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How to Choose the Best College if You Have an Intellectual Disability

This post is from a student, parent, or professional contributor. The opinions expressed by the author are their own and do not necessarily reflect the positions, viewpoints, or policies of Niche.

As diverse and nuanced are the intellectual and learning disabilities now known by medical experts, so too are the higher ed academic options. Colleges around the country are increasingly expanding their academic offerings to accommodate students who have disabilities such as autism; dysgraphia, dyslexia or dyscalculia; Attention Deficit Disorder; and speech disorders, among others. 

In years past, a college education may have not been possible for some, or at least the feat felt a little ill-fated, but higher education has come a long way to create inclusive campuses, coursework and staff. The higher education options have grown to include the same options as traditional students, running the full range of vocational, career schools, as well as two- and four- year colleges, but here we’ll spotlight the most traditional route of four-year universities. A quality program with the right resources can make all the difference. Here are some things you should know if you want to attend college and have a learning or intellectual disability.

Know Yourself, Know Your Resources

First, you and your family should evaluate your own capabilities. In what areas do you see yourself needing the most support? List them. From there, outline the campus services that would best help you succeed academically and socially. Because while colleges do their to make accommodations, inclusivity can look different for every student.

Inside the classroom, this can include allowing extra time for finishing tests, preparing a quiet or even empty space for testing, specially-trained tutors and leniency on leaves of absence from class.

Outside the classroom, these inclusive campus resources can include specialized housing arrangements, educational therapists, specially trained tutors and academic advisors, life skills coaches, or career services advisors with specialized training to assist in the later transition to the workforce.

At the very least, students with an intellectual disability should seek out the services of the campus disability coordinators that are now present on the majority of college campuses. 

Degree Options A Plenty

There are differing levels of disability within the broad scope of intellectual and learning disabilities. That’s why you’ll find some colleges offer a one- to four-year certificate programs, while other colleges offer students who qualify the support they need to progress through a full-degree program. 

The one-year certifications are most often found to be occupational skills programs, like the program at Central Lakes College, which results in a diploma focused on preparing students for entry-level careers. Typically, the two- to four-year programs progress students to a specific career path or maintain a goal of preparing the student for independent life. Students enrolled in the On 2 JSU program at Jacksonville State University progress toward a certification in one of two pathways, Business Basics or Food Service, through individualized coursework taking classes alongside their traditional peers and a professional internship. 

For example, one such college that offers a full certificate program is InclusiveU through Syracuse University. This four-year program includes individualized coursework and academic planning, and inclusion in social activities. Classes are selected based on personal and professional interests, while campus internships provide transferable job skills for later professional transition.

One college program that supports students with learning and attention challenges through a full degree program is the University of Arizona, Tucson’s Strategic Alternative Learning Techniques Center (SALT). Students joining the SALT Center develop an individualized learning plan for success with their assigned Strategic Learning Specialist. Through the center, students are guided through the transition to college life, and are invited to access specialized tutoring, computer labs and workshops throughout their academics. 

The College Search: Start Local

For many students with intellectual disabilities, it’s natural to begin the college search close to home, in an area you know and with a built-in support system of family of close by. Start your college search by making a list of the colleges near your hometown, then research the disability resources and accommodations they have available. 

Here are some things to look for: 

  1. The presence of a disability center and coordinator. A disability center and coordinator is an indicator of success stories of the inclusive program, and past experience of handling reasonable requests like a single room in housing. 
  2. Adaptive classroom learning accommodations. You should know in advance the amount of support the college can offer for the classroom. Federal disability law extends to every public and private college campus, but some schools that have more advanced academic accommodations than others.
  3.  An inclusive college culture. Students with disabilities are more likely to succeed on a campus that is supportive and embraces student differences.

Close is comfortable, but not always the right fit. If local colleges are lacking the resources you need to be successful or don’t offer the program you want, expand your search. 

Websites like Think College offer specialized college search tools to search for the right college by the program features. For instance, you can search for colleges with programs equipped to work with students with intellectual disabilities or autism, or both. Even further, you can search by the length of the program by year, the type of institution offering the certificate (community college or university), and program features like the availability of housing.

So once you lay it all out, and know what you want to achieve and how you want to achieve it,  you can begin looking for the perfect academic home to achieve your future goals.

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Author: Michaela Schieffer

Michaela Schieffer is a former admissions counselor and now independent college counselor, guiding students through their college applications and essays through Moon Prep's specialty lies in the Ivy League, direct medical programs (BS/MD), and highly competitive universities.