Sarah Williams, an East Carolina University professor of special education, is helping North Carolina’s public universities better handle learning disabilities.
Endowed with a newfound freshman’s hunger for independence, Alix Generous thought she could conquer college without seeking help for the learning disabilities she had 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 had relied on such help throughout her childhood.
“I was like, ‘Now I’m 18 and can do what I want.’ I definitely had that attitude. But a lot of it also was ignorance,” says Generous, who grew up in Maryland.
“It totally screwed me up,” she says. “In the easiest classes, like Intro to Theater, I got a C.”
Generous finally started accepting extra help, and her grades improved. She later transferred to the University of Vermont, where she is 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 colleges and universities are focusing more attention on getting reluctant learning-disabled students to disclose their conditions 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.
And while 94 percent of high school students with learning disabilities get some kind of help, just 17 percent of learning-disabled college students do.
“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.”
The problem is only going to get worse. A study published in 2011 by the American Academy of Pediatrics 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.
Learning-disabled students are far more likely than others to drop out of four-year colleges. Just 34 percent complete a four-year degree within eight years of finishing high school, according to the National Center for Special Education Research — compared to 56 percent of all students nationally who the National Student Clearinghouse reports graduate within six years.
While 94 percent of high school students with learning disabilities get some kind of help, just 17 percent of college students do.
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.
Still, 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 quickly to run into classroom troubles, says James Wendorf, 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 says. “It’s not like the summer after 12th grade swipes clear the brain.”
It can be hard for learning-disabled 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 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.
At Arkansas’ University of the Ozarks, the Jones Learning Center, which serves about 65 students, costs $22,900 per year, on top of the university’s $23,750 tuition. The center, which boasts a four-to-one staff-to-student ratio, recruits learning-disabled students from across the country, says its director, Julia Frost.
“You wouldn’t think a school would seek out students with learning disabilities, but we do that,” she says. “If you’ve got a program and staff that serves those students, then you need students.”
But programs like Ozarks’ can only help students who help themselves. With many students 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 experimenting with the Universal Design for Learning, or UDL, which uses alternative educational tools that help learning-disabled students perform better in mainstream classrooms.
With UDL, professors might present materials using specific colors or interactive technology to help students with dyslexia or other disorders grasp concepts that are particularly challenging to those with them. Advocates say UDL also helps students without disabilities.
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,” says Williams, who is introducing UDL 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 say they’re beginning to see students become more comfortable 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.”
Then there are the handful of schools that accept only learning-disabled students, including Beacon College in Florida and Landmark College in Vermont.
Too few conventional colleges are devoting the necessary resources to help students with disabilities, says Beacon President George Hagerty.
“It’s both unfair and unethical to bring students to an institution that is not well-equipped to support those students,” says Hagerty, whose campus serves about 200 students.
Schools also are being challenged to prepare learning-disabled students 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 says, “I’m going to have to do stuff without the support. But these schools have prepared me.”
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