ADHD in College

College Accommodations Aren’t Like High School Accommodations

…but don’t panic. Here’s a rundown of the accommodations you might not get — as well as the ones that are feasible in higher education — and how you can be sure to secure disability services in college.

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Can a College Student Get Accommodations for ADHD?

Securing an IEP or Section 504 Plan for your child is rarely straightforward, but at least roadmaps exist for elementary, middle, and high school. Beyond grade 12, researching and exploring disability services for your college student can feel like stumbling through the dark without a flashlight. Accommodations do exist beyond high school, but the rules change significantly in higher education; caregivers and students need to know this — and how to shift their strategies accordingly.

[The College Try: A Freshman Survival Guide]

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Can My Child Keep Her ADHD Accommodations?

Myths and misunderstandings about college accommodations are neither rare nor helpful. Some students, parents, and professionals believe that students won’t have access to any accommodations in college; others assume nothing will change after high school. Neither side is wholly accurate. Your child CAN have accommodations in college, but they may not be the exact ones that helped her through her adolescence.

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What Are Legal Protections for Students with Disabilities?

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) applies to everyone, regardless of age, but it’s not often talked about in primary and secondary education, in part because kids in kindergarten through high school are protected by two other laws that are much more prescriptive: the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Subpart D. Section 504 also covers students who are at college, but a different part of the law applies (Subpart E), and it’s not as supportive as IDEA and Subpart D.

[Quiz: How Well Do You Know Special Ed Law?]

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How Do Education Laws Change In College?

IDEA (which governs IEPs) only applies to K-12 students, whose IEPs essentially "expire" as soon as they graduate from high school or age out of the system. This means that, while colleges may choose to provide some or all of the accommodations written into an IEP, they don’t have to do so simply because the student had those in his plan. Section 504 applies to students from kindergarten through college, but because Subpart D doesn’t apply at college (Subpart E is in place there), students’ 504 plans "expire," too.

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How Does an IEP or 504 Plan Work Before College?

Students in kindergarten through grade 12 are covered by a very formal system. Elementary, middle, and high schools have clear-cut responsibilities, including identifying children who may have disabilities, evaluating them, working with parents and teachers to implement appropriate accommodations and services, and providing specialized instruction. For students with IEPs, schools are also expected to assess students’ progress toward the goals outlined in their plan and to report on that progress.

[A 4-Year Transition Plan for High School Students]

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How Do Disability Services Change in College?

None of those requirements for assessing and tracking students, or providing specialized instruction, exists at the college level. The department tasked with upholding the ADA and Section 504 in college — often known as Disability Services (DS), or something similar — does not play nearly as direct a role in students’ education. Students who wish to seek accommodations must register with the DS office, but even when they do, DS does not track their progress, provide specialized instruction, or make modifications to the curriculum. Rather, the department’s legal responsibility is simply to provide accommodations to ensure students are able to access their courses and materials.

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What’s the Difference Between Modifications Vs. Accommodations?

Accommodations are supports or services that allow students to access the curriculum — they don’t change the content taught or any of the expectations for students’ performance. Modifications, on the other hand, do exactly that. Common examples of K-12 modifications include a reduction in the amount of work assigned or substituting a different type of exam — allowing an oral exam instead of a written one, for instance. Colleges may choose to provide these and other modifications, but they’re not legally required to do so — and many do not.

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How Do Laws Differ In College?

Colleges are not required to provide any accommodation or modification that would result in a fundamental alteration of their programs. This applies to specific course requirements, graduation requirements, and even the admissions process — for example, if a college requires applicants to have taken three years of a foreign language in order to be admitted, your child is not entitled to an exemption because her high school IEP allowed her to skip a semester of French. Again, the school can choose to accept her, but it isn't required to consider her application if it doesn’t meet admissions requirements.

Also, colleges don’t have to provide any specialized instruction or support, such as access to a learning disabilities specialist or ADHD coach. Students aren't "entitled" to any special kind or frequency of tutoring, either.

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So Will My Child Get Any Help?

This probably all sounds scary — and you may feel worried that your child will twist in the wind once you drop her off at her dorm. But there are plenty of accommodations that don’t alter course or degree requirements — ones that your student may receive, if she registers with DS and is found eligible for them. And remember: Just because colleges don’t have to provide the exact accommodations your child is used to, doesn’t mean they won’t. This is why it’s so important for families to do their research before and after applying to a college.

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What Accommodations CAN My Child Get?

So what is available to college students with disabilities? Lots of accommodations, actually! Some of the most common accommodations — ones that are fairly easy to get at most colleges and universities — include:

  1. Extended time for exams
  2. Breaks during exams
  3. Reduced-distraction sites for exams
  4. Permission to use a laptop
  5. Permission to use a spellchecker*
  6. Permission to use a calculator*
  7. Note-taking accommodations (permission to record lectures, sharing notes with another student, etc.)

*Spellcheckers or calculators may not be permitted if their use would fundamentally alter a course’s requirements. A pharmaceutical course, for instance, might require that students know the exact spelling of certain types of medications; a spellchecker would likely not be allowed in that instance.

Top view of group of students sitting together at table. University students doing group study.
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What Accommodations Will My Child Likely NOT Get?

Apart from the modifications listed earlier, a common K-12 accommodation that is not usually available in college is extended time for out-of-class assignments. This is because students are typically given at least a week — if not much longer — to complete take-home essays or projects. Students who have difficulties managing their time may struggle with this; they should see whether the writing or tutoring center can help them break down their long-term assignments into interim deadlines. Individual professors may or may not be sympathetic to a student’s request for an extension, but students will have to ask each professor individually; they will not likely get an extension as an approved accommodation from the DS office.

Few colleges employ specialists in learning disabilities or ADHD (even at the DS office), but in the tutoring center you may find "academic coaches" who can help students get organized and stay on track. And some colleges actually are adding support staffs of specialists and coaches. While your student is looking at schools, be sure to ask about this.

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How Can We Prepare Before College Starts?

Think ahead, and begin phasing out high school those accommodations that likely won’t be available in college. While you do this, also make sure that your child learns the skills she needs to succeed without those accommodation. For instance, if your child currently depends on extended time for assignments, work with teachers and school officials to improve her time-management skills so that she learns what it takes to complete her assignments in the time allotted.

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How Can My Child Access College Accommodations?

Once your child gets to college, he will need to locate the office or person in charge of disability accommodations. He will likely need to fill out a form that asks him to list the accommodations he’s requesting, and also describe his disability and how it affects him. Every student must provide documentation of his or her disability; in most cases, an evaluation completed during high school will suffice. Finally, some schools (but not all) will require the student to attend an in-take meeting with a Disability Services staffer. That’s it! Once your student has been approved, he’ll receive a Letter of Accommodations (LOA) or Email of Accommodations (EOA). In most cases, it's the student’s responsibility to share this LOA/EOA with his professors.

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Any Student Seeking Accommodations In College Should...

  1. Prepare a list of accommodations she wants to request in college, explaining exactly why each one is appropriate based on her specific symptoms of ADHD.
  2. Ask for everything. Again, just because colleges don’t have to provide an accommodation doesn’t mean they won’t. Students should request any accommodation they feel is needed — the college may or may not approve it, but nothing is lost by asking.
  3. Register with the disability office immediately after college enrollment as an "insurance policy." (Your child can do this as soon as she submits the enrollment deposit; don't wait until she arrives on campus.) Many students with ADHD or LD don’t ask for accommodations in college because they’re embarrassed, or feel that they no longer need them. While that may end up true, it’s best to register with the Disability Services office anyway. If accommodations are granted, they will be available to him, but your child is not obligated to use them. If, on the other hand, he doesn’t register — but then later decides he needs accommodations — he runs the risk of not getting accommodated on an exam coming up soon, since the registration process can take several weeks. Also, while a student can register at any time, he doesn’t get to retake exams he already took without accommodations (there are no "do-overs"). Registering doesn’t cost anything, and may save your child undue headaches in the long run.