College Planning Guide for Students with Learning Disabilities


Choosing a college is never easy. If you are a college-bound student with a learning disability, finding the school that’s the best match for you is especially important. Currently, more than two-thirds of young adults designated as learning disabled attend colleges and universities across the country. Careful planning that starts early in high school will increase your chances of being admitted to institutions which best suit your personal needs.

This information has been specifically developed to assist you in your college planning process. When used in conjunction with The College Planning Guide (BRHS School Counseling Department), and regular consultations with your school counselor, students with learning differences can chart a clear and effective course to successful college admission.

Definition of Learning Disabled

For many years, there was considerable confusion regarding the definition of learning disabled. The uncertainty was clarified to a great degree in 1975 with the passage of Public Law 94-142, now called the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), wherein learning disabilities were defined. The regulations for PL 94-142 specify that a child study team may determine that a child has a learning disability if he or she does not achieve commensurate with his or her age ability levels in one or more of seven specific areas when provided with learning experiences appropriate for the child’s age. The seven areas are oral expression, listening comprehension, written expression, basic reading skill, reading comprehension, mathematics calculation, and mathematics reasoning. A learning disability is determined if a child study team finds a severe discrepancy between achievement and intellectual ability in one or more of the seven areas.

College and the Learning Disabled Student

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 was the federal legislation having the most direct impact on college opportunities for LD students. The provisions of Section 504 were reinforced with the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. Although Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 require that all colleges and universities receiving federal funds take action to meet the needs of students with disabilities, many institutions comply with these laws but lack the resources and/or philosophical commitment to go beyond only compliance. However, there are approximately 1,000 of 3,500+ colleges and universities in the United States which go far beyond compliance and offer LD students a broad range of services to help them succeed. Therefore, all two-year and four-year post secondary institutions across the country can be divided into the following three categories: 1) Colleges with Comprehensive Programs 2) Colleges with Coordinated Services 3) Colleges with Services.

Colleges with Comprehensive Programs

Colleges and universities with comprehensive programs offer the most services for students with learning disabilities. The director and/or staff of the program are certified in learning disabilities or related areas. The director is actively involved in the admission decision and often, the criteria for admission may be more flexible than general admission requirements. Services are highly structured and include diagnostic and prescriptive planning; advisement; counseling; remediation; tutoring; special courses; and an array of auxiliary aids (tape recorders, taped textbooks, note-takers, alternative examination arrangements, advocacy, pre-college programs). Students are involved in developing plans to meet their particular learning styles. There can be a fee for some of these enhanced services. Generally, students whose learning disabilities were diagnosed early and who spent much of their school career in special classes or resource programs might benefit from a comprehensive program.

Colleges with Coordinated Services

Colleges and universities with coordinated services differ from comprehensive programs in that services are provided by at least one certified learning disability specialist. The staff is knowledgeable and trained to provide assistance to students to develop strategies for their individual needs. The director of the program may or may not be involved in the admission decision. Students voluntarily request accommodations in the coordinated services category, and there may be specific skills courses or remedial classes available or required for LD students who are admitted probationally or conditionally. High school students who may have enrolled in some modified courses, utilized testing accommodations, required tutorial assistance but who typically requested services only as needed, might benefit from exploring colleges with coordinated services.

Colleges with Services

Services is the least comprehensive of the three categories. Colleges and universities offering services generally are complying with the federal mandate requiring reasonable accommodations to all students with appropriate and current documentation. Staff and faculty actively support students by providing basic services to meet their needs. Services are requested on a voluntary basis, and there may be some limitations as to what is reasonable and the degree of services available. High school students who require minimum accommodations, but who would find comfort in knowing that services are available, knowing who the contact person is, and knowing that this person is sensitive to LD students might benefit from exploring colleges providing services.

The College Planning Process

For all students, the college planning process involves the following five components to be completed by the close of your junior year.

  1. Examine your reasons for wanting to attend college. What do you hope to gain from your college experience?
  2. Explore your post secondary school options. Do you want a four-year institution offering a Bachelor Degree?  Do you want a two-year institution offering an Associate Degree? Do you want a career school offering a certificate program in a specific vocational area?
  3. Define your wants and needs. Do you want a college near your home or far away? Do you prefer an urban, suburban or rural setting? Do you want a small, medium or large campus? What extracurricular activities are important to you? What academic majors are you interested in?
  4. Know your learning style. Be able to understand and articulate the nature of your disability and resulting strengths and weaknesses. What types of accommodations have been helpful to you? Do you require a comprehensive program, coordinated services or minimal services at the college level?
  5. Do your research. Consultant your school counselor, use college guidebooks and computer software programs found in the Guidance Office to make a list of colleges you want to explore further.

The College Visitation Process

Before applying to any college, it is important to arrange a campus visit. The ideal time to visit is spring and/or summer of your junior year. Simply call the Admission Office to schedule a guided tour. While on tour, look carefully at the following:

  • strength of the academic program you are likely to select as a major
  • attractiveness of campus
  • size of classes
  • friendliness of students and faculty
  • quality of library, learning centers and computer facilities
  • condition of residence halls
  • quality of dining facilities and food
  • number of recreational facilities
  • extent of health and security services
  • opportunities for participation in clubs, sports, cultural events

After the tour, speak with an admission representative and staff from the Disability Support Services Office to review your background and ask the following specific questions:

  • What type of support program does the college offer to LD students?
  • Is there any flexibility in admission requirements for LD students?
  • What is the admission application procedure?
  • Are there extra charges or fees for special programs or services?
  • Are there remedial or developmental courses required for LD students?
  • Is tutoring or counseling available on an individual or group basis?
  • What special accommodations are available (tape recorders, word processors, readers, note-takers, taped textbooks, untimed testing, and priority registration)?
  • How long has the program been in existence?
  • How many students are accepted to the program each year?
  • Is there a pre-college program?  Is it mandatory to attend?

The College Application Process

By far, the single most important factor in gaining admission to college is the strength of your high school academic record. Therefore, LD students are encouraged to complete a college-preparatory curriculum consisting of English (4 years); Math (3 years); Science (3 years); Foreign Language (2 years); and meaningful electives, which reflect your personal interests and goals. Other criteria, which the Admission Office will consider in order of importance, are as follows:

  • Individual grades and cumulative grade point average
  • SAT and ACT scores (timed or untimed)
  • Essay or writing sample
  •  Extracurricular activities, honors and awards
  •  Letters of recommendation
  • Personal interview

Remember, motivation and perseverance are important personal qualities for LD college-bound students, but they don’t make up for solid academic preparation. During the application process which should be completed no later than January 1 of your senior year, work closely with your school counselor and case manager to ensure that all required documents are received by the college in a timely manner.


Colleges which offer comprehensive programs often have separate admission procedures for LD students and require documentation of the disability at the time of application. However, if you are not applying to such a formal program and will be evaluated by regular admission criteria, you will need to decide whether to disclose your disability. By law, colleges cannot ask an applicant if they are learning disabled. If disclosed by the student, this information cannot be used in and of itself to deny admission. Conversely, being learning disabled does not guarantee admissions. Colleges and universities are under no obligation to alter their admission requirements.

Although the choice to self-identify at the time of application is strictly personal, there are advantages. By disclosing your disability either through a required essay, personal letter or interview, you can provide the Admission Committee with valuable insight into your academic performance. A clear explanation of the nature of your disability and the compensatory strategies you have used to overcome it are always seen in a positive light.


Students with learning disabilities need to understand that the level of responsibility regarding the provision of services changes after high school. Throughout the elementary and secondary years, it is the responsibility of the school system to identify students with disabilities and to initiate the delivery of special education services. However, while Section 504 and the Americans Disabilities Act (1990) require post secondary institutions to provide accommodative services with disabilities, it is the student’s responsibility to self-identify and provide documentation of the disability once admitted to the college. The college or university will not provide any accommodations until the student does the following:

  1. Self-identify with the Office of Disability Support Services and specifically request services.
  2. Provide current documentation of your learning disability completed within the last three years. The documentation typically includes a copy of your testing report and your IEP (Individualized Education Plan), which then guides the college in providing appropriate accommodations. Be aware that federal law does not obligate a college to conduct assessments. Therefore, a student should consider that his/her high school updates LD documentation prior to graduation consistent with the requirements of the college in which the student seeks to enroll.

At a minimum, an LD student should be able to expect the following accommodations if the nature of the disability requires such adjustments and is supported by documentation: reduced course load; extended time to complete tests and assignments; extended time to complete degree requirements; a note-taker; books on tape; the right to record classes. The law does not obligate an institution of higher education to provide all recommended accommodations, but rather effective accommodations. A student should therefore not presume that what he or she received in high school will necessarily be provided at the college level.

Finally, be aware that each campus has its own unique system for providing students with disability-related accommodations. Many give the student a letter detailing recommended accommodations with instructions to the student to approach the professors in each case so that classroom accommodations are provided in a timely fashion. Some colleges send the letter directly to the students’ professors. The former approach is the more popular, as it promotes important self-advocacy skills.

An Action Plan for High School

It is important that LD students take the following steps in order to ensure a smooth transition from high school to college:

  1. Enroll in a college-preparatory academic program. Work closely with your school counselor and case manager starting in freshman year to select courses where you will achieve maximum success.
  2. Get involved in sports, clubs and community service activities. Colleges are looking for the “well-rounded” student.
  3. Become familiar with your learning disability. Be able to discuss it intelligently. Understand what your disability is, how it affects your learning process, and what services you require to help compensate.
  4. Practice self-advocacy. Be comfortable and confident in describing your learning difference and your academic needs.
  5. Work to improve your study skills, organizational skills and time management ability.
  6. Establish your short-term and long-term goals.
  7. Be realistic in your college search. Assess how well a post secondary setting is equipped to meet your needs, as well as how well-equipped you are to meet the needs of the institution.
  8. Consider enrolling in a summer pre-college program specifically designed for LD students in either the summer before or after your senior year. These programs are incredibly helpful for the real college experience.
  9. Know your rights.  Be familiar with laws PL 94-142, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Part B of the Individuals with Disabilities Act, and Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.
  10. Be an active participant in the development of your IEP (Individualized Education Plan). Work cooperatively with your parents, teachers, school counselor and LD specialist who are there to help you.


Today, thousands of LD students have graduated from college campuses across the country. Students who were most satisfied with their college experience were pro-active in their college search during high school. Also, they did not hesitate to acknowledge their disability and seek assistance during their college years. There is no doubt that college will be challenging. However, the advantages of attending college in terms of intellectual, social, emotional growth and financial reward make the extra effort worthwhile.


Association on Higher Education and Disability
107 Commerce Center Dr., Suite 204
Huntersville, NC 28078

Attention Deficit Disorder Association
PO Box 7557
Wilmington, DE 19083-9997

Learning Disabilities Association of America
4156 Library Rd
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania  15234-1349

National Center for Learning Disabilities
32 Laight St.
New York, NY 10013

SAT Services for Student with Disabilities
College Board

P.O. Box 7504
London, KY 40742-7504


College Guide for Students with Learning Disabilities
Annette Joy Sclafani & Michael J. Lynch, Lauren Publications, New Jersey

K & W Guide to Colleges for Students with Learning Disabilities and Attention Deficit Disorders
Marybeth Kravets & Imy Wax, Random House, New York

Peterson’s College with Programs for Students with Learning Disabilities or Attention Deficit Disorders
Charles T. Mangrumm II & Stephen S. Strichard, Peterson’s Guides, New Jersey