College Success Rate

College Success Rate

Posted on 22. May, 2010 by admin in Articles

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“The rise in the number of students with learning disabilities in the postsecondary    education setting has also brought to light that there is a large failure rate for this population.  Vogel and Adelman (1990) refer to this phenomenon as the “revolving door syndrome” (p. 331). In fact, students with disabilities, in all disability categories, who enroll in postsecondary institutions, are less likely to complete a degree or certificate than are their peers without disabilities. (Post-outcomes Network of the National Center of Secondary Education and Transition, 2002)

Students with learning disabilities who have performed well in high school are generally not very concerned with college success; they are accustomed to working hard and doing well. Their high school accomplishments, however, may give them a false sense of confidence. These students, and their parents for that matter, fail to understand that because high school and college are vastly different systems, there is little correlation between high school performance and college success.

Let’s consider COLLEGE SUCCESS to be an equation. What are its components? First, there are four critical factors that must be present: normal intelligence, desire to go (determination), knowledge and acceptance of one’s disability, and willingness to seek help (in fact, successful students consider seeking help a strength, not a weakness).

When all of these factors are present, we can safely assume success is possible. However, this is not sufficient to presume success is probable. To the four critical factors we must add:  preparation for transition, thorough navigational knowledge of the college system, and a good college fit.

Our equation now looks like this:

COLLEGE SUCCESS = Four critical factors + preparation + navigational knowledge + good fit

As for preparation, students must adjust the methods and habits that served them well in high school. Given the differences between the two systems, high school behaviors are no longer effective.  Among things that will change are course load, built-in structure, employment hours, time allocated for homework and studying, study methods, IEPs, etc.

Suddenly, it becomes understandable why college success isn’t a natural consequence of strong high school performance. If all the rules of the game change, students unfamiliar with the new rules find themselves a stranger in a strange land. Everything they have known to be true is no longer.  It’s as if the rug has been pulled out from under them. Students who continue to operate under high school “precepts” sink fast and are soon up to their neck in academic quicksand.

As a college Learning Specialist from 1993 -2006, I witnessed academic quicksand, or “shock and awe” phenomenon, as I call it, all the time. For example:

1) Students who only had to read over material in high school to do well on an exam find that they fail college exams with this passive technique.

2) Students who spent one to two hours on homework in high school are stunned to find that is only the tip of the iceberg in college.

3) Students who stayed home in high school because they had a headache were easily able to recoup from their absence; in college, missing a class is akin to digging oneself a hole. College instructors expect students to return prepared with current homework and ready to move on with the rest of the class.

4) Frequent tests and quizzes in high school force students to periodically “study”. In college, tests are infrequent–a course may have only a midterm and a final. Therefore, tests encompass   material that may be two months old and once again unfamiliar. In addition, fewer exams means each one carries more weight toward the final grade.

5) It is expected that for each college credit, a student will have two-three hours of work outside the classroom. Many high school students aren’t used to that much work in a week. For example, nine college credits means sitting in class nine hours a week plus having between 18 – 27 hours of homework or studying.  Therefore, just nine credits equates to between 27 – 36 hours a week.

6) In high school, a student’s day is pre-structured, leaving few choices. In college, a student may have only two to three hours of class a day, leaving the rest of the time “free”.

7) Students have the protection of an IEP in high school and are not responsible for asking for their due. Teachers often reach out with extra help, and parents speak up if students don’t receive what is promised. In other words, students are passive recipients. In college, the onus shifts to the student to make certain the accommodations and extra help are delivered.

This is just the beginning. Students who never used an academic planner in high school often learn the hard way that they can’t get along without one. Students who worked 20 hours a week may have been able to maintain their grades in high school. In college, a 20-hour work week can be academic suicide. The list goes on and on….

Those who enter college without knowledge of its unique challenges inadvertently make mistakes that quickly set them on a downward spiral. Those students who have a fundamental knowledge of the college system and have mastered the skills and strategies that will keep them in college have the best odds of success. Why? Because they’ve already had a chance to practice these new skills in high school. When it’s time for college, they can hit the ground running. Self-advocacy doesn’t fall on them like a ton of bricks. They already know how to read and retain textbook material. They understand that studying isn’t simply looking over notes. They realize the importance of having time management skills.

If you are the parent of a high school student with learning differences, you can subscribe to a list serve whose goal is to increase college success for our students. Sign up at

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