Guide to Getting College Supports

By Eve Kessler, Esq.


For young adults with learning challenges, accessing supports in college is entirely student-driven • Using this step-by-step guide will help your child get off to a strong start by receiving the accommodations they’ll need to succeed as they embark—and continue—on their higher education journey

Students with learning differences who benefited from accommodations and modifications throughout their early education are often caught off guard when they get to college and find the support environment is different from what they’re used to. In higher education, modifications no longer exist, and while “reasonable accommodations” are accessible, they must meet institutional criteria and be approved by their professors.  

Accessing Accommodations

The process for accessing accommodations in college is entirely student-driven. Due to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), as a parent, you no longer play a part in the process, other than advising or supporting your child as they advocate for themselves.

Once in college, your child must self-identify as a “student with a disability” (see definition below) and register with the Office of Accessibility Services. While details may differ depending on the institution, generally they will be required to provide documentation detailing their diagnosis and their need for support. This may take the form of accommodations and services from high school (e.g., IEPs or Section 504 Plans), a recent evaluation, or letters from relevant service providers. 

This is the point in the process when your child should meet with their instructors and the Accessibility Office staff to advocate for the accommodations they hope to receive. 

If approved for support, your child will be eligible to receive reasonable accommodations regarding tools, materials, technology, visual aids, physical space, and timing to help them access the curriculum. 

In keeping with the federal anti-discrimination statutes (Section 504 of The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act), it is up to faculty members to make their courses accessible to all students within the following limitations: they are not required to change the “essential content” of their courses, which they are responsible for determining in keeping with the principle of academic freedom. In addition, to be considered a “reasonable accommodation” any change must meet the college’s accreditation and licensing prerequisites and not cause undue financial or administrative burdens.

Common Accommodations

Following are examples of reasonable accommodations available for eligible college students:

  • Note taker (eg., copies of notes from a classmate; especially for students with dysgraphia, dyslexia, ADHD, language processing, medical needs)
  • Extended time for assignments and tests
  • Use of laptops for tests
  • Use of calculators for tests
  • Alternative testing location (e.g., a testing center or room with limited distractions)
  • Assistive technology (e.g., text-to-speech programs; voice recognition software; closed captioning)
  • Alternate format textbooks (eg., large print textbooks; online customizable textbooks with audio/video links)
  • Access to audiobooks
  • Authorization to make audio recordings of classes (e.g., use of smart pens)
  • Accessible classrooms
  • Interpreters

Harder to get Accommodations (subject to committee review) include:

  • Extended time on papers and projects (e.g., for students with serious medical/ mental health needs)
  • Alternative test formats (eg., oral instead of written; project-based)
  • Housing (eg., single rooms for students with medical needs/sleep disorders, anxiety)
  • Flexible schedule
  • Decreased course load 
  • Course waivers and substitutions (e.g., American Sign Language or foreign culture classes instead of traditional foreign language requirements)
  • Priority registration (to address time or location needs)
  • Writing support (especially for students with ADHD, and language-based learning disabilities)
Key Terms & Definitions

Knowing these terms will help your child advocate for the supports they need.

Accommodations: Strategies to help students with disabilities access and benefit from the same programs, information, and material as their peers. Accommodations alter how instruction is delivered and how a student learns, but the curriculum, learning expectations, outcomes, and grading remain the same. (For examples, see the list of common accommodations above).

Modifications: Changes to curriculum content that impact what a student is taught or expected to learn. Curriculum, learning expectations, and outcomes differ from those for students without modifications, and grading is appropriate for the individual’s developmental level and learning needs. For example, while an accommodation may allow for extended time on tests, a modification may change the number of questions on the test or the questions themselves and allow for alternate assessments or a pass/fail option.

Student with a disability:  Under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 a disability is a physical or mental impairment that significantly limits one or more major life activities, such as learning, thinking, reading, concentrating, communicating, seeing, hearing, speaking, working, performing manual tasks, or caring for oneself.

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 the Executive Director of SPED*NET, and a Contributing Editor of Smart Kids. Click here for a recording of the webinar.

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