By Kyle Kane, JD, IECA (SC)

The last several years have seen a welcome increase in the number of students with learning challenges going off to a four-year college. Although students with learning disabilities attend at half the rate of the general population, they are beginning to recognize that they can also reap the benefits of participating in the traditional college experience.

That is the good news. The bad news is that just 34% of them will graduate in four years, which compares to the national average of 52% of their neurotypical peers (Sanford et al. 2011). That low completion rate is traumatic for the students who fail and expensive for their families. Although students with learning differences drop out of college for a variety of reasons, many of them are simply not prepared for the transition to college and independence.

As independent educational consultants (IECs), we must be leaders in the process of educating families, helping them identify areas of challenge, find resources to address those deficits, and develop practical plans for support in college. We can do this in many ways, including:

Guiding families and students to critically examine their academic skill level. Families frequently overlook the all-important invisible academic skills, such as planning, writing, and studying. Do students understand how to plan for the completion of the assignment? Do they understand how to construct and execute an essay? Are they highlighting too much? Too little? These are areas that IECs become aware of when they work with students on their essays and applications. If students exhibit significant deficits, it is important to take steps to resolve them. High school is the time to target those issues.

Guiding families and students to evaluate their nonacademic skills, such as independence and social-emotional competence. We help families identify areas of challenge as early as possible and use effective strategies to strengthen these essential skills. Being capable of handling money, taking medications, and socializing appropriately are important skills to have and must be practiced regularly in the safe setting of home under the guidance of families.

Helping students hone their self-advocacy skills. The difference between accommodations in high school and college are significant. Students’ IEPs do not follow them to college, and colleges are not required to seek out and accommodate students; instead, the responsibility lies with the student to access the accommodations and services they need to be successful. The difference is because colleges are governed by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), not the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Given the freedom to choose whether to disclose a learning disability, most students choose not to disclose in college. In fact, only 17% of students eligible for disability services will register for them in college, although 94% of them used accommodations and services in high school (Cortiella and Horowitz 2014). To be successful, students must understand this difference, acknowledge their need for support, and practice exercising their self-advocacy skill muscles while in high school. We can help students practice throughout our process by talking to them frankly about strategies that help them succeed and encouraging them to use them.

Providing insight and advice about the appropriate level of college accommodations and support based on the psycho-educational or neuropsychological report and consultation with the psychologist. Obviously psycho-educational and neuropsychology reports provide a perspective on the student that is highly valuable in evaluating student capabilities and readiness. But frequently families do not understand—or they misunderstand—the report in terms of the student’s functional limitations and the implications for college placement. IECs can provide clarity and perspective to families that will help them make solid decisions about the best learning environment for their students.

Collaborating with the professionals in students’ lives. Although most professionals who work with students with learning challenges are focused on one specific aspect of need, IECs provide the 30,000-foot view of what is necessary for college and beyond. We are uniquely positioned to start the conversation about where the students are and where they need to be by graduation from high school. Gaining the insights of other professionals is also highly useful because it provides a depth of knowledge about the student that is important as IECs search for the best next step for students.

Introducing tutors, coaches, and advocates who understand students’ different learning styles. It is often difficult for families to find tutors, coaches, and others who truly “get” their students. IECs work to develop a network of tutors, teachers, coaches, and advocates who bring the knowledge, creativity, and experience to effectively work with our students.

As IECs, we have a responsibility to do as much as we can to increase the college-readiness and college success of the young people we serve. We must approach our students in a holistic manner and ensure, as best we can, that they are prepared to succeed in college and beyond.


Cortiella, Candace and Sheldon H. Horowitz. 2014. The State of Learning Disabilities: Facts, Trends and Emerging Issues (Third Edition). New York, NY: National Center for Learning Disabilities.

Sanford, Christopher, Lynn Newman, Mary Wagner, Renee Cameto, Anne-Marie Knokey, and Debra Shaver. The Post High School Outcomes of Young Adults With Disabilities Up to 6 Years After High School: Key Findings, From the National Longitudinal Transition Study-2 (NLTS2) (NCSER 2011-3004). Menlo Park, CA: SRI International.

Kyle Kane, The College Consulting Collaborative, can be reached at [email protected].

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