College-Bound With Special Needs

College-Bound With Special Needs

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Navigate the college application process for students with learning challenges

Earlier this month ESME spoke to educational consultant Diane Lomonaco, LPC, CEP, about how Solo Moms can better navigate the college application process. In the context of that conversation it became clear that Diane has deep passion and experience surrounding college-bound teens with learning and other special challenges. This much is certain: for these teens and their moms there’s an additional layer of stress and planning intrinsic to the process.

What do Solo Moms need to know when preparing themselves and their special student for college?

The landscape is entirely different between high school and college. Federal law requires high schools to plan for the identified student with either a 504 or IEP (Individualized Education Program). This means that the high school is responsible and accountable for delivering services to students—like tutoring, assisted technology, and extra time on tests. Students and their families depend upon the high school to plan and implement a program with stages, steps, and strategies for success. In college it’s entirely up to students to seek help and accommodations. Colleges offer various degrees of support, but the student must request and take advantage of such services.

What are the must-know resources?

Every college offers accommodations, but the degree of supportive services varies. Some schools provide the minimum level of accommodations such as extended time on tests, while others offer notetakers, distraction-free testing, use of technology, preferential scheduling, and writing support. Almost all schools have a writing center but looking into how that facility is run and by whom is important. Every campus has an office for disability services, but here, too, it’s worth checking to see whether the center is manned by trained personnel or student volunteers. Some schools have standalone programs that charge extra fees for students who need additional help. These programs can be found in many college guidebooks that exist for students with learning disabilities.

How can Solo Moms anticipate the needs of their students?

It’s critical that students have updated learning assessments or evaluations. Ideally, this material should be refreshed senior year so that students can bring the most current information to their college’s office of disability services. Moms can abet this process by staying informed of new tools and technologies to help students who learn differently, and by studying the unique guidelines at their student’s college.

In what ways is the college admissions process different for students with special needs?

Additional research is required to determine whether the individual services a student needs match those offered by the college. Making contact with the director of disabilities services at any school of interest, campus tours, and follow-up is critical to this process. Visiting, talking, and sharing personal assessments is also vital to understanding whether a school is a good fit.

Moms should know that the admission process is the same for all students regardless of learning disabilities. This means that applicants must first meet the admission criteria for the university or college. It’s only after the student has been admitted that a service plan can be discussed. Some students distinguish themselves in college essays by writing about their learning disabilities, especially if they have interrupted academics during high school. Many times a student is not diagnosed until high school and writing about this experience can help the admission committee’s understanding of the student’s advocacy and growth.

What steps are necessary to help parents and teens make a successful college transition?

Moms should start to shift the responsibility for their students’ education to their teenagers. Help them understand their diagnosis and the services and tools they need in order to learn. Help them to take control of their own learning by nudging them more and more toward advocating for themselves with their teachers and support staff. The number one rule of a successful transition in college is to know what you need and how to get support on campus.

I also recommend certain students enroll in summer institutes to “practice college life.” Some of these summer programs even have financial scholarships or aid attached to them.

For more information or to reach Diane Lomonaco directly, visit Major in College or email her at

Nancy Sharp is an author, keynote speaker, trainer, and coach who frequently speaks publicly about loss, resilience, and bold living. The author of the award-winning memoir, Both Sides Now: A True Story of Love, Loss, and Bold Living, and the picture book Because the Sky Is Everywhere, Nancy lives in Denver with her second husband, her twins, and her two stepsons. You can find her on Twitter at @BoldLivingNow and Facebook at Nancy Sharp. Learn more at

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