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MAY 2007

Landmark College:
Do College Students with Learning Difficulties Use the Resources Available To Them? A Self-Evaluation of Higher Education LD Support Services

By Ben Mitchell, Krista Muller and Sarah Crowther of Landmark College

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 services.

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 believe.

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 transition.#



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