One Size Does Not Fit All: The College Search for Students with LD, ADHD, Spectrum Disorders & Other Special Needs

Imagine your favorite clothing store not having fitting rooms. What about a car dealership that does not allow test-drives? Would you buy what is right for someone else under the assumption it would therefore be right for you? Likely not. However, each year as the college search and application process comes to an end for seniors, many graduates will make the decision to join their friends, neighbors, and relatives at institutions that may not be a good fit for their academic, social, or emotional needs.

Colleges typically publish their freshman retention rate—the percentage of freshman returning for their sophomore year—and it is never 100%. Some students withdraw for financial or family reasons, while others transfer realizing that their dream school was not that after all. Finally, there are those who are forced to withdraw because they could not balance all that is required of a college student.

Imagine a three-legged stool, with one leg being academics, one being the social/emotional component of life, and the last being the independent living skills necessary to live in the world without Mom and Dad. To maintain balance on such a stool, each leg must stay strong; should one break, the stool will collapse. Some students (even those with a history of academic prowess) suddenly get caught up in an active social scene and simply forget that college entails classes. Others seek isolation, neglect their personal hygiene, develop unhealthy eating patterns, struggle with managing their time, or see an increase in anxiety and depression that was seemingly under control. Unfortunately, students with learning disabilities, social communication disorders, or emotional issues are often amongst those who find themselves falling off the stool.

From an academic standpoint alone, college is very different from high school. College students are expected to follow a syllabus without reminders, complete six to nine hours of work outside the classroom for every three spent in it, and attain grades based solely on formal assessment, not attendance and participation. Most importantly, even college students who have a legal right to accommodations are expected to advocate for themselves. Students who have spent years under the care of tutors, specialists, psychologists, and devoted parents are suddenly left alone to survive in college; a world they may not be prepared to navigate alone.

To prepare for this transition, we must help our students assess their needs and find colleges that will provide them with the best opportunity for success. Aside from comparing class size, access to professors, use of teaching assistants, and type of student, when researching colleges, it is crucial to compare the level of support offered to students with documented disabilities. Although there are mandates to provide basic services at every college in the United States, those at the basic level are rarely supportive enough to meet the needs of a student requiring more than just a bit of extra help. Disability support centers in these institutions are rarely coordinated by professional staff with degrees in special education or mental health, services available to students are very limited, and of greatest concern for some is that services are totally dependent on students being their own advocates. Parents beware—when your child turns eighteen, you have no access to information from university staff. As they are deemed adults, your only source of information on how they are doing is the students themselves.

Many colleges have chosen to add services beyond those required by law and developed coordinated assistance where professionally trained directors meet with students individually, study skills workshops are offered, and peer tutoring is available. There is typically no fee for these services. Students, however, are again left to take advantage of these extras on their own, and there is no monitoring of student participation or success. An even greater level of support can be found in colleges that offer comprehensive support programs for underachievers, students with learning disabilities, or students with social communication disorders. Typically fee-based, these structured programs may have separate admissions standards, are run by specially trained staff, provide professional tutoring, instruction in time management and study skills, and may offer social mentoring; most importantly, these programs often provide preset appointments and student monitoring. Students entering comprehensive support programs on college campuses are typically given the opportunity to sign a release for parents to have communication, albeit a limited amount, with the program. In many cases, this is the only avenue that parents have to measure the steadiness of their child’s three-legged stool.

In this day and age, there are good college options for most students to find success. It cannot, however, be achieved for every student on every campus. It can be found in a college that is chosen, not because friends, neighbors, or relatives are there, but because students and their families have spent time in the fitting room, taken a test drive, and decided for themselves that this college truly fits.

Jill Rickel, M.S., CEP is the founder of Academic Options: an educational consulting practice specializing in college counseling, therapeutic placement, and post-secondary alternatives for adolescents and young adults with learning, behavioral, psychological, and developmental disorders. Jill earned her masters degree in Counseling Psychology, is a Certified Educational Planner, and has been an independent educational consultant since 2006. Jill travels throughout the country using her clinical and program experience to evaluate colleges, schools and therapeutic programs and has extensive experience in placing students in appropriate academic and therapeutic environments. Academic Options works with families on a consultative or comprehensive basis. Please review our website at or feel free to contact Jill at

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