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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.

Teacher feedback and grading

In high school, homework is often assigned on a day-to-day basis, and students are expected to turn it in daily, or weekly, for teacher feedback. In college, homework often consists of long-range assignments (with no scheduled check-ins) such as term papers involving extensive use of Internet resources or cooperative assignments with peers.

It is not unusual for college students to receive only two or three grades per semester. The first grade may not appear until the mid-term, five to six weeks into the semester. For high school students with LD, this is often an adjustment given that they're used to receiving regular, frequent feedback from teachers. Many college freshmen with LD or AD/HD find themselves for the first time in academic settings that are much more competitive than they ever imagined. High school grades that were once based on subjective measures like "effort" or the "degree of improvement" are replaced in college with grades assigned by teaching assistants who are looking for prescribed responses and mastery of course objectives as stated in the syllabus. The novelty and size of the college institution combined with the scholastic rigor of the curriculum makes it particularly difficult for students with LD or AD/HD to stay focused and up-to-date with assignments.

Teaching style

Not only is the grading different, but so is the teaching style of college faculty. High school teachers are often responsible for teaching a broad range of students and for teaching factual content, while college instructors often expect students to integrate course information independently from a variety of sources rather than merely parroting back isolated facts. High school teachers are known for taking attendance, regularly checking notebooks and homework assignments. College professors rarely take attendance and seldom monitor students' daily work. They typically lecture non-stop and require students to think analytically, and to synthesize abstract information on their own. Students with LD often have to adjust to many divergent teaching styles that they may not be used to, while they feel their way through course material for weeks at a time without direct feedback from the instructor.

Balancing personal life and academics

Perhaps the biggest challenge that students with LD or AD/HD face when they go away to college is balancing their personal life with academic demands. High school students find that their free time is often structured by limitations set by parents, teachers, and other adults. On the other hand, college environments require students to function independently by managing their own time both during the day and at night. Students are often ill prepared and overwhelmed as they try and strike a balance between their course work and active social lives.

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."