“What’s the Best College for Students with NVLD?” by Sherri Maxman

By April 21, 2022 Experts Blog

As an independent college counselor specializing in working with students with learning disabilities (and the parent of a young adult with NVLD), I am often asked this question by parents who are anxious to find the ‘perfect’ college for their child.

The short answer is…there IS no perfect college for a student with NVLD, and I maintain that there may be no such thing as a perfect college for any student…but that’s a discussion for another day.

When it comes to looking for colleges for a student with NVLD, or with any learning disability for that matter, there are many factors to take into account. Much will depend on your child’s strengths and challenges and on how much support, and what kind of support, they will need in college. Questions to consider include:

  • What are my child’s academic strengths, challenges and interests?
  • What kind of academic support, if any, will my child need in college? (Keep in mind that college academics are nearly always more difficult than high school academics.)
  • Will my child need executive functioning support to manage their academics as well as their day-to-day living, away from the safety and structure of living at home with parents?
  • Is my child socially ready for college? What kind of support might they need in this area?

Additionally, parents and students must consider the same factors that all college-bound students consider when exploring colleges:

  • Distance from home: stay close by, or travel far away? How important is it that the student is able to get home quickly and easily if necessary?
  • Size of student body: big university or small college? Small colleges can offer more interaction with professors, while larger ones will have more opportunities academically and socially
  • Academics: which majors/minor/programs are offered? Even if a student has no idea what they want to study, they should make sure that colleges have 3-4 majors that at least sound interesting to them
  • Clubs/organizations: it’s always good to know that other students will share your interests!
  • Residence life: what do the dorms look like? Is there theme housing? Do most students live on campus for all four years? Does the meal plan look appealing and can the college accommodate any food allergies a student may have?

The factors that I am asked about most frequently are executive functioning support and social skills support, or how to find a college that will be best for a student who struggles socially.

Executive functioning (EF) skills–organizing, planning, prioritizing, self-monitoring and regulating emotions–are critical to success in college and beyond, and these are skills with which many students with NVLD struggle. EF is especially important as students transition from their highly structured high school lives to college life, which is inherently unstructured and can be a ripe breeding ground for disorganization and chaos for those without well-developed EF skills. 

Colleges treat their students as adults who need little handholding and they assume that students will manage their own schedules. While many colleges offer workshops or occasional one-on-one support for organizational skills, there are very few colleges that provide extensive guidance for students who need this kind of help.

There are a handful of colleges that have comprehensive, fee-based academic support programs that offer frequent, one-on-one support for students with EF challenges. These programs typically cost between $1500-$3000 per semester and are staffed by professionals–usually those with advanced degrees in education or special education–who meet regularly with students and help them plan their coursework and stay on top of their academics. They may also communicate with the student’s professors or may hear from professors who notice that a student is struggling. They can help a student choose classes, selecting professors whose teaching styles most closely match a student’s learning style. These supports are usually available throughout the student’s entire academic career, though they may not be needed by a student throughout all of their college years. And some programs (though certainly not all) provide parents with regular updates, with the student’s written permission.

These programs are excellent options for students who need this type of support, especially during that all-important first year of college. There are two catches: a student must WANT to attend a college that has a program like this, and a student must avail themselves of the help–no program will force a student to use their services, no matter what a parent says or how much a parent paid for the service.

For students who need this support but don’t want to attend a college that has a program, there are many people and companies that provide EF support virtually. However, a student must be self-motivated to schedule and attend these virtual sessions, which can be more difficult to do than with in-person support.

Social skills support for students with NVLD is difficult if not impossible to find among colleges, even today when there is growing awareness of neurodiversity on college campuses.(There is a tiny but growing number of campus-based support programs for ASD students, but as we know, NVLD is not on the autism spectrum.)  As with EF skills, colleges assume that their students are adults who can manage their day-to-day lives, and this includes social interactions. But so many students with NVLD struggle socially, and this is a concern that parents frequently voice to me when they are looking at colleges for their children. And the students themselves often do not like to acknowledge that they have trouble with social skills and would not take advantage of social skills support in college even when available.

So what’s the parent of a student with NVLD to do? The solution that I recommend is to continue the college search process as usual and look for colleges that meet the student’s overall needs, especially in academics and clubs/organizations. If a student finds like-minded people either in classrooms or in extracurriculars, there’s a better chance that they will become more involved in the social scene on campus or will at least make a few good friends while participating in activities the student enjoys.

If parents feel that their child is not quite ready for college, but is headed in that direction, there are a number of ‘transition’ programs around the country to consider. In these programs, students live together in houses or apartments, attend local colleges or universities for college credit, and receive extensive academic, social, and independent living skills support from professional staff members. It can be a good option for students who need a bit more support in these areas before they are ready to live on their own, either in college dorms or in apartments or houses with other students.

The college application process can be challenging and stressful, especially when you have a child whose needs go beyond those of most neurotypical students. However, with some research and homework on the part of the parent and student, there is every reason to believe that you can find colleges that meet your child’s needs and at which they will be happy and successful!

In my next post, I will talk about the different kinds of support available at colleges and how to find this information.