Colleges seek to help students with learning disabilities

The Hechinger ReportFebruary 13, 2014 

— Endowed with a new freshman’s hunger for independence, Alix Generous thought she could conquer college without seeking help for the learning disabilities she’d dealt with since she was 11.

She was wrong.

In her first year at the College of Charleston, Generous decided against using the school’s assistance programs for students with dyslexia and other disorders, even though she’d relied on such help throughout her childhood. “I was like, ‘Now I’m 18 and can do what I want,’ ” she said. “I definitely had that attitude. But a lot of it also was ignorance.”

“It totally screwed me up,” said Generous, who grew up in Maryland. “In the easiest classes, like intro to theater, I got a C.”

Generous finally started accepting help, and her grades improved. She later transferred to the University of Vermont, where she’s now a junior. She gives talks about her experiences to audiences across the country.

But tens of thousands of other college students keep their learning disabilities a secret.

Now some schools are focusing more attention on getting such reluctant students to disclose their learning disabilities before they run into severe problems in the classroom – and bring down those schools’ increasingly important graduation rates.

Just a quarter of students who received help for their disabilities in high school acknowledge in college that they need the same assistance, according to the National Center for Learning Disabilities.

While 94 percent of high school students with learning disabilities get some kind of help, just 17 percent of college students do.

“Many (learning-disabled) students first get to college and really want to do it on their own,” said Sarah Williams, an East Carolina University associate professor of special education who’s helping North Carolina’s public universities handle learning disabilities better. “They’re really tired of the whole system.”

The problem is expected to only get worse. A study that the American Academy of Pediatrics published in 2011 found that learning disabilities in children rose steadily from 1997 to 2008, while diagnoses of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder – often grouped with learning disabilities – jumped 33 percent.

Students with learning disabilities are far more likely than others to drop out of four-year colleges. Just 34 percent complete four-year degrees within eight years of finishing high school, the National Center for Special Education Research reports. That compares with 56 percent of all students who graduate within six years, according to the National Student Clearinghouse, a research center.

That’s a growing problem for colleges, which have been pressured by the federal government to improve their graduation rates. President Barack Obama has proposed tying federal funding for colleges, in part, to that measure of universities’ success.

Few schools are doing enough to help students with dyslexia, ADHD or other disorders find the help they need, some experts say. Although the Americans with Disabilities Act requires every university and college to have a disability office, it can be hard to find or understaffed.

Combined with 18-year-olds’ natural inclination to go it alone, the difficulties often lead newly arrived college students to run into classroom troubles quickly, said James Wendorf, the executive director of the National Center for Learning Disabilities.

The big drop-off in the number of students who disclose their disabilities “is not happening because learning disabilities are magically disappearing,” Wendorf said. “It’s not like the summer after 12th grade swipes clear the brain.”

It can be hard for these students to ask for help in college, however, and not just because of ignorance or a perceived stigma associated with disabilities. Many college disability centers require documentation of students’ learning disabilities.

A set of tests used to verify whether a student has a disability, necessary for those who have no documentation or haven’t been tested before, costs as much as $5,000, according to academic-support and disability-services coordinators at several colleges and universities – a price that K-12 schools pay but many higher-education institutions won’t.

While more and more colleges offer innovative programs in which staff members work closely with students who have learning disabilities, many charge extra for those, too. Some schools have turned to grants and private donors to cover the cost, but students often are expected to pay for the programs.

At Arkansas’ University of the Ozarks, the Jones Learning Center serves about 65 students and costs $22,900 per year, on top of the university’s $23,750 tuition. The center, which boasts a 4-to-1 staff-to-student ratio, recruits students with learning disabilities from across the country, said its director, Julia Frost.

“You wouldn’t think a school would seek out students with learning disabilities, but we do that,” she said. “If you’ve got a program and staff that serves those students, then you need students.”

But programs such as Ozarks’ can help only students who help themselves. With many reluctant to come forward, some schools are taking steps toward them.

The University of North Carolina system is among a growing number of higher-education institutions that are experimenting with the Universal Design for Learning, which uses alternative educational tools that help students with learning disabilities perform better in mainstream classrooms.

Professors might present materials using specific colors or interactive technology to help students with dyslexia or other disorders grasp concepts that are particularly challenging for them. Advocates say the method also helps students who don’t have disabilities.

But introducing new teaching methods has its own challenges.

“I think we have to always remember that while professors are amazing experts in content areas, many of them have had no training in pedagogy,” said Williams, who’s introducing the Universal Design for Learning to three North Carolina campuses. “We have to find practical ways to help them know how to do that.”

At several traditional schools, disability advocates said they were beginning to see students be more comfortable disclosing their problems.

“A student understands this is just about leveling the playing field,” said Eve Woodman, Princeton University’s director of disability services.

About 2 percent of Princeton students admit to either learning disabilities or ADHD, she said.

Then there are the handful of schools that accept only students with learning disabilities, including Beacon College in Florida and Landmark College in Vermont.

Too few conventional colleges are devoting the necessary resources to helping students with disabilities, Beacon President George Hagerty said. “It’s both unfair and unethical to bring students to an institution that is not well-equipped to support those students,” said Hagerty, whose campus serves about 200 students.

Schools also are being challenged to prepare students who have learning disabilities for life after college. Paul Jarvis, an 18-year-old freshman who came to Ozarks from Milton, Ga., is counting on that. After college, Jarvis said, “I’m going to have to do stuff without the support. But these schools have prepared me.”

This article was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit education-news outlet affiliated with Teachers College, Columbia University.

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