Improving the odds for students with learning disabilities

Preparing for college: improving the odds for students with learning disabilities

Nancy E. Foley

Increasing numbers of students with learning disabilities are enrolling in colleges. Although, they may have met academic prerequisites, they still may find that they are unprepared. In addition to the many adjustments that all students must make, students with disabilities are faced with a major shift in the advocacy role. As K-12 students in special education, teachers, parents, counselors may have monitored their academic progress. Upon graduation from high school, however, the student must assume responsibility for getting their academic needs met. They must demonstrate an array of nonintellectual skills and attributes in the process of self-identifying as having a disability, describing the nature of their disability and its impact on their learning, and suggesting effective accommodations.


Students with learning disabilities (LD) represent the fastest growing and largest population of college students with disabilities (Henderson, 2001). They are graduating from high school and entering universities and four-year colleges in record numbers (Henderson, 2001; Houck, Engelhard, & Geller, 1989; Hughes & Smith, 1990; Mangrum & Strichart, 1988; Scott & Berger, 1993). McGuire, Norlander, and Shaw (1990) suggest a “tenfold” increase in the number of freshmen with LD entering college between 1978 and 1986. Fall 2000 data indicate that 40% of full-time college freshmen with disabilities who enrolled in four-year colleges reported having LD (Henderson, 2001).

Students who enroll in colleges and universities find few learning disabilities programs and may experience confusion regarding the nature of support services available in higher education (Mangrum & Strichart, 1988). Although most post-secondary schools provide support through tutorial services and study skills curricula, these are general academic support services that are available to all students and are not designed specifically for students with learning disabilities (Houck et al., 1989; Mangrum & Strichart, 1988; Scott & Berger, 1993). As a result, students who have become accustomed to specialized, comprehensive instruction in a special education environment or accommodations in the regular classroom, or both, are likely to experience difficulty in the less structured, more challenging higher education environment (Houck et al., 1989; Vogel, 1993).

At the college level, the combination of less academic support and the need to exert greater independence often results in frustration and failure for students who had previously experienced success in school. When a learning disabilities program is not available, college students may not self-identify by informing college faculty or support personnel of their LD until they are in academic trouble (Mangrum & Strichart, 1988). Some students may be reluctant to identify themselves as having disabilities under any circumstances. In either case, by the time it is realized that these students need academic assistance, it is likely to be “too little and too late.”

Investigations of LD Student Population

An influx of students with LD entering college has occurred within the last 15 years. They have arrived on college and university campuses with varying levels of skills and degrees of preparation, and they have experienced varying degrees of success as undergraduates. Although the focus of much of the literature on college students with LD has been on factors such as selecting a college or university, types of services provided in higher education, student characteristics, and attitudes of faculty regarding accommodations (Greenbaum, Graham, & Scales, 1995), few studies have focused on the experiences and graduation rates of students with LD.

Greenbaum et al. (1995) reviewed various studies investigating the outcomes for students with LD in higher education, and overall, the results are mixed regarding graduation rate and success in higher education. Citing Bursuck, Rose, Cowen, and Yaha, (1989) Greenbaum, et al. (1995) report that the graduation rate for people with LD was only 30% compared to 50% for students without LD. Vogel and Adelman (1992; cited in Greenbaum et al., 1995) reported a graduation rate of 37% for students with LD from a college that provided highly coordinated support services. A later study by Greenbaum, et al., (1995) that followed students even after they had left their initial school, reported a 67% graduation rate with students taking approximately 5.5 years to complete an undergraduate degree. Interestingly, more than 75% of the students with LD attended two or even three different colleges or universities before graduating. Clearly, students with LD continue to experience difficulties into their postsecondary education years, although ultimately, many do graduate.

Supports and Attributes

All of the studies identified factors that contributed to the success of college students with LD who graduated. The students with LD considered the following factors important to their college success: support from family and friends, availability of campus support services, testing accommodations, priority registration, counseling, and advocacy assistance (Greenbaum, et al., 1995). The investigators of the studies identified additional factors such as academic preparation (Vogel & Adelman, 1992), degree of severity of LD, student determination and tenacity, (Greenbaum, et al., 1995) and student knowledge about their disability and the ability to communicate their needs (Vogel & Adelman, 1992; Brinckerhoff, L.D., 1994; Greenbaum, et al., 1995).

Prerequisite cognitive and academic skills required for success in higher education are similar for all students. Traditionally, high school programs that prepare students for colleges and universities focus on the types of college preparatory classes and study skills that provide academic and intellectual skills necessary for advanced education (Skinner, 1998). College preparation for students with LD must also include experience and success in rigorous classes, emphasis on study skills (Gajar, 1993; Skinner, 1998), and the use of learning strategies (Cowen, 1993; Scott & Berger, 1993; Skinner, 1998).

Nonacademic Prerequisite Skills

Particular challenges requiring self-advocacy skills in higher education include self-identifying as having a disability and initiating the process for accommodations. Nonacademic abilities and skills that are essential to self-advocacy include: accessing available services, describing the disability and how it affects learning (Cowen, 1993; Skinner, 1998), suggesting effective accommodations (Cowen, 1993; Brinckerhoff, 1994), and discussing course concerns with instructors (Skinner, 1998).

Larose, Robertson, Roy, and Legault (1998) refer to “nonintellectual learning factors or disposition” (p. 276) such as work habits, attitudes, planning, and time management possibly being as important as intellectual assets in influencing college success. Larose, et al. (1998) citing earlier work by Larose and Roy (1994) suggest that nonintellectual dispositions such as an individual’s perception of academic competence and “help-seeking behaviors” (p. 279) may contribute to the prediction of college success for at-risk students. The willingness and ability to seek help have added importance for students with LD, who need to plan course schedules carefully, arrange various accommodations, and communicate openly with professors in order to be successful.

Although the nature of LD requires individual consideration in determining appropriate accommodations and interventions, the growing pool of college students with LD and their accumulated successes and struggles provides opportunity to determine the skills that serve students well in higher education environments. The literature is replete with examples of students with LD who seemingly have adequate academic and study skills preparation but have struggled and failed in college (Brinckerhoff, 1994; Dalke & Schmitt, 1987; Greenbaum, et al., 1995; Mangrum & Strichart, 1988). Investigations of the reasons why these students have not been successful have shifted to nonacademic factors and specifically to self-advocacy skills that are perceived to increase independence and improve the likelihood of success for college students with learning disabilities.

Higher education, as with most other adult environments, requires some degree of self-advocacy. Even in an atmosphere of acceptance where services are available, the individual in need must initiate the process. For many students with LD, the entry into higher education is the first time they are responsible for getting their needs met, a process that begins with self-identifying, communicating the nature of the disability, and suggesting appropriate accommodations. Their success or failure in higher education may be determined, in large part, by their ability to meet the challenge of advocating for themselves. With such high stakes, it is important that they develop these skills before arriving on college campuses.

Although more students with learning disabilities are attending colleges and universities, less than 40% of the students who demonstrate potential for college success actually enroll (Gajar, Goodman, & McAfee, 1993). Those 60% who do not go on to higher education are likely to continue the saga of less than favorable adult outcomes for people with disabilities (Gajar, Goodman, & McAfee, 1993). These unfavorable outcomes include high rates of unemployment and underemployment (Flexor, Simmons, Luft, & Baer, 2001). Although many factors account for the poor outcomes, lack of postsecondary education contributes to fewer career and professional opportunities, and similar outcomes are likely for students with LD who fail or dropout of college.


Adequate preparation for higher education is important for all students and includes appropriate prerequisite courses, study and time management skills. Students with LD must possess an array of additional non-academic skills and attributes to ensure their success in the college environment. Development of these nonintellectual skills, specifically those associated with self-advocacy, better equip students to meet the greater demands for independence and individual responsibility associated with higher education environments.


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