Making a Successful Transition to College: Advice for Parents of Students with Learning Differences

By Robyn H. Griswold, Ed.D.

August is an exciting time of year as recent high school graduates are getting ready to start college. For these students and their families, the years of hard work and preparation have brought them to this important milestone. Attending orientations, registering for classes, choosing the right accessories for the dorm room, and meeting new friends, it is a time to celebrate and enjoy. This is also a perfect opportunity for parents to prepare their young adults to make the transition from high school graduate to successful college student. This is especially true for the parents of teenagers with learning

As a history professor and community college administrator, I have worked with many students with learning differences over the past 15 years. Most have become successful college students. Three years ago, I gained some new perspective as my own son with dyslexia entered his freshman year of college. Based on my experience, I would offer the following advice to parents seeking to support their children as they navigate this new and exciting phase of their educational journey.

• Remember that college is very different from high school. This may seem obvious, but parents and students need to be familiar with the specific ways college disability services differ from high school. As an excellent starting place, I would recommend that parents and students read the article, "7 Things to Know about College Disability Services," by the Understood Team. This article provides a succinct overview of key points including the differences between an IEP and an accommodation plan, how to access accommodations in college, and the changing parent role. Families will also find some very useful resources on the IDA-NNEA website

• Every student is unique. Although accommodation plans will never disclose specific disabilities to protect student privacy, I have noticed that some students are very open about sharing information regarding their specific learning challenges with their professors. On the other hand, there are students who had an IEP in high school, but decide to refuse supports and choose to try “on their own.” My son belongs to this latter group. Because every student is unique, I would recommend that families take some time to discuss available support services soon after a student is accepted and enrolled in a college. If a student wishes to seek accommodations, I suggest the student contact the disability services office as soon as possible to ensure there is adequate time to complete the intake process before the start of the academic year. If a student decides to forgo an accommodation plan, parents should still encourage the student to speak with someone in the disability services office. This way the student will know about available supports and the correct person to contact if help is needed.

• Encourage your child to become a strong self-advocate. As a high school student makes the transition to college, many parents are making a transition too. We must step back from being an active participant in our child’s educational planning and become the cheerleader and behind-the-scenes resource person. I can attest this is not easy, but as my son gets ready to begin his senior year of college, it has been gratifying to watch as he has grown into a self- sufficient young adult. Although the college parent’s role is different, parents still play a critical part in supporting their student’s academic success. What are some things parents can do?

Before the new semester begins:

• Check in with your child to be sure there are no issues with logging into academic
accounts such as college email, the student information system, and learning
management systems (e.g., Canvas and Blackboard).

• Ask if your child has access to all the required readings and materials for each course.

• Suggest your child review all course syllabi and note important due dates, professor
contact information, and office hours. You may want to do this together the first

• Remind your child about available support services at the college including contact
information for the disability services office and/or academic advising.

• Prompt your child to contact his/her professor or college offices with any questions as
soon as possible. Do not wait for a small problem to become a big one!

• Reassure your child you will be available to provide guidance if needed, but as a college
student and young adult, it is important to practice self-advocacy skills.

Once classes start:

• Encourage your child to attend classes regularly, check email for important
communications, and get involved with the campus community.

• Check in with your child on a regular basis to ask how classes are going and to talk about the topics he/she finds most interesting or challenging.

• If your child is having any issues in a class, prompt him/her to contact the professor as
soon as possible. If the issue continues, ask your child to contact the disability services
office for assistance in resolving the situation. Continue to reassure your child you are
available for guidance and support as needed.

• If you find your child is struggling to make the transition to college, it may become
necessary for you to reach out directly to college support staff for help. Because of
student privacy laws, however, you will need to get permission from your child and file
required paperwork before college staff can discuss your child’s academic progress.
Although the transition from high school to college is an exciting time for students and their families, it can also be stressful as students leave the familiar behind and adapt to a new academic environment.

This is especially true for students with learning differences who must adjust to the protocols that govern disability services at the college level. With some advanced planning, however, it is possible to minimize the anxiety so students can celebrate this important milestone and begin the next phase of their educational journey with confidence.

Robyn Hallowell Griswold is a member of the IDA -NNEA and she serves as Vice President of Academic Affairs at Nashua Community College in New Hampshire.


Applying to college can be an overwhelming process and this can be especially true as a dyslexic learner looking to achieve goals in higher education. As you begin researching potential colleges and universities, look at websites and, if possible, contact accessibility offices directly to find out about the resources and services available. Different schools address students in need of services differently; it’s important to find out about their resources early in the process in order to make an informed decision. It’s worth noting that larger schools don’t necessarily have more to offer in terms of student services. Some large universities offer less and there are small colleges that offer much more in the way of support. Investigate and ask questions. 

Here are some questions to ask prospective schools. Most of this information can be found on college websites, but don’t hesitate to call the school directly to get information.

What documentation does this school require in order to receive services and accommodations for dyslexia?

Some schools require recent testing and others use interviews, applications or other methods of determining eligibility. Each school is likely to have a different process for determining eligibility, but they will all require the student to request services. Be aware that IEP and 504 plans do not follow students to college, and parents may not apply for services on behalf of their children. You should be able to find the requirements by going to the school’s website and typing “disability services” into a search. 

Do students need to reapply for accommodations each semester or each year and what is the process for that?  

Some colleges and universities require students to reapply for accommodations each semester and others only require documentation once.  

What supports are available at this school for students with dyslexia?

Students are still protected from discrimination under Section 504, but the specific accommodations that were offered in high school do not transfer to college. For example, some colleges and universities have extensive support systems including special lounges and study centers for students with disabilities and individual tutoring and support available. 

According to the US Department of Education (2007) examples of academic accommodations that a college may provide under Section 504 may include:
Reducing a course load
Substituting one course for another
Providing note takers or recording devices
Extended time for test taking and assignments
Offering priority registration for courses
Allowing adaptive software (i.e., dictation, recording) to be used 

These accommodations are just examples of possible accommodations. You will need to work with the college individually. Having a conversation about the kinds of accommodations generally offered is useful because it will give you a sense as to whether the school is likely to work with you to meet your needs.

Does your school allow for exemption or substitution of courses that impact students with language based disabilities? 

Some colleges and universities require you to fail a required course before allowing for a course to be exempted. This tends to be an issue with foreign language requirements; some colleges will not allow substitution or exemption from a foreign language requirement until the student fails the required class. If foreign languages are a challenge for you or if you were exempted in high school, this might be important information to have before committing to a school.  

When touring the school, many students set up an appointment to meet with someone from the Office for Students with Disabilities or Student Support Center? (Be aware that the office might go by a different name.) 

It is a good idea to tour the school and make a point of speaking to someone who works with students with disabilities. You will likely leave with a strong sense of whether they have what you are looking for in terms of support.  

In the end, remember that this is your education and your future. You deserve a solid education and a fulfilling college experience. Don’t be afraid to ask a lot of questions. Pay attention to gut feelings. If you visit your “dream school” and they offer limited support or their attitude seems negative toward students with disabilities, it’s okay to cross them off your list and seek out a new “dream school.” Finding the school that is the best fit for you is the goal.