Finding the “Best-Fit” College

By Eve Kessler, Esq.

Finding the right college for your child with learning challenges is a highly individualized process • Rather than focus on rankings and prestige, look for campuses that are “the right fit” based on your teen’s unique skills, priorities, learning style, interests and needs


Parents and students often assume the best college for their child is an elite, competitive one. But Janine Kelly, J.D. and Deborah List, Ph.D., professionals who prepare students with learning differences for post-secondary transitions, caution that just because a well-respected college accepts your student doesn’t guarantee they’ll thrive there or be successful later in life. The following are Kelly and List’s suggestions for choosing a college or university wisely:

  1. Make sure your teen wants to go to college now. To be successful in college, a student has to want to be there. Do they feel ready or are they just trying to please you or fit in with their peers? Do they understand what college entails and are they willing to make the commitment? If they would prefer to spend a gap year following high school, discuss those options and devise a plan. Taking an extra year to improve executive functioning (EF)  and independent living skills through transition programs, employment, or both may help prepare them for success.
  2. Shift your mindset from best to best fit. Instead of focusing on college rankings consider where your teen will feel competent academically, socially and emotionally; supported in their learning; and be able to pursue their passion and excel in what they do well.

Confirm that the college offers courses that interest them and can support them in areas of need. For example, if your child struggles with language arts, reading comprehension, or critical thinking, don’t limit your search to liberal arts schools, which tend to be reading and writing intensive. Focus instead on colleges with freshman writing courses built into the curriculum, writing labs, access to tutors, and courses that don’t involve rigorous reading or writing.

Be sure core-curriculum requirements and their chosen major are achievable. If your teen is a talented actor, vocalist, musician, or artist look for colleges, universities or conservatories that offer fine arts programs where they can develop their talents. Not only will they be able to hone their craft, but a like-minded community will surround them, ensuring that they’ll feel understood and nurtured. Similarly, a student who is mathematically oriented and proficient in computer science may benefit from a tech-heavy program that engages them in hands-on learning without significant reading and writing requirements.

  1. Review college websites. Different colleges may have different names for their Office of Accessibility or Disability Services, but their websites should provide quick access to required information about accommodations and support services, staff credentials, and contact info. If disability-related material isn’t easily found on the website, the college might not be accessible for your child.
  1. Evaluate accessibility standards and check ratings by students and parents. Schools must give students with disabilities the opportunity to acquire the same information, engage in the same interactions, and enjoy the same services as easily as students without disabilities.

Under the law, students with IEPs and 504 Plans are considered students with disabilities.”

There are many rating tools available to determine how supportive and accessible particular campuses are. Kelly and List suggest starting with The K&W Guide to Colleges for Students with Learning Differences, 15th Edition, by Marybeth Kravets, M.A. and Imy F. Max, M.S. (2021).   

  1. Clarify available resources and support programs. Make sure your teen’s choices have the appropriate support services for their skill set and learning style. IEPs, 504 Plans, accommodations and modifications DO NOT transfer to college. Once in college, there are no guaranteed supports and services. To access services, students must provide proof of disability and apply for potential accommodations.

If your child requires more than reasonable accommodations, research available supportive programs at each college. Some offer comprehensive academic centers customized for students who learn differently; others offer drop-in study centers with peer or professional tutors; some are included with tuition, others are fee-based.

If your teen uses assistive technology (AT), ask whether the school provides AT evaluations or opportunities to access text readers, alternative-format textbooks and course materials, graphic organizers, time-management tools, and speech-to-text software. Many colleges now offer EF courses or separate supportive programs that address lagging EF skills (eg., how to organize materials; begin and complete assignments; take notes; plan long-term research projects; use citations correctly, etc).

One of the best ways to assess fit is to visit campuses before applying. 
  • Meet representatives from the Office of Accessibility Services and bring prepared questions. If the Director or staff members are not willing to speak with applicants before they’re admitted, accommodating students with disabilities may not be a high priority for the school.
  • Speak with current students. Encourage your teen to talk to students, including Resident Advisors (RAs), and to ask the campus tour guide lots of questions. Teens often find other students the decisive factor in choosing a school: How “cool” are the other kids—and how happy and successful are they.
  • Follow social media posts and current student forums. Both before and after your visit, pay attention to what students are saying.
  • Consider available housing. Students often need a private room to feel comfortable, especially those with Tourette Syndrome, sleep disorders, ADHD, OCD, or anxiety. Make sure single rooms are available and guaranteed for students with disabilities.
  • Does it “feel right”? It comes down to the right vibe. When students finally begin the process of living away from home, they need a college where they can thrive, feel supported, be themselves, meet kindred spirits, and easily receive the services and accommodations they need without feeling stigmatized or embarrassed.

This article is based on a webinar, The College Timeline: Nuts and Bolts for Teens with IEPs or 504 Plans, by Janine Kelly, JD and Deborah List, PhD, partners in College Access & Beyond, LLC. Eve Kessler, Esq., a former criminal appellate attorney, is Executive Director of SPED*NET, www.spednet.org, and a Contributing Editor of Smart Kids. Click here for a recording of the webinar. https://spednet.org/nutsandbolts/

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