College and University Blog

Students with Learning Disabilities Can Succeed in College

Making the transition from high school senior to college freshman is a little bit overwhelming for just about all new college students, but people that have been diagnosed with learning disabilities often find themselves feeling defeated during their first months in college. Most students with learning disabilities have had the ongoing support of their family, special education teachers, tutors, and counselors during high school, and going away to college and being on their own for the first time may be tougher than expected.

Learning disabilities are complex neurological disorders which affect people of all intelligence levels. Absolutely anyone can have a learning disability, which can make them difficult to diagnose, but they are in fact real. Learning disability, or LD, is a rather generic term used to describe what almost seems like unexplainable difficulty with basic academic skills. Learning disabilities can affect someone’s listening, speaking, reading, writing, and math skills.

Students with Learning Disabilities Have Rights

According to the National Center for Learning Disabilities, nearly 3 million school-aged children in the U.S. are classified as having specific learning disabilities, or SLD, and receive some form of special education support. These children make up approximately 5% of public school students, and the figures do not even include children at private schools, religious schools, or children that are home-schooled.

If a person has been officially diagnosed with a learning disability, many forms of assistance can be provided in public schools. Thanks to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1997 (or IDEA, as it’s often called) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, people of all ages with learning disabilities are protected against discrimination and have a right to assistance in the classroom and the workplace.

Once a child has been diagnosed as learning disabled, the child or their parents can request that accommodations be made at school for that child’s specific needs. The child will then receive an individualized education plan, or IEP. IEPs vary from student to student, as the name suggests, because they are based on that child’s specific needs. IEPs might include regular time with a tutor or time in a specialized classroom for a certain subject, or the use of special equipment to help with learning.

Students with Learning Disabilities Can Attend College

Students with learning disabilities can attend college if they so choose, but IEPs are not available at the college level. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 will provide access to special accommodations, but things are very different at the college level than they were in high school. Degree programs and college course requirements cannot be modified to fit the student: instead, the student needs to find a program that he or she will be able to fit into.

A student with a learning disability that is planning to attend college needs to take special steps during high school to prepare for the college experience. The National Center for Learning Disabilities recommends that LD students who are planning to continue their education at the college level take a rigorous college prep program that is the most challenging available. This is for two reasons. First, if you’re unable to survive a college prep program with the assistance of an IEP, you may not be able to handle the additional stress of college. Second, you will also be able to assess your own strengths and weaknesses academically, which may be of assistance when the time arrives to choose a degree program.

Once you begin college, make it officially known that you have been diagnosed as learning disabled by registering with the school’s Office for Students with Disabilities. This way, your learning disability will be documented with the college and you will be able to get information about tutoring and student assistance centers.

Inform Your Professors of Your Learning Disability

Your professors may or may not realize that you registered with the Office for Students with Disabilities, but regardless, they should hear the information from you personally. Make an appointment to meet with your professors at the beginning of the semester, or visit them during office hours. It’s not a wise idea to attempt to explain your learning disability before or after class, when other students may be hanging around and your professor may be in a hurry. Remember that they are often rushing from one class to another just like the students are.

Bring some sort of documentation with you when you meet with your professors, and explain to them what type of learning disability you have and what sort of accommodations you are used to. You shouldn’t be aggressive, but you don’t have to be passive, either. Learning disabilities are real and you do have rights.

Financial aid opportunities are available for students with learning disabilities, just as they are for students without learning disabilities. In fact, scholarships are out there, too. The Anne Ford and Allegra Ford Scholarship offers a $10,000 award to two graduating high school seniors with documented learning disabilities who are pursuing undergraduate degrees. For more information about this award and others available for LD students, please visit the Scholarships and Awards section of the National Center for Learning Disabilities website.


Melissa Rhone+

Melissa Rhone earned her Bachelor of Music in Education from the University of Tampa. She resides in the Tampa Bay area and enjoys writing about college, pop culture, and epilepsy awareness.