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Finding the Best College for Students with Learning Disabilities or Attention Disorders

Categories: Learning Disabilities, Parenting

By Carol A. Kinlan, M.Ed., M.B.A. Carol Kinlan helps find the best college for students with learning disabilities.I am an educational consultant who specializes in the placement of  students who struggle academically in school or college. While all of my clients will graduate from high school, their post-secondary plans require careful planning. Many of the students I work with have learning profiles that fall into one or more of five general groups:
  1. Dyslexia: These students understand complex information heard or read, but can’t read it accurately and/or quickly.
  2. Reading comprehension weaknesses: Students with this profile may read accurately and quickly but have trouble understanding more complex information that is fictional, abstract or inferential in nature.
  3. ADHD/ADD and/or executive function weaknesses: These students understand complex information when it is heard or read, but have significant trouble maintaining sustained focus and/or initiating, planning, transitioning or completing homework and other tasks.
  4. Aspergers/Non-Verbal Learning disorders: These students have trouble with correctly interpreting social situations, non-verbal information and math. They have difficulty understanding ”the big picture.”
  5. Dysgraphia (written expression) or Dyscalculia (math): These students struggle with aspects of writing or math calculations and formulas.
While some students have two or more of the above categories, others have disorders not listed above. Finding the right college for these students can be a complex process. While a student's grades, test scores, interests and personality always play a key role, there are additional issues for applicants with learning disorders. Every step of the college planning process needs to be thoughtfully considered and executed. When I first meet with a student, I focus on five general questions:
  1. What are your post-secondary school goals?
  2. Do you have an area or major of interest?
  3. What type of college or post-secondary school can you see yourself attending? (e.g., vocational, two-year, paraprofessional or traditional 4-year)
  4. What are your strengths and areas of challenge? (This is key. If a student’s writing and reading are very weak, a 4-year-competitive liberal arts college might be too difficult and a waste of money.)
  5. What are your grades, test scores and extracurricular activities? Let’s face it. These are important, and help us understand a student’s strengths and challenges in much more detail. I also review any neuropsychological evaluations. Finally, leadership roles, varsity sports and other activities are also discussed in detail.
Many times, students need specific support to raise grades or test scores for their college placement. Let’s take the high school sophomore boy with C’s and some low B’s who has poor reading (decoding) skills. He loves lacrosse and writing, but also has weak attention and organizational abilities.
  • First, this boy needs explicit support for his weak attention and planning skills.
  • He will also benefit from downloading books onto a Kindle or iPod and listening to them, and getting his fall school reading list during the summer.
  • He may need SAT or ACT test preparation. It is important to determine approximately how many sessions are required and exactly how the sessions should be focused. At times, test-optional colleges are advised for students who do well in school but poorly on standardized tests.
  • Finally, the college search needs to be highly customized. At the firm I work at – Howland, Spence & McMillan – we take a holistic approach: in this case, where does the breakdown occur in his organization? Can he get extra time for completing his SATs? Which colleges have the best support for students with reading disorders?
Also, our sophomore boy needs to know what to look for during the campus tours and what questions to ask. For example, students with dyslexia may be happier at colleges with a reduced core curriculum, smaller classes, strong academic support (vs. peer mentoring) and with hands-on learning options. At my firm, we have a special database that outlines in detail over 500 colleges and the academic support personnel and tools they offer for students with learning difficulties. This might include specialized tutoring options, software to support writing or math needs, class note-takers, accessible audiobook services like Learning Ally, and other assistive technologies. The assistive technology and support that is available to students at colleges is amazing, far exceeding what is available at many high schools. The K-12 grade schools have much to learn from post-secondary programs’ focus on technology and multisensory strategies to help students with atypical academic profiles. As our staff visits over 100 colleges each year, we are struck by the sheer number of excellent schools that support many types of learners. This means something to me, since finding the best post-secondary fit can make a huge difference for students with learning disabilities. Carol. A. Kinlan, M.Ed., M.B.A.  is an Educational Consultant at Howland, Spence & McMillan in Boston, MA who specializes in helping families find the best college for students with learning disabilities and attention disorders.