Learning Disabilities in the College Setting:
A Different Ball Game than High School
By Stephen S. Strichart, PhD
Stephen S. Strichart served as professor and coordinator of special education programs, Division of Curriculum and Instruction, Florida International University, Miami, FL
I am frequently surprised to find how many high school students with learning disabilities, and their parents, think that college is just a slightly more difficult version of high school. From this perspective, the major challenge is to get accepted into college. I don’t agree with this perspective. I’ve found that given a little persistence, and in some cases a lot of money, most LD students can get into a college somewhere, albeit not always one of their first choices. The major challenge is not that of being accepted, but of being successful. Unfortunately, LD students are often poorly prepared for the increased demands of college.
IMPORTANT DIFFERENCES BETWEEN HIGH SCHOOL AND COLLEGE
1. Public Law 94-142 no longer applies.
In high school, PL 94-142 mandates a free and appropriate education delineated in an IEP that spells out specific services. LD students receive these; they don’t have to seek them out. This law does not apply at the college level. Instead, there is Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, a far reaching, but rather non-specific law. To gain access to accommodations and services through this law, LD students must document and make their disability known, and in many cases, identify the assistance they need to succeed in college, and then self-advocate to get this assistance.
2. There is much less structure.
Programs for LD students at the high school level are extremely structured and supportive. Students take a specified schedule of classes that is the same each day. The same group of peers are in most of their classes. Teachers consistently review their expectations and monitor student progress. This is not the case in college, where each day’s schedule can vary widely, and each class consists of a different group of students. College professors rarely take attendance, check to see if reading assignments are being done, or concern themselves with the quality of the notes being taken by students. Students have to analyze each class and professor to determine what will be required for success. This varies from class to class.
3. There is greater academic competition.
Unlike going to high school, going to college is a voluntary matter. Poor achievers and unmotivated students rarely reach the college campus. Consequently, students moving on to college find themselves in a “bigger pond” where peers have higher abilities and drive, and teachers have higher expectations. Memorization may have carried the day in high school, but high level analysis and synthesis is what is needed now. In terms of both the quality and the quantity of their work, LD students must be more productive than they have ever been before.
4. There is need for greater independence.
The nature of high school LD programs tends to foster dependence in students. This presents a major problem in the college setting, where students are required to function in a relatively independent manner. High school students don’t have to declare a major, and for the most part, their course of study is prescribed. This, of course, changes dramatically in college. College students must make important career choices, and must carefully plan their sequence of courses, to include selecting from an imposing array of elective courses. They must make good use of the many hours they are not in class and learn to fully utilize the many learning resources available on campus. Further, students must learn to establish and maintain work and study schedules, while balancing their academic and social lives. Decision-making and problem-solving skills become paramount.
Students must complete life activities such as doing laundry, paying bills, buying groceries, and scheduling appointments, and they are responsible for scheduling their time daily to see that all of these things happen!