Learning Challenges In College: Guidelines for Student Success


Parents and students often worry and ask if someone with learning challenges can attend college successfully?  Yes! With the right assessment, accommodations, support, and interventions, most students with learning differences can successfully pursue a higher education.

In this article, we describe how to increase the chances of success for students with learning challenges in college. We review different psycho-educational and psychological assessment recommendations, how to find the right college, obtaining college accommodations, effective interventions, and finally touch on other educational options students with learning differences can pursue.

Guidelines for Psychological Assessments, Psycho-educational assessments, Resources, and Services

The CDC reports that approximately 6.1 million American children have been diagnosed with ADHD in 2016. Approximately, 4.4 million students have been diagnosed with anxiety, 1 in 59 children have been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, and 1 in 5 children in the U.S. have learning disabilities and attention issues. It is also not uncommon for individuals to present with complex issues cutting across these categories.

Although schools may provide accommodation plans (504s) and Individualized Educational Plans (IEPs) to facilitate students’ elementary, middle, and high school success, many students and parents inquire if they can attend college, what type of college they could attend, and if and how they can succeed in college.

It is often overwhelming for a student struggling with learning, performance, grades, and achievement difficulties. Families grapple with confusing applications, educational and mental health systems, the best college match for the student, and the effective resources and interventions necessary to help the student succeed and thrive in college.

Multiple steps can be taken to ensure the success of your student applying, being accepted to, and succeeding in the college that is the best fit for their abilities and strengths.

Psychological and Psycho-educational Assessment Recommendations

If you suspect or recognize that your student is struggling with attention, hyperactivity, learning challenges, social skills, academic achievement, depression, or anxiety, the first steps recommended are:

  • Early intervention is prevention.
  • Meet with the teachers and school/college psychologist to gather detailed information if they are familiar with the student.
  • Request a standardized assessment targeting specific domains.
  • Seek a consultation and assessment by a licensed clinical psychologist or educational psychologist who specializes in neuro-cognitive, academic, social, and developmental assessments.
  • Domains to be assessed could include attention, intellectual and academic functioning, symptoms, social, emotional, and developmental skills, and executive functioning.
  • The assessment measures utilized should be state-of-the-art, standardized, and normed measures.
  • Performance-based tests should be included in the assessment.
  • Parent, teacher, and self-reports with standardized and normed measures should be included in the assessment.
  • Blind and independent school observations could be included in the assessment if the student is still in school.
  • The report should  include a recommendation for a 504 or an IEP, and recommendations for accommodations, college resources, and support services.

The comprehensive battery of tests will provide you with a highly accurate cognitive, academic, socio-emotional, and developmental map of your student. Similarly, the report should provide you with specific scores, diagnoses, and detailed psycho-social, cognitive, and academic recommended interventions that will facilitate your student’s development and success.

Consultation With a Specialist

Consult with a clinical psychologist or  educational psychologist who has expertise in learning differences. They can facilitate assessments, clinical interventions and support,  educational planning, college and school admissions counseling and placement, executive functioning coaching, and academic support.

Dr Maker recommends the following:

  • Seek out a norm based, standardized psychological or psycho-educational assessment to gather accurate data, diagnoses, and recommendations.
  • Do a college search via reliable data for a “good fit.” when applying for colleges. This includes size, location, teaching and class approach, majors, culture, and support services.
  • Explore and identify services for college students with learning differences. You can call the campus Center for Students with Disabilities to inquire about their different levels of support.
  • Once you have your assessment, your psychologist will submit with you a form for accommodations at college, so that you can receive free support and interventions as soon as you begin college.


Many parents and students ask if they should disclose their learning differences on their college applications. Many specialists typically recommend doing so. The disclosure allows for a better fit in acceptance, as you want to ensure you land at a college that is familiar, adept, and capable of supporting students’ unique and exceptional needs. It is important to discuss your needs and concerns with your college counselor and your psychologist should be able to facilitate this process for you.

Data Sources

Although there are several options to gather information on colleges, two sources as excellent platforms for accurate facts about colleges, including services and resources for students with learning differences:

Common Data Set: Name of college +

College Score Card

Tiers of Services and Resources

Your psychologist who does the testing will help you identify the varying levels of accommodations for students with learning disabilities offered at different colleges. There are four tiers of services that families should inquire into:


  • No Learning Center or specialized staff.


  • Learning Center with specialists.
  • Study skills, organizational, and advocacy support.
  • Peer and professional tutoring and workshops.
  • Special testing environments and support.
  • Assistive technology.


  • Full-time director and robust staff.
  • Complete suite services.
  • Test proctors, mentors, professional tutors.
  • Support groups.
  • Summer bridge programs.
  • Supervision by case managers.

Autism Support

  • All the above.
  • Structured social and life skills support.
  • Specialized housing with support and supervision.

Mental Health Support

It is imperative that you also seek out mental health services if need be. 1 in 5 college students report suicidal thoughts, 3 out of 5 students report overwhelming anxiety, and 2 out of 5 students report being too depressed to function (National College Health Assessment, 2018). This data highlights the necessity of ensuring that students have access to free and unlimited specialized mental health services on campus for students to foster emotional support and success.

Alternative Educational Options

It is also important to think outside the box and we encourage families to consider other excellent options available for all students. Once you have your assessment completed, work closely with your college advisor, clinical psychologist, and educational psychologist to discuss the following best options for you:

  • Community and junior colleges.
  • Trade and vocational programs.
  • Fifth-year high school.
  • Early college high school.
  • Gap year.
  • Comprehensive Transitional Support Programs: College Living Experience and College Internship Programs.

Find Assessments, College Success, and Support at Aspiring Families

Finding the right college and having ongoing professional support can make a huge difference in a person’s life and improve chances of academic success. Aspiring Families offers assessments, reports, recommendations, and interventions for non-neurotypical students who want to pursue higher education.

Book a free 15 minute consultation to learn more.