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Choosing a College: How to Help Kids Weigh the Options

By Elizabeth C. Hamblet, MAT, MSEd

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 Your Child Sees Herself

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 your child is more than her challenges. College is a good place for her to explore strengths and interests, and to make her own choices based on self-awareness. It’s important to let her think about who she is and where she sees herself succeeding at school.

Start by asking her what she has in mind when she thinks of herself at 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 her high school? Bigger? Smaller?

  • Does it have a co-op program to help her 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 her answers as the jumping-off point for talking about schools that may meet all her needs.

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.

If your child has a particular career in mind now, she should do some research to find out what majors might build the skills she needs for that field. Then you can make sure to search online for colleges that offer them. (She might also want to see if the online program her school uses for college searches offers a tool for exploring careers.) 

Many kids don’t have a specific career in mind. In that case, ask your child if she has a particular subject she’d like to study at college. If she has 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 she changes her mind. She may find new interests or discover that the career she was thinking of isn’t a good fit for her 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 your child might struggle with academics.

Together with your child, check the list of clubs and activities on the school’s website. That can give her an idea of whether she’ll be able to find kids who share her 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 your child will get all the supports she has 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. If your child is working mostly on her own, accommodations may be all she needs. In that case, she can choose almost any school.

If she needs 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 she likes 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 she’s 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 she won’t find out if she’s eligible to substitute courses until after she’s been accepted and has enrolled. So she might want to apply to schools that don’t require her 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. Your child may find one school’s requirements more appealing, and a better fit for her 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 her strengths and weaknesses. Discuss what types of careers might be interesting to her, or might be a good fit. And learn about types of accommodations and services colleges may offer that can help her find academic success.

Key Takeaways

  • At the start of your search, it’s important to talk to your child about what kind of college environment she sees herself 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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Share Choosing a College: How to Help Kids Weigh the Options

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
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  • Coming soonGoogle Classroom