News & Press

Choosing a College When You Have Challenges

Schools for Children created Different Choices 2021, a virtual college & career transition fair specifically for students with IEPs, 504s and/or mental health challenges. The multi-day event at the end of October included the panel presentation How to Choose a College When You Have a Learning Disability and/or Mental Health Challenges.


The panel of transition experts, facilitated by Rob Franek, editor-in-chief of The Princeton Review and NBC commentator on higher education issues, discussed how students with learning and/or mental health challenges can find the right college “fit” – one that best suits their personality and need for support and accommodations. The panelists advised webinar participants on ways to assess a student’s own college readiness, navigate the college admissions process successfully, and discover tools that reveal how various colleges provide support.


Following an introduction of the panelists by Rob, educational consultant Carol Kinlan (Carol Kinlan Consulting) opened the presentation with an explanation of the importance of learning about the college “3-Tier” system of support for students with differences. U.S. colleges that offer Tier 1 provide a basic system of supports. Tier 2 offers more, and Tier 3 offers separate programs with extensive supports, accommodations and adjustments for students.


Carol recommended Different Choices attendees review, a database that explains which supports colleges provide. She added that IEP accommodations are not guaranteed in college, but many colleges these days provide them to students. And outside organizations are also providing support that can fill in gaps for needed support in college and careers.


Lynne DaSilva, director of the Arch Learning Community at Dean College, spoke about the differences between accommodations and modifications to curriculum, stating that in most colleges, accommodations can be obtained but modifications to curriculum are often not available. Courtney Joly-Lowdermilk, program director of NITEO – Boston University Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation shared how the center has been supporting student mental health for many years and has always supported school interruptions.


During the past few years, however, the center has become even more important and more widely sought out, as the COVID-19 pandemic interrupts school journeys more often than not. Other panelists agreed that the pandemic and remote learning have added to the support needed by students  whether they are learning disabled, emotionally challenged or not.


Doing the Homework

All panelists advised students considering college to assess their high school experience:


  • Where do they currently need support and what kind?
  • What will they need in college if they remain at home or local or if they move far from home?


The next step is to think about their college readiness skills. These included self-advocacy, responsibility, self-management, communication, teamwork and collaboration, comfort with technology, critical thinking and problem solving, study skills, and tolerance for ambiguity. It is important to know in which of these areas a student is strongest and where they still need to grow as they begin investigating which colleges offer what kind and how much support and accommodations.


Making Connections

Students can use tools like the earlier mentioned or Admissions and Accommodations in their search for the right fit. Panelist Niloo Kamkar, a student advocate for NCLD (National Center for Learning Disabilities) and a paralegal, suggested that soon-to-be graduates call the disability support office(s) at their preferred colleges to hear firsthand how the institution does and does not support students once they are on campus. Making an actual call provides the added benefit of having that connection in place if the student decides to attend.


Making an informed decision means learning not only what supports are provided but finding out who is giving the support: peer mentors or specialists? And is the extra support included in the cost of attending the institution or is the additional support available only for an extra charge? Is it included and embraced in the culture of the school or is it placed outside the main college? All of these factors affect how a student will perform in their chosen college.


How to Choose a College panelists stressed the importance of gathering as much information as possible before deciding on a college. Just as doing homework helps students do better in high school, the homework involved in choosing a college improves a student’s chance of a successful college experience.

Check out the Different Choices resource directory.

Watch video from this Different Choices presentation.