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Planning for college when your teen has an IEP or 504 plan in high school

Updated: Feb 22, 2023

Does your child have a 504 plan or IEP in high school? Here’s what support they can expect in college.

For students with Learning Disabilities (neurological processing disorders like dyslexia, dysgraphia, and ADHD that affect learning, abbreviated as LD) finding the right college fit is especially important. Students' IEP and 504 plans don't carry over to college, so they need to make sure their future college will give them the support they need.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the law which guarantees high school students with LD a free and appropriate public education and testing services, does not apply to colleges. Rather, colleges adhere to the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Under the ADA, students with LD will receive accommodations in college, but the support could vary drastically from one university to another.

Which of these universities sound like they would best support your teen?

  • Minimal services as required by law: Accommodations are available for students who effectively communicate about them, but tutors are peer tutors, there is no professional learning specialist, and tests may not be administered in distraction-free areas.

  • Moderate services: The college is aware and sensitive to the issue and offers a variety of supports, including a learning center with certified staff where students can take tests without distractions. Examples of specialized support include peer or professional tutors, support workshops, a mentoring system, organizational and study skills assistance, and fee-based summer programs.

  • Comprehensive program (usually fee-based): A separate program for students with LD fosters a sense of community. The full-time and certified professionals will communicate regularly and often with the student, and they may even be involved in admission. The learning center offers a great variety of supports: distraction-reduced testing areas with trained proctors, professional tutors, coaches/mentors, social skills groups, regular organizational skills and time management coaching, and specialized summer orientation programs.

  • Specialized Autism and social support program (usually fee-based): A separate program just for students with ASD and social communication disorders offers all the academic benefits of a comprehensive program but also provides community, structured social support through activities and mentoring, life skills support, a learning specialist case manager, and potentially matched roommates or special housing.

As you search for the perfect school to support your teen, remember that the number one thing students and parents need to do is to contact the disabilities office (or similar office) at the university and have a direct conversation about the student’s needs and what the college can provide. Don’t skip this step, or you risk ending up at a school with inadequate support. Don’t worry, the disabilities offices do not communicate with admissions about the student!

As your teen prepares for their transition to college, here are five tips for seeking support on campus:

  1. Students must self-advocate and ask for support when they need it. In no situation will the college take initiative on this, and parents will not be able to communicate on behalf of the student.

  2. Students should know their needs and be able to communicate the specific accommodations they require.

  3. Students need to manage their time in their new and unstructured daily routine. Practice early, and use supports like calendars and digital apps. Ask for help with time management if tasks (or distractions) start to pile up.

  4. Students should read the course syllabi three or more times at the beginning of the year, and then again every few weeks. All the information is on here, but there are probably no reminders from the professor.

  5. If students miss class, they should be sure to get the missed material from a peer or other class resource. Even if the professor helps with this, they certainly won’t reach out about it first. If the missed material doesn’t make sense, students should arrange a session with their peer or professional tutor early so they don’t fall behind.

Doing your research, due diligence, and proper planning in the college search phase can create an ideal situation for a student with LD to thrive in college. If they can find the perfect college fit, there’s no reason that your teen can’t use these pivotal four years to realize and achieve their dreams.

Your college research will be the difference between a campus with supports and a campus without them! It's a lot of work. Download my completely free College Research Guide to get my ultimate list of resources for the college search so you know exactly where to start.

Robert Powers (M.A. Johns Hopkins) is the college consultant at College Torch. He is an expert in colleges and the college admissions process. Parents, join his private Facebook group for Parents of College-Bound Students.

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