Accommodating Differences: How to Secure Support for Special Needs Learning in College

Last updated May 7, 2021 

According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, 19 percent of undergraduates are students with disabilities. Although these students learn differently than their peers, they are no less likely to succeed in college, especially if they have access to the accommodations and support they need.

Learning_DisabilitiesCommon Learning Disabilities and Accommodations

College students with learning differences receive accommodations for disabilities ranging from specific skill difficulties (e.g. dyslexia, dysgraphia, and dyscalculia) to processing deficits (visual and/or auditory). Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder is also common at the college level.

Accommodations are considered based on the needs of an individual student, but typically include:

  • Extended time on exams.
  • Use of laptops and/or calculators for tests and exams.
  • Permission to make audio recordings of classes.
  • Reduced course load.
  • Priority registration.
  • Copies of notes from a classmate.
  • Access to audiobooks, voice recognition software, and text-to-speech programs.

Many colleges and universities also offer services that may be helpful for students with learning differences, such as mentoring programs, student support groups, study skills coaching, and training in adaptive technology. 

Rights, Responsibilities, and Requirements

During elementary and secondary school, students are entitled to accommodations through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). IDEA guarantees support and services via the Individualized Education Plan (IEP) process, including transition advising. However, after graduation, students are not entitled to accommodations under IDEA. Instead, accommodations must be secured through Section 504 and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which guarantees equal access and bans discriminatory practices. The shift from IDEA to ADA also means a transfer of responsibility from the parents and the schools to the students. In fact, under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, parents may no longer communicate with professors or be granted access to grades and other student information.

Evaluations are Everything

In order to qualify for accommodations, students must submit an up-to-date psychoeducational evaluation. School policies vary and frequently change: some four-year colleges will accept evaluations that are three to five years-old, while some community colleges require updated evaluations. Parents and students should always check with prospective schools to determine what learning support options are provided and to verify any requirements that must be met to receive accommodations.

Paul E. Meschter, a school psychologist with over 35 years of experience evaluating and counseling elementary through college-age students, also suggests that all students get reevaluated to get the most of the transition process. For a nominal cost, it is a great opportunity for students to “practice discussing their disability and need for accommodations, as well as benefit from the recommendations generated by the testing.” Updated evaluations can also reveal how learning support programs and developmental changes have affected a student’s deficits. For example, Meschter explains, “20% of adolescents outgrow ADHD and are no longer in need of accommodations.” Other students may no longer need accommodations because “learning support programs can often bring students up to functional levels.

If you choose to invest in a new evaluation, it is important to get it done by the right person and at the right time. Meschter recommends evaluations be completed “during Junior year and no later than fall of Senior year” by a licensed and certified school psychologist who has experience “writing evaluations in the ADA-sanctioned format.” Students with other types of disabilities (e.g. expressive/receptive language disorders, medical or sensory disabilities, or psychiatric disabilities) should have their evaluations updated by an appropriate clinician or physician.

Coordinating with Colleges

Students who decide to disclose their disability status to colleges in order to receive accommodations should do so as soon as possible following admission. Acting fast gives students enough time to secure services and assistive aids. Think College suggests students follow these steps:


  1. Register: Notify your school’s Disability Services Office of your disability and any accommodation requests.
  2. Documentation: Provide medical or psychological documentation to the DSO office that describes your disability and its impact on learning.
  3. Meeting: Meet with disability services staff to discuss and request accommodations. Students should provide any diagnostic test results or professional recommendations to support specific accommodations.
  4. Accommodations: The DSO will help students determine what accommodations are the best fit and will communicate those needs to faculty and staff to guarantee accessibility.


Colleges will assess the need for accommodations based on two factors: necessity and reasonableness. For example, it may not be a necessity for a student with ADHD and slower processing speeds to use a calculator during an exam when he can be reasonably accommodated with extended time. Self-advocacy is critical. As Paul E. Meschter explains, “The student needs to be prepared to self-advocate, make appointments with their instructors, concisely describe their disability and tell why they need accommodations.” If students are dissatisfied with a DSO decision, they can appeal through a college’s grievance process.

Looking Ahead

College might seem like the perfect time to try to get by without the special supports that helped many students get through elementary and secondary school, including any unwanted attention or bureaucratic hassle associated with them. It doesn’t have to be that way. Making college accessible for students with disabilities is actually easier and more invisible. You can even consider applying to “disability friendly” schools. The transition from high school to college is a time when all students begin to take control of their own futures, and this is especially true for students with learning differences. Fortunately, there are resources and support out there for you to get the most out of your college experience.

At A+ Test Prep and Tutoring, our practices are based on the latest developments in educational theory and research. We have an excellent team of tutors who can help you with standardized testing, executive functioning, or achievement in any other school subject. If you want to find out more about our services, our Client Service Directors Anne Stanley and Susan Ware can be reached at 215-886-9188.


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