Helping Students with Learning Differences Prepare for College

students need strategies for college before they leave high school

Right about now 12th grade students can’t wait to graduate from high school. They are complaining about “senioritis” and waiting on pins and needles for their acceptance letters. As educators, however, we need to help them look past getting into their dream school or emptying out their high school locker, and look toward getting ready for college.

College is a time of increasing choice. Students relish the freedom of creating their own schedule, studying for classes they find interesting, and using their free time as they see fit. However, this abrupt transition is challenging for many students, especially students with learning differences. As they leave behind the structure and support of their family and high school teachers, students often find themselves overwhelmed as they attempt to juggle long reading lists, research papers, midterms, part-time jobs, and a social life.

Students with learning and attention difficulties are especially at risk for becoming overwhelmed and falling behind in college. Often these students received accommodations in high school to help them cope with tasks that are particularly challenging for them. Students with ADHD may have received help managing their time and keeping track of their assignments as well as access to the teacher’s notes. Students with dyslexia often received extra time on tests or access to audio textbooks.

Unfortunately, many students with learning and attention challenges are eager to leave the days of accommodations and IEPs behind them in high school. When it comes to college, they want to go it alone and live a disability-free life. The transition to college offers students the opportunity to make these types of choices for themselves; however, pretending that they have not struggled in the past is a dangerous choice. According to the National Longitudinal Transition Survey 2, a federally funded survey that tracked a group of teenagers from 2000 to 2009, 53% of students with learning disabilities don’t graduate from post-secondary institutions.

I recommend taking some time to do planning now, before high school ends. A great place to start is Landmark College’s College Readiness Survey. Students are asked to identify strategies in place to handle five foundation areas necessary for success in college (academic skills, self-understanding, self-advocacy, executive function, and motivation).

Identifying gaps in these areas before students head off to college will help your students gain a more realistic picture of the expectations they will face in college and may convince them to take advantage of the supports many colleges offer. It is much better to start this conversation while your students are still in high school and before they have failed one of their college classes.

  • Michael Greschler, M.Ed., SMARTS Director