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Colleges Face Calls for Better Support of Students With Learning Disabilities

Source: Chronicle of Higher Education, 07/02/15
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By Mary Ellen McIntire

When Katherine J. Walsh was choosing a college, she wasn’t as focused on which college did best in U.S. News & World Report’s rankings or tied to living in a particular part of the country. One thing she did care about was finding an institution prepared to support the attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder she’d struggled with for most of her life.

She’s not alone. The number of students with learning disabilities has jumped in the past decade, said Lindsay E. Jones, director of public policy and advocacy at the National Center for Learning Disabilities. According to a November 2014 report by the center, 67 percent of young adults with learning disabilities had enrolled in some type of postsecondary education within eight years of graduating from high school.

But just 24 percent of students who received support for a learning disability in high school disclosed that disability in college, according to the report.

It’s an issue that has caught the eye of the U.S. Department of Education, which announced last month that it would fund a new center to share information and best practices to help students with learning disabilities make the transition to or attend a postsecondary institution.

The disabilities-support system at many colleges can make it difficult for students to prove they have a learning disability, Ms. Jones said. While students with learning disabilities were often first tested for them in elementary school, they could need to provide a college’s support-services office with a more recent test, which tends to be costly. Then, each semester, the students must show each of their professors a letter that says they require some sort of assistance.

“That’s a hard thing for any 18-year-old to do,” Ms. Jones said. “It’s a very daunting experience for a young person who hasn’t had rock-solid self-advocacy training to get those accommodations.”

Some students work with officials who have helped to draft their Individualized Education Program, which guides the assistance they need while they’re in elementary or secondary school, to prepare them to seek assistance in college. That could include additional time on examinations or having another person take notes in class.

In elementary and secondary schools, support for students with learning disabilities is governed by the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA. But college students must seek support under a different law, the Americans With Disabilities Act. IDEA puts the requirement on teachers to identify a potential learning disability; in college, students must be more proactive about getting support for their disabilities.

The new information center that the Education Department is supporting will help students and their families understand how the support system at colleges differs from the system at elementary and secondary schools, while helping colleges improve services for students with learning disabilities.

Raising Awareness
Even though more students with learning disabilities are enrolling in higher education, colleges have been slower to raise broad awareness across their campuses, said Allison R. Lombardi, an assistant professor of educational psychology at the University of Connecticut.

Some institutions have started offering faculty-development programs for professors to learn more about how to work with students who have a learning disability, but that tends to be “the exception, rather than the rule,” she added.

Four-year universities “have a whole staff of people in DSS offices doing good things,” Ms. Lombardi said, referring to disabilities-support services programs. At some universities, those offices have tried to raise faculty awareness of how to help students with learning disabilities instead of just referring them to the DSS office, she added.

Some universities have gained recognition for specialized programs to accommodate students with learning disabilities. One of them is the University of Arizona, where Ms. Walsh decided to attend, largely because of a program it calls the Strategic Alternative Learning Technique Center, the SALT Center.

Students who are accepted to the SALT Center have access to a smaller community on the campus that includes upper-class role models and staff learning specialists, who meet with students individually each week to help with skills like time management, studying, and communicating with professors about their disabilities.

The program helps students gradually feel more confident about their situation, said Rudy M. Molina, director of the SALT Center.

“We find that most students who meet with us weekly, they’re able to discuss those things incrementally over time and not kind of in crisis mode,” Mr. Molina said.

Still, those types of programs are costly and rely heavily on donors. The program costs an additional $2,600 per semester for underclass members, while access to the campus disability-resource center, which can help provide students with amenities such as extra time on exams, is free.

At East Carolina University, in North Carolina, a program called STEPP enrolls 10 students with dyslexia, dysgraphia, or dyscalculia annually. The program is free for those students, who typically would not be admissible to the university based on its traditional application, but who prove they are “college material,” said Sarah Williams, the program’s director.

The program supplements support already offered by the university’s disabilities-support services office, Ms. Williams said. By requiring freshmen and sophomores to use certain services, but offering them to all students throughout their time at the university, students are focused on the transition into college life.

“They need a set of supports, but they’re going to be just fine,” Ms. Williams said. “The first couple of years, for some students, is a couple of years of confidence building. They come in, they use our resources, they do fine, but they begin to believe in themselves and become more and more confident.”

The Education Department’s new center could help more colleges develop larger programs — and help students and families obtain support, said Ms. Jones, at the National Center for Learning Disabilities.

“The reality is that in some cases it’s very clear,” she said. “But in some cases it’s extremely difficult to find.”