During the last quarter century, the inclusion movement has had a profound effect on access to college for students with learning disabilities (LD). Federal law has required that students with disabilities be educated in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE). Almost 30% of students with LD are now graduating from high school with a diploma, and 56% of these graduates enroll in college. The percentage of full-time college freshmen with a disability increased from 2.3% in 1978 to 9.8% in 1998. College enrollment of students with LD alone has grown from 1.2% of the freshmen class in 1984 to 3.5% in 1998. Given that students with LD in the public schools increased by 37% in the 1990s and that the 1997 Amendments to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1990 (IDEA) have put greater emphasis on transition planning for students with disabilities, we can expect to see growing numbers of students with LD attending postsecondary education.
The Challenge of College for Students with LD
Because the prescriptive IDEA requiring a free, appropriate education is not applicable to postsecondary settings, special education services, assessment, and personnel are not mandated for post-high school settings. The applicable sections of two civil rights laws-Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990-require equal access for "otherwise qualified" students with significant impairments. These statutes provide protections and supports but make the transition from high school to postsecondary education challenging for students with LD. This is due to the fact that success in college requires more diligence, self-control, self-evaluation, decision making, and goal setting-in short, self-determination. For example, the difference in class time versus study time requires the student to select the amount of time needed to read texts, review notes, complete assignments, and study, as well as to schedule that time and be disciplined enough to independently meet those obligations. This must be done without benefit of supervision from parents or special education teachers and in spite of the distractions offered by college life. Whereas high school is fairly structured, college environments require students to manage their own time and organize their days and nights. This dramatic difference in personal freedom, combined with the increased demand for critical thinking and independent learning, make self-determination a necessary skill for college success.
Characteristics of Successful College Students with LD
Self-determination (i.e., making conscious decisions to take charge of one's life and make personal adaptations to succeed) is critical for success in both academics and employment. Related characteristics include being goal oriented, being persistent, reinterpreting one's LD experiences to focus on abilities, using problem solving, seeking assistance through supportive people, choosing environments that maximize strengths and compensate for weaknesses, and employing effective social skills in a variety of areas (e.g., classrooms, physical education settings, social situations with and without members of the opposite gender). In a similar vein, college students with LD themselves have identified managing time, making connections, choosing courses carefully, finding and using mentors and supportive peers, taking responsibility for self, matching work to assessments, and modifying strategies based on feedback as necessary characteristics for a productive postsecondary experience.
Transition Planning for College
Effective transition to college is achieved through collaboration involving the school, the family, and most of all, the student to develop outcome-oriented plans based on the student's needs, preferences, abilities, and interests. The 1997 IDEA amendments noted that it is the student, not the parent, who is the responsible person once the student has reached the age of majority, thus emphasizing the student's need to take a significant role in the transition process. Although all college-bound students face this transition, students with LD must address additional challenges; navigating the postsecondary system under Section 504 and ADA requires self-identification, presentation of valid documentation, formal requests for services, and expectations that the student will meet technical standards and be otherwise qualified. Having a learning disability does not guarantee the student a seat in a college classroom, nor does it guarantee special considerations not specifically outlined in Section 504 or ADA.
The "conventional wisdom" regarding preparation for college had suggested that students should achieve good grades by obtaining (a) accommodations and course waivers in areas affected by the learning disability and (b) subject-matter tutoring in the resource room. This is not an effective approach for college success. Instead, the transition process should begin at age 14 with a course of study planned to meet the requirements of any potential college. Most colleges do not allow course waivers; therefore, courses waived or avoided because of a learning disability may jeopardize college admission or may have to be taken as prerequisites to the college curriculum. Students should receive instruction to develop learning strategies and social skills that will help them become successful independent learners in the college setting. Because accommodations provided in high school are not necessarily available in college, students must develop the organization, time management, problem-solving, study, and social skills they will need in the postsecondary setting.
Another area of transition planning relates to eligibility for services and determination of reasonable accommodations. Colleges expect students with LD to provide recent (i.e., less than 3-year-old) documentation of the learning disability and assessment data that justify requested accommodations. It is therefore recommended that a complete psycho-educational battery be completed in the sophomore or junior year that can be used for those purposes as well as to request accommodations on the SAT or ACT examinations (www.act.org; www.collegeboard.org). Many colleges and testing organizations have specific requirements for LD documentation that should be reviewed prior to the evaluation (www.ets.org; www.ahead.org). The independence and self-determination skills students develop by participating in the transition planning process should provide the basis for a productive college experience.
Prepared by Stan Shaw - Council for Learning Disabilities