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Colleges seek to help students with learning disabilities

By Matt Krupnick
The Hechinger Report

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NEW YORK: Endowed with a new freshman’s hunger for independence, Alix Generous thought she could conquer college without seeking help for the learning disabilities she’d 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’d relied on such help throughout her childhood. “I was like, ‘Now I’m 18 and can do what I want,’ ” she said. “I definitely had that attitude. But a lot of it also was ignorance.”

“It totally screwed me up,” said Generous, who grew up in Maryland. “In the easiest classes, like intro to theater, I got a C.”

Generous finally started accepting help, and her grades improved. She later transferred to the University of Vermont, where she’s 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 schools are focusing more attention on getting such reluctant students to disclose their learning disabilities 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.

While 94 percent of high school students with learning disabilities get some kind of help, just 17 percent of college students do.

“Many (learning-disabled) students first get to college and really want to do it on their own,” said Sarah Williams, an East Carolina University associate professor of special education who’s helping North Carolina’s public universities handle learning disabilities better. “They’re really tired of the whole system.”

Growing problem

The problem is expected to only get worse. A study that the American Academy of Pediatrics published in 2011 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.

Students with learning disabilities are far more likely than others to drop out of four-year colleges. Just 34 percent complete four-year degrees within eight years of finishing high school, the National Center for Special Education Research reports. That compares with 56 percent of all students who graduate within six years, according to the National Student Clearinghouse, a research center.

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.

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.

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 that K-12 schools pay but many higher education institutions won’t.

The Hechinger Report, distributed by McClatchy Tribune Information Services, is a nonprofit education-news outlet affiliated with Teachers College, Columbia University.


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