Today, more and more educators and schools recognize that not every student learns the same way. That’s becoming true at every level of education, from kindergarten all the way through college. Teachers and administrators at all tiers have come to understand that different students learn in different ways and are therefore educating themselves in more diverse pedagogy.
Nevertheless, being a student with a learning challenge can make the process of finding a college extremely overwhelming. Your learning difference is likely to make an already difficult process even more challenging. Particularly if you’re in a school that provides a lot of necessary academic support, you may be wondering how to maintain that valuable scaffolding in college. So, how do you go about making sure that a college or university is right for your learning needs?
Below, we’ve compiled some of the primary factors to look for in a school if you’re a student with a learning disability. The most important thing to remember is that everyone, no matter their learning style, can find a college or university that’s right for them!
Almost all colleges and universities have some kind of academic advising office, but you’ll want to make sure that your college has a large, active, and accessible one. As you research schools, find out: How often will you be able to meet with your academic advisor? Are they easy to find on campus? How many students does each advisor work with?
Having regular access to someone who can connect you with resources, help you choose classes, and work with you to create a strong and effective academic schedule will be an enormous help in managing the frequently unstructured college learning environment.
As you look for a school, it’s also important to know if it will provide accommodations for your learning disability. Some schools have an easier process than others, so it’s something to ask about. What is the process for having your learning difference recognized, and what kinds of accommodation can you receive? Extra time? An exam laptop?
Note that private colleges are not bound by the Americans With Disabilities Act to provide any particular accommodations for learning challenges. As such, make sure you apply to schools that will happily recognize and accommodate your particular needs.
Many college students, regardless of their learning style, find the transition from high school to college overwhelming and confusing, particularly the shift in academic work and expectations. However, for students with learning disabilities, this transition can be especially fraught. Thus, it’s important to know that your school offers effective mental health support.
Ask the same questions of counseling resources as you did of academic advisors. How accessible are the counselors? How quickly can you see or talk to one? Do they have experience helping students like you? Knowing a college takes mental health seriously is important to everyone, but especially to students with particular learning challenges.
Students with learning differences also find they benefit from personalized attention from their professors, so finding a school that offers a small student-to-faculty ratio is important. Being in an environment in which your professor knows you well and will be likely to notice if you’re struggling academically can be essential to ensuring you stay on track academically.
At the same time, it’s important to find out how much contact students really have with professors. Several prestigious research universities have a lot of faculty who don’t actually teach, leading to an artificially low student-to-faculty ratio.
Many students with learning disabilities often find small classes to be another advantage. A small class size means more face time with your professor, a greater opportunity to ask questions, and less chance of getting lost in the crowd if you’re struggling academically. So, when looking for a school, try to find out the average class size—especially in your intended major.
At the same time, some students’ learning styles mean they prefer to be in large, regimented lecture classes rather than participation-heavy seminars. If that sounds like you, a larger school might be better, especially if professors are available outside of class to provide additional assistance and feedback.
Distraction affects all of us, but it particularly harms students dealing with ADHD, executive functioning disorder, dyslexia, dysgraphia, anxiety, or other learning disabilities. As you look at different schools, try to get a sense of where students study and whether there are specific areas that would help you focus, based on your individual needs.
For instance, many college libraries offer individual study carrels, silent reading rooms, and/or distraction-free classrooms. Some students also find going off campus, to a public library or other space, means less chance of being distracted by friends. As you visit campuses, find places where you know you’d be able to study successfully.
Finally, many schools have special programs to support students with learning differences. As you find schools that excite you, look into their specific resources. Today, increasing numbers of schools are offering special academic advisors, unique study spaces, peer mentorship programs, a disabilities resource center, and more to students with learning disabilities. Below, we’ve compiled some of the most prominent programs with these features.
On top of the concrete help such programs offer, colleges that set aside resources specifically for students with learning differences show a clear commitment to intellectual diversity. For students with a learning disability, feeling confident that their school will support them is arguably the most important factor in finding the right fit.
Students with learning disabilities can thrive anywhere. Many find small colleges with good academic advising and a strong network to be all they need. However, there are also a number of colleges and universities that offer specialized programs for students with learning challenges, making them some of the best options for students who feel they would benefit from additional support of this kind. Here are some of those schools:
Many students with learning challenges find the first year of college to be the most difficult. For that reason, American University has offered a first-year Learning Services Program as part of their larger Academic Support and Access Center for three decades. This structured program offers students regular individual meetings with a counselor, enrollment in a reserved section of the first-year writing class, weekly meetings with a writing tutor, individualized academic advising, and an upper-class student mentor. These resources help American’s students with learning challenges develop learning strategies, study skills, and academic confidence that enable them to excel in their college coursework.
With its small size and deep commitment to diversity and inclusion, Middlebury is frequently ranked as one of the top colleges for students with learning disabilities. Middlebury operates under the philosophy that different learning styles are an asset to an educational institution, and it is committed to supporting all its students. In addition to training faculty to teach students with a range of learning styles, Middlebury also offers a dedicated Disability Resource Center. That space offers students confidential services and reasonable accommodations, such as note takers, readers, or scribes; access to screen-reading and large-print software; language and interpretation interpreting services; extended time on tests; and more.
Northeastern proves that schools don’t have to be small to provide an excellent education to students with learning differences. Their Learning Disabilities Program has received national attention as one of the best and most comprehensive support systems for college students with learning differences. Among its standout features is a mentorship program, through which participating students can meet weekly with a specialized advisor to discuss their experiences, challenges, and goals. Advisors help students set short- and long-term goals, all in accordance with their learning style. The LDP’s collaborative, student-driven approach ensures that Northeastern students with learning challenges can grow and thrive.
Unique among the University of California schools, the UC-Irvine campus shows its full commitment to students with learning challenges through its Disability Services Center. New UC-Irvine students can register with the DSC to receive full testing accommodations, get advice on what courses to take, report any barriers to learning accessibility, request additional or alternative instructional material, and much more. Beyond the DSC, UC-Irvine also shows a campus-wide commitment to neurodiversity, arguing that it strengthens the student community for everyone. The University even offers a 3-hour workshop for neurotypical students who want to become better allies for those with learning differences.
Within the University of Connecticut’s larger Center for Students with Disabilities, the school offers Beyond Access, a designated program for students with learning differences. Participants in BA receive individual mentorship from a trained Strategy Advisor to understand their learning needs better and chart a pathway to success. Students work one-on-one with a trained Strategy Instructor every week to create a customized educational plan tailored to their unique learning styles and goals. Students develop greater academic, social, and life skills, including time and stress management; reading, writing, and math strategies; self-advocacy; memory and concentration; social skills; health and wellness; and career preparation.
The University of Denver has a long history of supporting students with learning disabilities. Their Learning Effectiveness Program was founded almost thirty years ago, and since then it has developed some of the most comprehensive and innovative learning support systems for college students. The program’s strength stems from its student-centric, student-led approach, in which students learn to advocate for themselves and take ownership over their learning by working closely with an experienced advisor. As students grow confident in their learning, advisors provide suggestions, resources, and encouragement. Through the LEP, DU students with learning challenges develop lifelong skills and strategies.
Although it’s a large public school, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is actually one of the best universities in the country for students with learning challenges. UNC offers a comprehensive Learning Center with a specific focus on attention deficit disorder and support for a variety of additional learning differences. These resources include classroom accommodations, individual academic coaching, peer support groups for students with learning challenges, and more. The campus even hosts an annual conference for experts on learning disabilities, the Burnett Seminar. Better yet, all learning support services at UNC are included in students’ tuition, unlike other fee-based programs.
Despite its small size, Ursuline College offers outstanding resources for students with learning disabilities. Their pioneering FOCUS Program helps students with learning challenges transition to college, improve their self-advocacy skills, and take ownership over their learning. The program offers different services and levels of support depending on a student’s individual learning needs. All students who meet the eligibility requirements for this specialized program receive individual orientation, direct advising on courses and major selection through regular meetings with a trained advisor, priority registration, assistance finding tutors, progress monitoring, and other academic and social support as needed.
Choosing a college isn’t easy for anyone, and if you’re a student with a learning disability, the choice can seem even more fraught. However, while college will present new challenges to all students, regardless of their learning style, it also presents new opportunities. So long as you choose a school with the right environment and support, where you’ll develop the tools to direct your own education, you’ll absolutely be able to grow and thrive during your undergraduate career.
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