Levels of Support Available in College for Students with Learning Disabilities

written by: Jed Geary
Every college is unique. This is why you will hear college counselors, this one included, talk about the importance of finding the right fit. Part of their uniqueness includes how they offer academic support. Some colleges will offer accommodations for classroom/lecture hall environments and testing situations while others will offer a varying amount of tutoring. The tutoring may be offered by peers who scored well in last year's class or had up to 14 hours of tutor training while other schools may offer professional tutors who have master's degrees. Some colleges have tutoring that is centralized within a learning center and others have tutoring run through the academic departments.

With all the variety, it is extremely important to research the details at each college. I recommend that when doing a college visit, parents and potential applicants meet with the support/learning center as well as with the admissions office.
To attempt to categorize the support offerings at colleges the K+W Guide (which we distribute to parents of the junior class at our annual College Forum) breaks the support systems into three categories.

Basic Support
  • Schools offer the accommodations required by the Americans with Disabilities Act in order to receive federal funding.
  • Schools create their own parameters on what they determine to be “reasonable accommodations” and require documentation for a student to receive them.
  • Students need to be strong advocates to obtain the services they deserve.
  • At times, a school with a small enrollment can offer the personal attention that students need without having a comprehensive program.
  • These programs will have a limited staff; oftentimes there is only a single staff member who has little specific LD expertise as they serve all students with disabilities.
  • There is no admissions application process for these services, but documentation must be presented and approved to receive accommodations. This should be done after enrolling at the school but before classes begin.
  • Students requiring modest accommodations but who feel more comfortable knowing that greater support is available will do better with either coordinated services or comprehensive services.
  • Typical accommodations include:
Taped texts                 Readers                      Note takers   
Extended time            Books on tape             Separate testing area
  • Typically a writing lab and possibly a math lab are available and open to every student. These programs are typically staffed by undergraduates.
  • There is no additional cost for these services.
For a student to consider a college with basic services, he/she should be able to explain his/her strengths and weaknesses, recognize the helpful learning strategies necessary for success, and advocate for accommodations/support/help. As there is not much assistance with organization, he/she should also be able to plan his/her time accordingly, be able to take effective notes from a lecture, and be able to study independently for approximately 20 hours per week.

Coordinated Support
  • The majority of colleges fit into this category.
  • Schools may inform faculty of the student’s need for accommodations, but the student will need to be moderately active in regard to self-advocacy.
  • They will have a “Learning Center” (or similarly named program) with additional services for LD students.
  • There will be an LD specialist and professionals with some specific LD experience and/or training. The specialist may be involved in the admission process.
  • The center will usually work on a drop-in basis with part-time staff and peer tutors who may be undergraduate or graduate students. There is not necessarily a single service provider who will work with the same students routinely.
  • Some programs will provide group workshops to assist students with learning strategies, advocacy training, note-taking, and test-taking skills.
  • These services will not include intense 1:1 work several times per week.
  • There is no additional cost for these services.
  • Additional accommodations include:
Organizational assistance                  Group workshops           
Course substitutions                           Pre-enrollment preparation

Comprehensive Program Support
  • This program offers the most support for students with a learning disability.
  • The program may have a separate admissions process from the college.
  • The program will have several learning specialists; professional tutors are available as well as peer tutors in some areas.
  • Students will have an assigned advisor who the student meets with on a scheduled basis.
  • Students are involved in developing their support plans and typically have to sign a contract agreeing to participate for the semester or year.
  • There is a greater opportunity for 1:1 attention and support and a student typically works with the same tutor(s) consistently.
  • There is often a fee for this level of service, and students are usually allowed to wean themselves from this level of service to less structured, coordinated services available.
  • Assistive technology is readily available.
  • There is usually a separate building/space for the program.
  • There may be mandatory programs that the students have to participate in (classes, workshops on organization, self-advocacy, etc.)
  • Writing labs and math labs are also typically available to all students.
  • Additional accommodations may include:
Monitoring of grades                Monitoring of attendance
Classes taught at center          Feedback to parents
Notification to faculty               Priority registration
To determine the best program and level of support for your student, families should schedule a meeting with the appropriate office on campus, often called the disability services program. This gives you an opportunity to learn about the program, the staff, and the services offered. It is also helpful to speak to your student’s teachers whether through an advisor or college counselor to get an accurate picture of what level of support they feel your student will need to be successful in college.

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Learning Diversity is a blog hosted by Eagle Hill School where educators, students, and other members of the LD community regularly contribute posts and critical essays about learning and living in spaces that privilege the inevitability of human diversity.

The contributors of Learning Diversity come together to engage our readers from a variety of disciplines, including the humanities, social sciences, biological sciences and mathematics, athletics, and residential life. Embracing learning diversity means understanding and respecting our students as whole persons.

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