Specialized Colleges for Students with ADHD

Learn about programs designed specifically for students who learn differently

small college class
College programs that are geared specifically toward students with learning disabilities and ADHD provide a highly personalized approach to education. Tom Merton/caiaimage/Getty Images

As high school students approach their junior year many will begin to more thoroughly explore their options following graduation. Those going on to college will start to actively research school choices and narrow their search.

If you are a parent of a student with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or are a high school student with ADHD yourself, you may be wondering about your options. The transition to college can be a challenging one for many teenagers with ADHD.

With college comes increased demands for self-management, organization and prioritizing of tasks and time, higher academic expectations, new social situations, and distractions that can often pull a student with ADHD off track. To top it off, the student must manage these increased responsibilities without the previous support systems they had in high school.

Many teenagers with ADHD do well in college when they have appropriate accommodations and supports in place. For many others, however, the challenges can be much more difficult to overcome. There are a broad range of college options available for students with ADHD. One of these includes college programs that are geared specifically toward students with learning disabilities and ADHD.

Specialized Colleges for Students With ADHD

Brent Betit, Ed.D., is Senior Vice President and a founding staff member of Landmark College. When Landmark was founded in 1985, it was the first institution of higher education to pioneer college-level studies for students with dyslexia. Today, Landmark is known for its innovative educational model designed exclusively for students with learning disabilities (including dyslexia), ADHD, and autism spectrum disorder.

If you are on your college search or about to begin this process you may be interested in learning more about what smaller, specialized colleges like Landmark have to offer. To get a better understanding of this, I turned to Dr. Betit for answers.

How are colleges that are specifically geared toward students with learning disabilities different from mainstream institutions?

Dr. Betit: A mainstream university is like a sleek Greyhound bus: plenty of room on board and a serviceable ride to your educational destination. But students who learn differently frequently don't arrive at that destination. On that mainstream bus, they have a better-than-average chance of veering off the tracks and taking an unexpected and sometimes unpleasant detour. That is because they need an educational vehicle that is built to their precise neurocognitive specifications - a custom-engineered ride that takes into account their learning needs, responds to their signals, and might even have some extra bracing (scaffolding) installed at the beginning of the ride for stability. So to extend the metaphor, an academic program specifically designed for a student who learns differently is more like a Formula One race car with a form-fitting, molded seat than a mass transit bus.

What are some of the specific design differences in the academic programs?

Dr. Betit: Most mainstream universities and colleges are designed for traditional learners, who can listen to lectures, read textbooks, take notes, and remember and repeat the things they have encountered in an essay or test. 

But students who learn differently often cannot learn effectively in such a traditional, mainstream environment. Conditions such as dyslexia (a neurological, language-based disorder) or ADHD - which can impact attention, focus, executive function, and follow-through - or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), which can substantially influence social integration, interpersonal communication, executive function, and other issues, all work against students placed in a mainstream environment, and all impede their academic and life progress. Sometimes such conditions halt them completely in their tracks, with devastating and life-long consequences.

Students who learn differently require a fundamentally distinctive pedagogy. Programs for these students take learners' academic profiles into account, centering pedagogy on their discrete needs, and aligning learning experiences with their abilities and capabilities. It is a student-centered rather than professor-centered learning experience.

Small class sizes and a low student-to-faculty ratio are typical of programs for students with learning disabilities, and other resources -- counseling, residential life, academic support, etc. -- are plentiful. The best of these environments also provide access to assistive technologies, such as the text-to-speech program Kurzweil, or the speech-to-text program Dragon. These technologies remove barriers to learning, or to the demonstration of learning, that prevent students from fully benefiting from and demonstrating their cognitive abilities.

What are some of the factors students and parents should take into consideration when making the decision about whether to attend a college geared specifically toward students with learning disabilities or a mainstream one?

Dr. Betit: There are really two separate categories of consideration for any family in selecting just the right college. One relates to the individual student; the other relates to the college or university.

Families and students should begin with an honest assessment of the student:

  • What are his (or her) specific needs as a learner?
  • Has the student received substantive special support in his academic program up to now?
  • How prepared is he to transition to a new environment - one that may not have the executive function support that the family has provided up to now?
  • How motivated is the student?

As an educator for almost three decades, I have discovered that motivation is profoundly important to student success. I really can't say enough about the critical need for student motivation. Only after that student assessment is complete will a family be ready to determine the best academic fit for a student. In terms of that academic fit, when evaluating a discrete educational opportunity, I would recommend that families consider at minimum the following:

  • Is the specialized program offered as a "pull-out" program, with additional fees, or is it an integral, cohesive aspect of the university or college curriculum?
  • What is the average class size?
  • What is the employee- (including faculty) to- student ratio?
  • What kinds of academic support resources are available to the student, and are they provided by trained faculty or by student peers?
  • What kinds of residential support resources are present in the program structure, and are they provided by student affairs professionals or by students?
  • How accessible are program directors and leaders?
  • What kinds of outcomes have prior students who learn differently attained?
  • What roles do families enjoy during the admissions process, and what communication protocols exist related to family communication once a student is admitted?
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Article Sources
  • Brent Betit, Ed.D., Interview/email correspondence. January 24, 2013.