Finding the right fit for a student with learning differences can feel like an insurmountable challenge.

You want a university that will challenge and grow its students but also nurture them, especially if they require accommodations for learning.

You want a university that will respect your student’s abilities, not focus on his differences.

You also want a university that will meet and support his needs to help him succeed.

It’s a difficult balance—made more challenging by the fact that accommodations in college aren’t like accommodations in high school.

    How Do Accommodations Change in College?

Many families don’t realize that although colleges are required to provide reasonable accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), it is up to the colleges themselves to determine what those accommodations will include.

That’s right: each university may offer completely different accommodations.

The law that governs Pre-K through 12th grade is no longer applicable at the university level.

The IEPs and 504s that parents have become familiar with are not considered legal documents by colleges. Instead, they are used as tools to determine types of accommodations.

What all of this means is that families must research and find the colleges that are the best fit for the student in all areas. It can require a lot of effort during an already challenging transition.

Finding a supportive and appropriate environment can help a student grow more confident. Asking the right questions now can have a direct effect on success down the road.

    How to Search for the Right College

To find profiles of colleges with programs for students with learning differences, we recommend The K&W Guide to Colleges for Students with Learning Differences by Marybeth Kravets and Imy F. Wax.

The K&W Guide includes information about how to request accommodations due to learning differences and ADHD, how to succeed in a college interview, and a list of colleges by their level of support services.

    What types of programs are offered?

There are three main levels of services that universities offer (though each will differ by university).

You will need to decide what will best meet your student’s needs. Taking a look at the type of accommodations received in high school will help provide a benchmark.

Disability Services

This is the lowest level of services and may include alternate menus for students with peanut allergies or granting permission to keep an on-campus car to go to a doctor’s appointment.

Disability services at this level, including tutoring and other academic aids, are often free.

Coordinated Services

These services are often content-centered and may include access to a Testing Center, Tutoring Center, or Writing Center. Help is usually provided by specialists and tutors.

Universities with tutoring services do not necessarily require documentation for learning differences before students can access the services, but students with learning differences or ADHD might be granted additional access, such as a higher frequency of use compared to other students.

Comprehensive or Structured Program

The highest level of services usually has an application process, is staffed by learning specialists, and may also work on executive functions. The services could be concierge-style or include counseling, determined on a student-to-student basis.

Note that the structured program level often has a fee.

In all cases, the Student Disability Services Office is the place to find out what options the university provides.

    What else should I ask?

These four questions should provide insight into the completeness and quality of a university’s disability services.

How many students are currently receiving services? This can indicate the presence of a welcoming community as well as experience working with students with unique needs.

Who provides the services? Learning whether professionals or peers offer tutoring (not to mention the availability of LD specialists, Autism Spectrum Disorder specialists, and ADHD coaching) can speak a lot to the quality of the program.

What are the program’s restrictions or costs? There may be a limit to the number of hours per week a student can use the resources, or there may be additional costs for certain services.

What documentation does the university require? Contact both Admissions and Student Disability Services to find out what paperwork the college wants and when it wants it. Also ask about special admissions considerations for students with learning differences.

    Get in Touch

After you’ve done your research, be sure to meet with the Student Disability Services Office during a campus visit.

The size and placement of the office can indicate how much the office is used.

Observe the number of students who are making use of the office while you are there. Observe whether college students or degreed adults are staffing the office.

In addition to office hours and availability, the atmosphere of the office can help you make a final judgment about whether their services will meet your student’s needs.

It’s a time-consuming but wholly worthwhile effort to make the college experience a successful one for your student. There are many great colleges for students with learning differences. The key is finding the right one for your student.