Choosing a college: How to help kids weigh the options

At a glance

  • There are many factors to consider in a college search besides academic supports.

  • Start by asking kids what they’re looking for in a college and what they might want to study.

  • Keep your child’s strengths, weaknesses, interests, and needs in mind as you look at schools.

After years of working with your child’s schools, you may feel like you’ve gotten to know them fairly well. But if you’re considering college and starting a college search, do you know what kinds of things to be looking for in a school?

There’s a lot to consider when choosing a college for kids who learn and think differently. As you and your child make a list of colleges that may be a good fit, keep these factors in mind. And hear an expert explain why it can help to have your child take the lead.

Where kids see themselves

Some parents are concerned their child won’t get enough supports at college. They may be tempted to look only at schools that offer the most help to kids who learn and think differently. But many students may do OK without that level of support. And even those who need a high degree of support need to consider other factors, too.

It’s helpful to remember that kids are more than their challenges. College is a good place for them to explore strengths and interests, and to make their own choices based on self-awareness. It’s important to let them think about who they are and where they see themselves succeeding at school.

Start by asking what your child has in mind when imagining going to college:

  • Is it near home or in a different part of the country?

  • Is it in an urban, suburban, or rural setting?

  • Is it the same size as their high school? Bigger? Smaller?

  • Does it have a co-op program to help them get real-life job experience?

  • Does it have a sports-centered culture with lots of team spirit or one that doesn’t emphasize these things?

  • Does it have a party scene or a quieter social life?

Use the answers as the jumping-off point for talking about schools.

Degree programs and areas of study

Discovering and building on strengths is important for kids at any age. But it’s especially important when they’re exploring possible careers.

Kids who have a particular career in mind should do some research to find out what majors might build the skills needed for that field. Then you can make sure to search online for colleges that offer them. (Kids might also want to see if the online program their school uses for college searches offers a tool for exploring careers.) 

Many kids don’t have a specific career in mind. In that case, them if there’s a particular subject they’d like to study at college. If they have a clear sense of what that might be, it can also help narrow the search even further.

Either way, make sure the schools have a broad range of fields of study in case they change their mind. They may find new interests or discover that the career they were thinking of isn’t a good fit for their strengths and weaknesses.

Social life pros and cons

Finding community at school is key to having a successful experience. It can also create a support network for times when kids struggle with academics.

Together with your child, check the list of clubs and activities on the school’s website. That can give them an idea of whether they’ll be able to find kids who share their interests before you even schedule a visit.

Being in the wrong environment can cause students to withdraw socially. It can even keep them from attending class or going to special help sessions that are available to them. So it’s important to give this extra consideration.

At the same time, too much of a social scene can create trouble for some kids. It can be extra distracting for kids who have trouble staying focused and on task. And it can raise the chances for risky behavior in kids who have problems with impulsivity or poor judgment.

Availability of services

There’s a wide range in the level of support colleges offer. Some schools have special programs for students who learn and think differently. These schools may have helpful services, but that doesn’t mean they’re all a good fit for your child.

It also doesn’t mean kids will get all the supports they have in high school. Colleges work under different laws than public schools. They’re only required to offer accommodations to “level the playing field” for kids with documented disabilities.

So how do you research which schools might offer the best supports for your child? Start by exploring each school’s disability services office’s page on its website. When kids are working mostly on their own, accommodations may be all they need. In that case, they can choose almost any school.

If they need more hands-on help with things like breaking down assignments, you might want to search for schools that provide such a service. You may decide to look at schools that have programs for which they charge a fee. In that case, be sure to ask some questions about what the program provides.

Graduation requirements

After you’ve found schools that seem like a good match, one of the last things to check is the graduation requirements. For instance, one school may require four semesters of math, while another requires two. Differences like these may help your child choose one school over another.

It’s possible the high school waived certain classes for your child. Colleges can choose to do something similar, but they’re not required to.

In most cases, students will have to take a substitute course in place of the required course. Each school will determine whether the student is eligible, based on its own standards.

Colleges won’t know about your child’s learning and thinking differences during the admissions process unless your child chooses to share that information. That means kids won’t find out if they’re eligible to substitute specific courses until after they’ve been accepted and have enrolled. So they might want to apply to schools that don’t require them to take such classes to graduate.

If your child has a particular major in mind, check the requirements for that at each school, too. They can vary from school to school. Kids may find one school’s requirements more appealing and a better fit for their needs.

The rule about substitutions applies here, too. Some schools might not allow them for courses they require students to complete in order to earn a degree in a certain major.

Location and proximity to home

Some kids are academically ready for college, but not so ready to live on their own. Other kids need access to support from professionals like tutors or therapists, and that may limit where they can go. Think about the types of support your child may need outside of school throughout your search.

In the end, there are many considerations that go into finding a good college match. Your knowledge of your child can help steer you to an appropriate list of schools. As search time approaches, talk to your child about strengths and weaknesses. Discuss what types of careers might be interesting or a good fit. And learn about types of accommodations and services colleges may offer that can help kids find academic success.

Key takeaways

  • At the start of your search, it’s important to talk to kids about what kind of college environment they see themselves in.

  • Explore each school’s disability services page to get a sense of the supports they offer.

  • Think about each school’s social environment, and whether there’s enough or too much opportunity for socializing.


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