Are Students With Learning Disabilities Poorly-Served In College?

Tens of thousands of college students are keeping their learning disabilities a secret. While 94 percent of high school students with learning disabilities receive help, only 17 percent of learning disabled college students do. Colleges and universities across the country are now focusing more attention and resources on helping these reluctant students disclose their conditions before they suffer academically.

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

Learning disabled students are more likely to drop out of four year colleges; only 34 percent complete a four year degree within eight years of finishing high school, as reported by the National Center for Special Education Research, compared to the nation’s 56 percent of all students who graduate within six years after high school.

Students who don’t seek assistance with their disabilities put themselves at a disadvantage academically and quickly run into trouble in the classroom. They also contribute to a growing problem for colleges who are being pressured by the federal government to improve their graduation rates as President Obama has proposed to tie federal funding, in part, to this measure of success.

The few 18 year old college freshmen with these disabilities who do seek help have a hard time finding it. Although the Americans with Disabilities Act requires every university and college to have a disability office, it can be difficult to find on campuses or understaffed.

As well, reports Matt Krupnick of the Hechinger Report, many college disability centers require documentation of a student’s learning disability. 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 tag 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 learning-disabled students, many charge extra for those, too. Some schools have turned to grants and private donors to cover this cost, but students often are expected to pay for the programs.

With many students being reluctant to come forward for assistance, schools such as Arkansas’ University of the Ozarks, the Jones Learning Center, and the University of North Carolina are among the schools trying help learning disabled students perform better in mainstream classrooms.

A number of universities such as the ones mentioned above are trying to use alternative education tools such as Universal Design for Learning or UDL to help students grasp concepts that are particularly challenging to them due to disorders such as dyslexia.

There are a few schools that accept only learning disabled students as too few conventional colleges devote the necessary resources such as the implementation of UDLs. Advocates of disabled students at some traditional institutions though say they are beginning to see more students become comfortable with disclosing their problems.

“A student understands this is just about leveling the playing field,” says Eve Woodman, Princeton University’s director of disability services. About 2 percent of Princeton students admit to either a learning disability or ADHD, she says. “If you’re diabetic and you need insulin, that’s just the way it is.”