Do College Students with Learning Difficulties Use the
Resources Available To Them? A Self-Evaluation of Higher Education LD Support
Every college and university is required to provide services for
students with diagnosed learning difficulties. Section 504 of the
Rehabilitation Act states that “no qualified individual with a disability in
the United States shall be excluded from, denied the benefits of, or be
subjected to discrimination under” any program that receives Federal funding.
The Americans with Disabilities Act [ADA] prohibits discrimination on the basis
of disability in employment, public accommodations, telecommunications, and
similar settings and resources, whether an organization receives federal
funding or not. Together, these regulations require that virtually all enrolled
college students with identified disabilities receive appropriate
accommodations or other resources that support students on their journey to
success. Many studies, such as Li and Hamel’s 2003 article, “Writing Issues in
College Students with Learning Disabilities,” highlight the increase of college
students with diagnosed learning difficulties in the wake of these regulations.
However, parents and professors report that many students making
the transition from high school to college do not access appropriate
accommodations. In an effort to test this question - are diagnosed students
using the resources available at colleges and universities, Landmark College
conducted a survey of college level support service providers. Although the
research confirms several expectations about student access to appropriate
accommodations, the details illuminated some interesting patterns.
We conducted the survey electronically over several weeks in
March of 2007. Out of roughly 1000 solicitations, we received 230 responses
from colleges and universities all over the United States. Learning disability
support service coordinators at each institution were asked 23 questions
intended to describe the supports available, the challenges professionals face
in providing support, and the resources required to provide better support. The
responding institutions reported a range of between 40 and 1200 students being
served. In answer to the stated research question, the survey suggests that an
average of 49% of students with an LD diagnosis actually use the available
We began with questions intended to discern what services were
available. We found that 84% of the colleges offer accommodations only.
Generally accommodations include note takers, un-timed testing, and
modifications like books on tape or digital texts. 80% offer assistive
technology. Only 10% of the respondents offer structured programs for the
acquisition of missing academic skills. Only 52% of the colleges provide
student access to instructors with special training in the area of learning
disabilities and ADHD. 37% offer peer tutors (higher level, work-study students
who tutor students in material that they have already mastered). Although very
few schools limit the number of hours a student can spend with the services
available, the average student spends one hour per week with support services
(from a range of 0 to 4 hours a week).
It is interesting to note which classes give diagnosed students
the most difficulty. Students attending more rigorous schools, such as large
universities and select private colleges, consistently seem to struggle with
math and foreign-language requirements. In colleges that offer more
developmental, skills-based classes, students appear to struggle with all
classes that require significant reading and writing, such as college
composition. 63% of respondents report that academic difficulties begin in the
first semester of the freshman year. The number decreases by semester with only
10% first reporting difficulty in the junior year and 6% in the senior year.
However, only 51% of the respondents said that students eligible for services actually
seek them in the first semester.
When asked to describe what academic skills are most commonly
lacking in students who seek services, the most common response was time
management at 82% and organization at 81%. The College Board’s addition of the
“writing” component has highlighted the underdeveloped writing skills of
American high school students. 69% of the respondents report that students come
for writing assistance, which supports the College Board’s findings.
Interestingly, comprehension difficulties were highlighted by only 56% of the respondents.
Nevertheless, time management was cited as the most significant difficulty
facing diagnosed students on the postsecondary level.
As we moved into questions intended to assess the cultural
atmosphere for students with learning disabilities, the data did not match our
expectations. A 2005 article, “suggests evidence to show that faculty at
traditional universities are either ignorant about, or openly hostile toward,
providing accommodations to students with diagnosed learning difficulties.
However, when students were asked to rate the faculty’s acceptance of their
learning difficulties, 16% of respondents gave the faculty a rating of
excellent. 34% rated their faculty as very accepting and 29% were rated as
accepting. Furthermore, 77% of respondents believe that their own staff has at
least a good level of expertise and proficiency with assistive technology.
Perhaps higher education is actually more knowledgeable and understanding about
the needs of students who learn differently than the stories would have us
In another line of inquiry, we tried to see if there were any
patterns in the profiles of students who are not experiencing success at the
postsecondary level. We asked LD service providers to describe the profile of a
student who is most successful in their college or university. Overwhelmingly,
respondents described students who understand their own disabilities and who
were willing to make the effort required to address them. For example one
respondent wrote, “Successful students are those who have learned how to
self-advocate, know what their needs are and have good study skills/habits.
Also, students who take charge of their responsibilities and use organizational
tools to stay on top of things achieve success.” Landmark College’s First Year
Seminar is aimed directly at developing meta-cognition and self advocacy, in
part due to our recognition of this fact.
When asked to assess which students were not successful in their
program, respondents overwhelmingly described textbook symptoms of what Dr.
Thomas Brown, professor of clinical psychiatry at Yale University would label
as “executive function disorder.” They describe students as “unmotivated,”
missing class, not completing work, not advocating for services and not seeking
support. This survey suggests that students who have difficulties with reading
and writing do not struggle as much as students who have trouble with
organization, time management and work completion.
Finally, a very clear impression given through these surveys is
that many postsecondary support professionals feel that they do not have the
time or the resources to support students effectively. Many cite a large
increase of students with diagnosed learning disabilities seeking support,
combined with an absence of adequate staffing to accommodate this increase.
Holly Gurney of Bates College goes further, saying, “Another concern is the
increased pressure these numbers place on the implementation of accommodations
on an individual basis. It would be great to move more toward universal design
or some other system that makes the learning process and academic system open
and accessible to all without the extensive use of accommodations.”
Given a quick review of this survey, it appears that many
colleges are able to serve students with reading and writing difficulties
through assistive technology and traditional accommodations. However, the
survey suggests that postsecondary services are having difficulty supporting
students’ executive function abilities as they make the transition from the
structure of high school to the independence of college. In the spirit of
Ms.Gurney’s challenge to look to universal design as an appropriate approach to
better serve postsecondary students, this survey raises questions that can,
hopefully, give guidance in designing these curricula. Our findings indicate
that those designing curricula to support students with learning difficulties
should not forget to take into account issues of executive function: time
management, organization, activation and meta-cognition. In the near term,
Landmark College will collaborate with our colleagues at other institutions to
determine specific way colleges can better support students making the