Two people studying

Learning disabilities present unique challenges when you’re planning to attend college. The National Center for Learning Disabilities conducted a survey in 2016 of 800 parents, and 72% said it was hard finding information about college disability services. For these students, getting the right information and support to excel in college requires a persistent strategy.

In this extensive planning guide, we give you the tools you need to be successful in understanding the college environment for students with learning disabilities as well as your rights and potential accommodations. Whether it’s in-person or online college you’re pursuing, we’ll show you where to find the best resources to achieve your goals.

Common Learning Disabilities Among College Students

There are many learning disabilities that can be challenging in a college environment. Typically, students will work closely with college personnel to navigate their specific condition. Here are some of the most common learning disabilities that often require accommodations.

  • ADHD. Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder is a brain development disorder that affects focusing and impulse control. Students with ADHD often struggle with executive deficit disorder as well, which can affect problem solving, multitasking, and time management skills.
  • Auditory processing disorder. Also known as central auditory processing disorder, this is difficulty hearing and understanding information.
  • Dyscalculia. Students with dyscalculia have trouble understanding numbers, math concepts, and calculations.
  • Dyslexia. This is a learning disability where people have trouble recognizing words accurately and also may find reading comprehension difficult.
  • Dysgraphia. Dysgraphia is a neurological disorder that makes it difficult to write thoughts in a coherent manner.
  • Visual processing disorder. Processing visual information is challenging, and often drawing, copying, or distinguishing differences in letters or shapes is hard.

Challenges Students With Learning Disabilities Face

College students with a learning disability face a variety of challenges at school. For some, admitting they have a learning disability is a challenge to overcome. According to the National Center for Learning Disabilities’ executive summary The State of Learning Disabilities: Understanding the 1 in 5, only 24% of college students told their school that they had a learning disability. But 69% did not say they have a learning disability because they thought they no longer had one, even though people generally don’t stop having learning disabilities.

This can be a significant barrier to success because only a portion of college students with a learning disability are getting the accommodations they need. Reasons why students don’t disclose they have a learning disability include:

  • Thinking they’ll be perceived as either lazy or unintelligent.
  • Not wanting to be identified as someone who needs help due to their learning disability.
  • Not knowing how important accommodations may be for their success in college.
  • Not realizing they have a learning disability until they are diagnosed in college.

Another potential reason students with a learning disability may not seek accommodations could be due to the fact that their individualized education plans (IEPs) do not transfer from high school to college. This puts the impetus of petitioning for accommodations solely on the student’s plate.

However, you may be able to transfer some of the accommodations written into your IEP through the Disabled Student Programs & Services (DSPS) office or equivalent department at your college. DSPS will review your IEP and see what accommodations are available at the college level that may be beneficial to the student.

Students may also be able to transfer accommodations from a 504 plan to college. But you should keep in mind that colleges are not obligated to transfer all of the accommodations that were included in an IEP or 504 plan. DSPS offices differ from college to college — some colleges offer excellent support, while others do not.

How Colleges Accommodate Students With Learning Disabilities

As stated earlier, any IEP you might have from high school doesn’t transfer to college. You should still incorporate any necessary accommodations into your IEP or 504 plan prior to graduating high school, though. It will then be up to you to communicate the details of your disability and the accommodations you need to your college.

Also, you may want to modify the accommodations of your high school IEP to ensure that you have access to the best system of support during college. While each campus has different protocols in place for accommodating students, typically you’ll find these common accommodations:

Disability services office

Most colleges have a DSPS office. This is a place where you can discuss your accommodation needs to help you be successful in a college environment. These can include extended time for examinations, a quiet room for test taking, or the use of a reader (someone who can read test questions to the student). You may also need a laptop or other assistive technology devices — some professors don’t allow students to use a laptop in class, but if laptop usage is written into the IEP or 504 plan and the DSPS office allows it, the professor should make an exception.

Individual instruction modifications

A teacher may modify instructions so someone with a learning disability can understand the information better. Some examples of this include giving instructions both orally and in writing, double spacing all printed materials, and providing professor notes or asking a peer to take notes for the student.

Individualized coursework and testing

An educator may tailor coursework to the needs of a student with a learning disability. For instance, an instructor may encourage a student to ask additional questions after class. Also, how a test is given can be altered based on the student’s learning disability. For example, it may be given in a distraction-free setting that allows the student to better concentrate on the material. Some professors are more accommodating than others — you’ll have the best odds of getting this accommodation approved if it is written into your IEP or 504 plan and allowed by the DSPS office.

Classroom accommodations

Classroom accommodations are the ways an instructor can assist a student so that a person can actively participate and feel part of an inclusive learning environment. For example, if handwriting is difficult for the student, alternatives, such as tape recorders, could be used. If it’s difficult for the student to read, suggesting alternative materials like videos to enhance understanding is also an option. The student will need to ask permission from the instructor before tape recording or videotaping the lesson.

Additional time

Students with learning disabilities generally take longer to process the information they are learning, and extra time is an often needed accommodation. Sometimes the student will need double the amount of time to complete assignments and take tests. Instructors will often work with students, depending on their individual needs, to break down assignments into manageable segments.

Community disability resource centers

Beyond the college campus, many communities offer disability resource centers that are devoted to helping individuals with disabilities. Some of the services could include transportation assistance, referrals to community programs, and help getting assistive technology.

Assistive technology

Assistive technology (AT) is equipment needed to effectively manage challenges related to your learning disability. Many types of AT are available, and devices and systems that have proven to be helpful include:

  • Smartphones and watches. These devices can help you remember appointments and stay on schedule when you’re easily distracted or have a difficult time focusing on tasks.
  • Organizational systems. Highlighters and different color folders — either physically or on your computer — can help you organize tasks and keep track of your progress on assignments.
  • Text reader. This converts written text into speech, and then a computerized voice can read the text back to you, which makes understanding easier when reading is difficult.

Bookshare. This resource offers access to free audiobooks for U.S. students who are visually impaired or unable to physically manipulate a book.

How to Request Accommodations

Woman Holding School Books

Asking for the accommodations you’ll need is the first step when working with your new college. If they understand how to help you, you’ll be better prepared to succeed.

We created a sample request for accommodations form so you can see what they usually look like. Along with your request form,  include related documentation, such as any IEP and other information that will give the disability services office a complete understanding of your situation. Most colleges require an IEP, a 504 plan, a letter from a physician with a diagnosis of a learning disability, and/or an assessment from a psychologist with a diagnosis of the disability.

Advice From an Expert

Raja Marhaba

Raja Marhaba

Founder & CEO of The Jonathan Foundation for Children With Learning Disabilities, LinkedIn

1. What things should a student with a learning disability consider when selecting a college?

I would highly recommend that you visit the Disabled Student Programs & Services (DSPS) office, meet with the staff, and see what accommodations the college may offer compared to your current IEP or 504 plan. This is very important, as some DSPS offices offer better accommodations than others. You want to make sure you choose the college that provides all the support you need to achieve success.

2. What would you tell a student with a learning disability that believes college is unattainable?

Every student learns differently, and the college experience is very different from high school. Do not overload yourself with too many classes if you are unsure about your ability to keep up with the workload because this can set you up for failure. Instead, consider starting out with just a couple classes — one fun course along with one core subject. If there’s a particularly difficult class required for your curriculum, you may want to only take that class for the semester. It’s okay not to take a full load. Many students with learning disabilities do not have a full-time schedule of classes in college.

3. Is it important for students to disclose a learning disability?

It’s important to disclose a learning disability to the DSPS office as well as your professors so that they understand what your strengths and weaknesses are and how they can work with you. These days, learning disabilities are looked upon as a gift rather than a disability. Own your disability and take advantage of the tools, accommodations, strategies, and support that’s available to you.

4. Should students with a learning disability use campus and community resources?

Yes, students with disabilities should maximize all the resources available to them so that they are provided with opportunities to access curriculum and achieve success. Join study groups, get involved in committees on campus, listen to books on tape, and download any apps or other digital tools that may be able to improve your college experience.

5. What tips would you give a student with a learning disability for succeeding in college?

It’s important to never give up on yourself, even when college is difficult. Believe in yourself and your abilities, not your disabilities. Each person with a disability has a unique gift (which people without disabilities may not have), such as photographic memory, high comprehension, artistic creativity, etc. These gifts may very well develop into skills that advance your career.

Also, you should always ask questions when you are unsure about something. There is no such thing as a “stupid” question. Just because you have a learning disability does not mean you cannot succeed.

My son Jonathan graduated high school with a fifth grade reading level, went to a two-year college, and then graduated with a 3.999 GPA. He worked very hard to study, maximized utilization of the DSPS office, formed study groups, and used technology for his severe dyslexia to access curriculum. He also made time to join the theater program at college, as acting was one of his loves. Most importantly, he was determined to succeed because all through his schooling he was told he would never graduate high school. He proved everyone wrong.

Know Your Rights

As a student with learning disabilities, you have rights that can protect you. The American Disabilities Act of 1990 was a major step forward in protecting the civil rights of people with disabilities because it made discrimination against people with disabilities illegal. The ADA Amendments Act of 2008 expanded the definition of what qualifies as a disability to include physical or mental impairments that limit “life activities” like reading and learning.

Students with learning disabilities are also protected by Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which covers people with “hidden disabilities” that are not readily apparent to others. According to this law, programs that receive federal funding or are conducted by a federal agency must not discriminate against qualified students who have a disability.

If you find that you have been discriminated against due to your disability and you can’t resolve it with your college, you can file an ADA complaint that will be reviewed by the U.S. Department of Justice. It’s also possible to file a discrimination complaint with the Office of Civil Rights (OCR).

Common Assistive Apps for Students With Learning Disabilities

Assistive apps serve as tools to help navigate your learning disability by helping with concentration, speech, and tasks. Our top picks of the best assistive apps to help manage your learning disability are listed below.

The following assistive apps are not replacements for professional medical advice. Please consult a medical provider before making any health-related decisions.

Focus@Will Focus@Will plays instrumental music that is scientifically designed to increase focus. Cost: $7.49 per month or $45.00 – $52.49 yearly. Download: Android | iOS
Photomath Photomath allows you to scan math problems and see detailed step-by -step solutions to increase comprehension. Cost: $4.99 – $9.99 monthly. Download: Android | iOS
Spell Better Spell Better is an app that helps those with dyslexia by automatically correcting words with spelling errors and reordering letters. Cost: $9.99 – $24.99. Download: Android – Not available | iOS (iPad only)
SnapType SnapType allows students who have trouble with dysgraphia to take a photo of their workbook and type in their responses. Cost: $4.99. Download: Android | iOS 

Benefits of Online College for Students With Learning Disabilities

Attending an online college offers many benefits to students with learning disabilities who want the opportunity to achieve college success.

One advantage of some online learning programs is their asynchronous nature, which means the class doesn’t meet in real time. This gives someone managing a learning disability the time to process the information they want to understand. Using email also allows for a longer response time. In addition, when the pressure of real time is removed, often a student can fully participate with the rest of their class.

Other advantages of working online are the opportunity to use assistive technology to convert written words into an audio format or to review lessons multiple times versus listening once in a lecture setting. Also, working in a comfortable environment and being able to schedule your time to work on the class allows you to navigate the flow of coursework at a pace that works for you.

Scholarships and Financial Resources for Students With Learning Disabilities

Besides the challenges students face in managing their learning disability, added financial expenses can be a consideration. The scholarships featured below are available specifically to students with learning disabilities. Check the scholarship website for current application deadlines and requirements.

  • Anne Ford Scholarship. This $10,000 scholarship is granted over a four-year period to high school graduates who are pursuing a bachelor’s degree. The Anne Ford Scholarship is awarded to students who have financial need, have a learning disability or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or ADHD, and want to make a positive contribution to their community.
  • Allegra Ford Thomas Scholarship. This $5,000 scholarship is awarded over a two-year period to a graduating high school student who enrolls in a two-year community, vocational, or technical college. Applicants must show financial need, have a learning disability or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or ADHD, and express how their future career will impact their community.
  • Joseph James Morelli Legacy Foundation. These scholarships range from $500 to $2,500 and can be used for tuition, books, and other assistive resources. Students must have a reading or language disability similar to dyslexia. Students must be planning to attend an accredited undergraduate, technical, or community college and to pursue a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) degree.
  • Alpha One Powering Education Scholarship. This scholarship is for high school graduates in Maine who have a documented disability and plan to pursue undergraduate or graduate study. Award payments are made after the first term is completed to students who have maintained at least a 2.5 grade point average on a 4.0 scale. Your high school transcript, letters of recommendation, and a personal essay about your disability experience are required to apply.
  • INCIGHT Scholarship. Students must be current California, Oregon, or Washington residents to apply for the $500 renewable award. Applicants should be attending a university, community college, or vocational school. Community involvement is emphasized with recipients agreeing to complete 30 hours of community service or volunteer at an INCIGHT event.

Additional Resources

Many organizations that focus on learning disabilities advocate for and provide support to give college students additional help. We have listed some of the largest organizations here as additional resources to use both during your college years and after graduation.

DREAM. Disability Rights, Education, Activism, and Mentoring (DREAM) is a national organization that is for all college students with disabilities who are pursuing higher education options. Sponsored by the National Center for College Students with Disabilities, DREAM  advocates for students with disabilities and provides support to campus groups and individuals.

NCCSD. National Center for College Students with Disabilities is a federally funded national center that provides information to undergraduate and graduate students with disabilities. Some of the topics in the NCCSD training center include webinars about disability as diversity and disability law and training on disability documentation.

AHEAD. Established in 1977, the Association on Higher Education and Disability® (AHEAD) has more than 4,000 members in all 50 states and 10 countries who are disability professionals. AHEAD provides members a database with access to more than 5,600 legal cases, a career center, and professional development webinars. AHEAD also features an annual conference, an online newsletter, and a searchable membership directory.

LDA. The Learning Disabilities Association of America (LDA) creates opportunities for people with learning disabilities through education, advocacy, and support. The organization encourages the early identification of learning disabilities and supports interventions for individuals with learning disabilities.

Interested in a degree instead?

Learn more about online degrees, their start dates, transferring credits, availability of financial aid, and more by contacting the universities below.