high school juniors, or even seniors, with LD or AD/HD to meet for the first time with a college placement counselor and be clueless about the kind of postsecondary setting they want to attend and the level of LD support services they may need. In order for a student to meaningfully participate in the transition process she must learn how to advocate for herself. The student should be able to articulate the effect her disability may have on academic performance. She should also be able to identify any accommodations (e.g., extended testing time, a note taker, reduced course load), technological aids (e.g., audio books, Alpha Smart computer), or support services she will need in order to compensate for her LD and/or ADHD. In the comfort of the high school setting, a student should be encouraged to "try out" accommodations such as audio books, or software to outline term papers, so she can determine what works best for her before she enters college. During the annual IEP conference or at transition planning meetings the student should be encouraged to express her concerns, preferences, and opinions based on personal experience. The IEP meeting is an ideal forum for a high school student with LD to practice self-advocacy skills and to speak up about her own future plans.

It is during this time that planning should focus on matching the student's interests and abilities with the most appropriate postsecondary setting. Guidance personnel can be particularly helpful if they describe (ideally based on their personal visits to colleges) the diverse range of two- and four-year options available to students after graduation.

In the next article, I will outline specific recommendations for college-bound students with LD and/or AD/HD on how to find the best postsecondary match.


  • Babbitt, B.C., & White, C. M. (2002). "R U Ready?" Helping Students Assess Their Readiness for Postsecondary Education. Teaching Exceptional Children, Vol. 35(2), 62-66.
  • Brinckerhoff, L.C., McGuire, J.M., & Shaw, S.F. (2002). Postsecondary education and transition for students with learning disabilities (2nd ed.). Austin, TX: PRO-ED.
  • Eaton, H., & Coull, L. (1998). Transitions to postsecondary learning: Self-advocacy handbook. Vancouver, BC: Eaton Coull Learning Group.
  • National Joint Committee on Learning Disabilities. (1994). Secondary to postsecondary transition planning for students with learning disabilities. (pp.97-104) Austin, TX:PRO-ED.
  • Thomas, C. (1999, May/June). Supporting student voices in transition planning. Teaching Exceptional Children, 31(5), 4-9.

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."