All new freshmen, learning disability or no, deal with major adjustments as they cross the threshold from high school to college. Many students find the challenges insurmountable. In fact, in February 2010, Rob Schnieders, Director of National Engagement, reported that fewer than 60% of students entering four-year colleges today are graduating.
It is hard to ignore the fact that there is an awful lot of failure in college. For students with learning disabilities, however, the hurdles are even higher. Besides the adjustment to independence that all new college students face, students with LD are required to adapt to a new and unfamiliar environment where all the supports they have known in high school are pulled out from under them: the IEP, parental advocacy, teacher support, individualized and/or resource room tutoring, and parental reminders regarding assignments, due dates, etc. The sudden withdrawal of these supports places this cohort at particular high risk for failure.
Now… I’d like you to imagine that tomorrow, without warning, all the rules you’ve come to know at work are turned upside down. Imagine, too, that you have auditory processing problems and short-term memory issues. How disoriented would you be? This is exactly what happens to students when they enter college without knowledge of the forthcoming changes. The simple shift from studying a subject for a year in high school to just 15-weeks in college is difficult enough. Now consider the changes already mentioned above; by the time a student knows the drill, the first semester is over and grades are out. The student feels sucker-punched and totally defeated.
To make matters worse, students who’ve experienced Special Education classes are often reluctant to disclose disabilities in the postsecondary setting. They are tired of wearing a “label” and perceive college as a new beginning where no one is familiar with their history of struggles. In deciding not to disclose, the student now contends with the absence of an additional element that helped them cope high school–without documentation, students are not entitled to accommodations on the college level!
High schools have a responsibility to students with disabilities to send them on their way with knowledge of the postsecondary system that sets them up to succeed. There is no need for teens with learning disabilities, or their parents for that matter, to be blindsided. There is no need for students to endure yet another chink to their armor or for parents to lose tuition dollars for which they’ve worked so hard.
Here are the things that high schools don’t tell you:
• Disclosure upon admission is confidential. Unlike high school, there are no labels or classes specifically for students with disabilities. In college, this information remains with the disability services office and any professors to whom the student decides to disclose.
• Motivation is the key factor in college success.
• College “fit” is probably the second most important factor
• Help is empowering and not a sign of weakness. Students who regularly seek help are more successful and often become metacognitive.
• There’s a big difference between “accommodations” and “services”. Know exactly what the student requires to be successful.
• Disability services offices tell parents what they want to hear because colleges are tuition-driven. Parents must do major detective work to uncover the truth.
• Community colleges, because of their lack of services, are often high-risk.
• Quality (establishing a solid GPA) trumps speed. Many students with disabilities take longer than 4 years to graduate because of reduced course loads. By the way, there is a way to take a reduced load and remain on your parents’ health insurance plan.
• “LD-friendly” colleges often offer students a FERPA waiver, so that parents may have contact with the college and access grades.
• Students should have some sense of direction before selecting a college to be sure the college they choose has the appropriate major.
• It is NOT true that if students don’t attend college immediately after high school, they’ll never go. Many students mature with a gap year or a few realistic years in the working world. That maturity is often accompanied by a desire to return to school and newfound motivation.
• There are many paths to success, and college isn’t the only one. Individuals who are not academically-inclined can earn a far better living by learning a vocation than by earning mediocre grades in college classes that don’t interest them.
• Foreknowledge of the college system, how to navigate it, and how it differs from high school is critical to the success of students with disabilities.
• Effective study skills, not simply reading and understanding, is a prerequisite to college success.
• Expect 2-3 hours of outside work/study for every houryou sit in class.
• College and employment are often incompatible partners for students with learning disabilities. Many find it difficult to make the transition from work to studying and end up giving school short shrift. It is best to consider school a full-time job–even with a reduced course load. Work should be reserved for summers and break periods, if possible.
• If a student is not ready to take on the responsibilities of college, don’t cut the check. Wait.
• The road to success is paved with potholes. Students need to have emotional coping strategies to get past these.
At the bare minimum, students should be aware of the above principles if they hope to succeed in college. Until high schools tell them (don’t hold your breath), you can get that information from me.