A Match Made by Design Not Accident

By: Jen Navicky

Establishing a good match between student and support program is an important part of the college search process for students with learning disabilities and requires a careful evaluation of individual needs followed by an attempt to relate these needs to the college environment. The legal basis for providing support services changes when students move to the postsecondary level. Public Law 94-142, now the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) has little direct impact on the college environment except in the area of transition planning. Transition plans reflect the continuing concern for long range success of students with disabilities and have contributed to increasing numbers of students exploring higher education. But higher education is only directly influenced by Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 which guarantees "qualified individuals" the right to participate in programs receiving federal money.

Students with disabilities may not be discriminated against on the basis of their disability but they have no guarantee of a place at an institution of higher education similar to the free and appropriate education (FAPE) guaranteed at the lower levels. At the college level, education moves from being a right of all students to a privilege for those who are qualified to do college level work. Higher education institutions are no longer required to search out students and remediate any weaknesses. They are under no obligation to make major changes in academic programs to assist students in disability areas. In addition, students may find themselves moving from a high school program in which requirements have been set in place and administered by school personnel to an environment in which they must orchestrate their own success. This includes self identifying, advocating for academic adjustments, and many times, facilitating these adjustments. The fact that students leave high school with varying abilities to do this is one reason a variety of support services have emerged on college campuses.

Students must realize there are differences between high school and college work. The amount of time spent in classes is drastically reduced. Compared to 30 or more hours during the week in high school, a college student may take a reduced load and spend 12 hours of classroom time. Even with a tutorial of five to eight additional hours (which may be provided by a comprehensive program), students are still spending only 20 hours in structured activities and lose much of the direction that had formerly come within the classroom. Though classroom time is reduced, the amount of material covered on the college level increases dramatically. College work encompasses assigned readings, lecture notes, and independent projects as directed by the course syllabus. Students need to be able to organize and integrate information from several sources, then draw conclusions and articulate them. Much of the more complex processing we refer to as higher level learning is accomplished through independent direction and the use of different skills than are emphasized on the secondary level ( Brinkerhoff, Shaw & McGuire, 1993). As students assess their preparedness, they must take into consideration how comfortable they feel entering an independent learning environment.

Susan Vogel (1993) presents a continuum concept of services provided on the college level which has on one end minimal compliance consisting of an office staffed by one individual, often times who has limited specialized knowledge about learning disabilities, and who coordinates all disability services on campus. On the opposite end is a comprehensive program in which professional staff members, trained in the needs of students with learning disabilities, assist with identifying individual needs, advocating for accommodations and then monitoring student performance. In addition, comprehensive support may include a tutorial for which a fee is charged. In this situation, students may be assisted with the course waiver or substitution request procedure in order to circumvent areas of severe disability.

By careful questioning during campus visits, parents and students can sort through the variations in the services provided and establish the degree of support that best meets individual needs. Support personnel should be asked to clarify the program in the following areas:

  1. Program Philosophy: Is there a specialized emphasis generally associated with the services? Is there emphasis on learning strategies, remediation, or social skills?
  2. Tutorial Support: Is it scheduled time or on an as-needed basis? Is tutoring provided by peers or professional staff? What is the tutor-to-student ratio? Does the staff receive continual professional development?
  3. Waivers and Substitutions: What is the procedure and is there assistance with this procedure? What documentation is necessary? What is the probability that waivers/substitutions are granted?
  4. Course Load and Graduation Time: Is it possible to maintain a reduced course load? Do students with disabilities take longer to complete the requirements for graduation? Is there priority registration for students participating in services?
  5. Academic Adjustments: How are the academic adjustments coordinated? Are there specialized accommodations such as note takers, real-time captioning and readers/scribes for examinations?
  6. Awareness and Support: Is the school administration and faculty aware of the needs of students with disabilities and the adjustments which will help meet these needs? Is there good communication between all those with whom the student will be relying on for support?
  7. Campus Climate: Is the campus atmosphere generally accepting of students with differences in learning? Are students encouraged to participate in a variety of campus activities?

A profile of students on Susan Vogel's continuum could be exemplified by placing students with minimal needs on one end. They are: willing to advocate for themselves, know their areas of strength and weakness, have a fairly good knowledge of college expectations, and received minimal services in a competitive high school. These students would be best served at an institution which recognizes the needs of students with disabilities and provides adequate adjustments but may not have a structured support program to administer these adjustments.

Moving towards the opposite end we would find students who need more structure. They: have completed most of their high school work within the regular classroom but have relied on the resource teacher for direction and support, may be unable or reluctant to advocate for adjustments, and may have had some difficulty completing high school requirements. These students may need a more comprehensive program which encourages a movement towards self-advocacy and may include a tutorial but provides support necessary until the student feels comfortable assuming full responsibility. A summer transition program offered on a college campus may help these students by communicating academic and social expectations and acquainting them with the staff who assists in obtaining accommodations.

At the opposite end are students who may not be adequately prepared for college level work because they: have been receiving extensive tutoring and modifications of curriculum on the high school level, have continued with some classes in a specialized setting, and have experienced difficulty in completing high school requirements. These students must realize they are expected to meet all the academic requirements on the college level in spite of their disability and should not automatically assume they will receive services similar to those available in high school. They may need to investigate an environment emphasizing remediation possibly during a post-graduate year to help them make a successful transition to college level work.

The outcome of college level learning for all students should be to develop lifelong learning skills which are applicable in a variety of situations; to perfect abilities related to problem solving and creative thinking; to implement interpersonal and teamwork skills; and to develop both oral and written communication abilities (White, 1992). The amount of support necessary on the college level is dependent upon individual levels of attainment upon leaving high school. A good match between student and program services should be based upon a foundation of personal knowledge augmented by clarification of what support is available on the individual college campus.

About the author

Jen Navicky is the director of the Center for the Advancement of Learning at Muskingum College in New Concord, Ohio. She has worked in the structured PLUS Program for students with learning disabilities for the past 16 years. In the summer of 1997, the Center implemented a two week summer transition program, First Step, in which students are assisted in making a successful transition to postsecondary environments.



Click the "References" link above to hide these references.

Brinkerhoff, Loring C., Shaw, Stan F., & McGuire, Joan M. (1993). Promoting Postsecondary Education for Students with Learning Disabilities. Austin, Texas: proed.

White, Warren J. (1992). The postschool adjustment of persons with learning disabilities: Current status and future projections. Journal of Learning Disabilities. Vol. 25, pp448456.

Vogel, Susan A. (1993). The continuum of university responses to section 504 for students with learning disabilities. In S.A. Vogel & P.B. Adelman (ed). Success for College Students with Learning Disabilities (pp. 83104). New York: SpringerVerlag.

Jen Navicky, M.S. Reprinted with permission The PostSecondary LD Report Winter 1998