On their own in college

Students with learning disabilities lose support from parents and teachers when they go to college, reports the Washington Post. It’s a tough transition.

Many students with learning disabilities such as dyslexia or memory troubles have had years of education shaped by intense parental support, involved teachers and legally mandated school safety nets . . .

But what colleges must do is far less defined legally, and professors and administrators at some schools seem to remain skeptical about the needs that students might have. Schools must provide assistance to students, but only if the students disclose their disabilities.

Most students do not. Some want to shed the label; others don’t want the hassle of proving they’ve got a learning problem.

More learning-disabled students are going on to two- or four-year colleges, reports the Post. Those living away from home have the freedom to stay up all night playing video games, cut classes, postpone their term papers till after the last minute . . . If they learn to manage their time and meet expectations, they’ll be employable.  Otherwise, not.

About Joanne


  1. Where I teach, we are expected to make accommodations provided we have proper documentation. I have done such things as have student “notetakers” who then copy their notes, or permit taping of my lectures, or give exams at an alternate time when the student is not time-limited to the class period.

    I’ve never had to go so far as to do a completely oral exam, but if it was clear that someone needed that to succeed (and they had reasonable chance of success in their field), I’d be willing to do it.

    Two things though:

    First, the students need to go to the Disability office with documentation. If they don’t do that, I can’t help them, even if they come to me personally and claim LD. And I’ve had people try that. When I refer them to the office on campus, they never go. I’m not sure why.

    Second…and I realize this might be an unpopular view, but…sometimes people need to realize their limitations. We’ve had a few students come through who just couldn’t make the grades in their classes without hours upon hours of help, or without the prof going more slowly in the class than they normally would. Some of these folks have enormously high expectations, like going to vet school to become a large-mammal doctor at a zoo, or becoming a genetic researcher, or earning a Ph.D. so they can run a pharmaceutical lab.

    And yet…they cannot pass Bio 1 without trying three times and getting countless hours of tutoring both from paid tutors and during office hours…and yet there’s that expectation that they can shoot for the stars because they’ve been told all their lives they can do “anything.”

    It makes it hard on the profs because we really canNOT devote 12 hours a week to private tutoring sessions for a single student. And we’re the bad guy if we gently suggest another career.

  2. Margo/Mom says:

    I am counting on our local community college, which has an excellent rep for accommodating to the needs of students with various disabilities–actually better than the local public schools. Personally, I would cheer for a kid willing to go through BioI 3X without giving up. Sometimes a high complexity course is required for a pretty low complexity career–human anatomy for cosmetology, for instance. In my son’s case, he has experienced so many who are willing to write him off, it is hard to convince him of his high level of ability in some areas where he really excels.

  3. When I applied to the vet school back in Ukraine (and back in 1993), i had to go through the physical exam – and I was denied acception based on the bad vision (-9 myopia). I appealed, of course, and got the proof that I was wearing glasses that would allow me to see well enough to perform accurate surgery. But that’s how the screening was… And I think it is reasonable: there are limitations for certain fields (thanks goodness, there are less and less physical limitations left, and contacts were available for me, as well as lasic later). But limitations exist. And I do not see the point for wasting time teaching people who will not make it. However, I am not the one who should tell them off.

  4. LD students are often enabled by the system, imo (having taught hundreds of ’em). They really do believe they can do anything because tasks have been so watered down. At some point in high school, we need to start withdrawing supports so they know what they can do on their own — and grow past those supports if possible (many can if it is demanded of them). I can’t tell you the students who are perfectly capable of taking an exam in my room, but use their “alternative testing enviroment” accomodation because they know the sped staff will feed them answers to the test. Drives me insane.

    FWIW, I have parents who, every year, are amazed at what their kids accomplish in my classroom. Kids who they’ve been told can’t function at grade level in English doing just fine when I expect them to do it.

  5. Catch Thirty-Three says:

    ricki – On your point about people realizing their limitations – so true! Early on in life I realized that mathematics wasn’t for me, but I could read and write above and beyond what my peers could manage. So eventually I used this to major in history. Is it the most lucrative degree to have? No, but the degree requires one to read and write – activities that many students will find abhorrent. It played to my advantage. People don’t realize that while in some areas they are severely limited and restrained, that means that there is something else where there absolutely are no limits.

    As for learning disabilities – as a college IA, I have been told to not permit the students to play the LD card, unless they have gone to the appropriate office here and can present the proper paperwork. SO far I have not encountered this phenomenon. But I am young yet…

  6. Margo/Mom says:


    There is a big difference between watering down and providing supports. One of the major consequences of the segregation of kids with disabilities (the resource room, or other place down the hall), is that they are placed in a class with a far wider diversity of skills and abilities than in a regular classroom and generally a broader grade span and more content delivered through the “special teacher.” A certification in special education does not require certification in a content area. Until NCLB required that they be HQT in a content area they were generalists. Most still lack degrees in a content area, but now they have had some PD in a content area. A generalist in Special Education would not be a bad thing–except for the structure that keeps them trying to teach individual classes in a resource room, rather than supporting regular (content specialized) teachers in a classroom.

    Providing lots of simplified worksheets is a good coping skill if you are responsible for three grade levels and all content (the room my son was in for 2+ years while I fought hard to get him out). There were no class discussions (which benefit aural learners), no cooperative or collaborative learning (which builds communications and social skills), no projects, no writing assignments, no creativity in using areas of strength to compensate for areas of weakness–oh, and not a whole lot of content.

    Now, personally, I don’t call that enabling. I call it warehousing. But the alternative has generally been placement in a “regular” classroom and fighting with a teacher who believes that kids who have learning impairments have been coddled, they can do the work “if they want to,” and that if they can’t hack it without the supports that are specified in their IEP, that they should be sent back to the resource room. Somehow, there has always been an implication that the resource rooms–because they are smaller, and have “special” staff, would be able to provide a more intensive experience that would ramp back up to a regular classroom. Instead, the gaps have just gotten greater over time.

  7. I agree with Ricki – I’m all for helping kids get the help that they need, but at some point everybody needs to realized that they are better suited for some fields than others. I teach biology – at my community college I teach mostly pre-nursing, and as a TA I taught pre-med students. Although we can admire tenacity (and I can do more to help non-majors who are taking the class because they are curious) I don’t want a nurse or a doctor who can’t pick up new things fairly quickly.

    There may be other medical-related fields where this is less of a problem (technician, transcriptionist, therapist – all majors that I have seen in my classes). Knowing that many jobs involve a training session to teach a new method or procedure, I’m not really comfortable with people making life-and-death decisions who would need multiple rounds of training to ‘get it’. Saying that med school or nursing school will ‘weed out’ these students is unfair to the students – it is not helping them for them to spend time and money for several years working towards a goal that they won’t be able to reach.

  8. Margo/Mom “Providing lots of simplified worksheets is a good coping skill if you are responsible for three grade levels and all content”

    I don’t think you realize how lucky your child was to be in a classroom with only three grade levels. My second grader is in a regular classroom that spans at least four grade levels. My fifth grader is in a classroom that spans at least 9 grade levels in reading skill.

    The reality of life is that at some point, adults pull their own weight using the supports they generate and the skills they have.

    We all have strengths and weaknesses….I think people are better off when they realize what those are, rather than waste years pursuing dreams that they have no reasonable possibility of attaining.

  9. Margo/Mom says:


    I was speaking of official grade levels, not reading levels or levels of ability (which I am certain were greater). With five content areas across three grades, this would mean 15 lesson preparations, plus individualization. It cannot be done. We would never do this to a regular ed teacher (a teacher with 4, 5 or 6 preparations daily would be considered to be burdened–something reserved for first year rookies).

    There are many realities of life, including the fact that until the 1970s we did not even have an expectation of universal education of all students with disabilities. Personally I would prefer an education that helps all students to recognize their areas of stength and learn how to build on them. We are not very good at this. We continually seek ways to eliminate the “less than” folks from the mainstream and totally miss out on what any of them have to contribute.

  10. Margo/Mom says:

    BTW–back in college I had a roommate who killed herself with studying–things like biology, chemistry, really hard stuff. She had a dream to become a Veterinarian. It was a tough program, but she had to be very close to the top to get in, to overcome the perceptions associated with her particular physical condition. Because of her condition, she was subjected to a lot of pretty nosy questions (things that are illegal now) about her relationships, who would support her and what impact they might have on her, whether her physical state might some day prove to be a liability to her in the field.

    We lost touch, but I think that she did get in–although she may have had to take an extra undergraduate year to get there.

    Oh, her physical state, the one that was considered a liability? She is female.

  11. Lightly Seasoned says:

    Margo: I know what the difference is between watered down and accomodated to a very fine degree. You see, I have taught hundreds of students, not just my own offspring. I know exactly what goes on in a self-contained room and how it differs from my own inclusion classroom. Furthermore, I have MAD SKILLS in differentiating for the inclusion classroom — from Down Syndrome to GATE — all in the same room (whee! what fun!).

    One doesn’t just yank supports. One scaffolds and pulls them slowly to find where the student really can stand on his own. I was amazed last year when I was told that a child who had been writing all his own work for me couldn’t write. News to me. Nobody had ever asked him to because the accomodation was in the IEP. Granted, the handwriting was atrocious, but he could do it. All I had to do was ask him to try.

  12. There was a guy in the first year of my engineering class, who also happened to be living at the same hall of residence as me. We had 9am lectures Monday to Friday, but the earliest lectuers he got to ever were at 10 am. One of the requirements of the course was to hand in 4 lab papers – they were marked but you didn’t need to pass the lab papers to pass the course if you did really well in the final exam. He didn’t hand a single lab paper in. The lecturer and the head of department chased him over this, nothing happened. The dean of engineering even called him in to his office to tell him to pass in the papers. He didn’t. Failed the year, and wasted all that time and money. I did some labs with him – he knew the base work from high school well enough – he just had some major executive functioning problems.

  13. LS:

    My son “can’t write.” This does not mean that he cannot make marks on paper. One OT swore that he was proficient in writing because he could copy the sentences that she wrote out for him. Just yesterday I spent 10 minutes (or more) on the phone with him while he wrote out directions for taking a bus somewhere. I had to spell every street name, as well as north, south, etc. Producing meaningful written work (that is something that communicates to somebody–even himself) is an arduous task that involves thinking about every stroke of the pencil. There is no automaticity to it.

    He does much better with email or texting–not that the spelling improves, but he is able to get a message out before he loses the thought. Technology has some wonderful assistive tools (dragon speak, word suggestion software, text-to-audio capabilities). Our district even owns them. The have never become a part of his personal “tool box” because of possibilities that are far more comfortable for all of his teachers: scribe, give tests orally, or simplify everthing to multiple choice with circle the answers (or my personal favorite–copy the answers off the board). All of these come with loss of content (except for scribing or oral administration–the two least likely to be available to him on an ongoing basis). Then there are the people who “discover” that he really can write and doesn’t need any of all that. Never mind that when he “writes” few can read it (including himself), and it takes so long that any learning that was hoped for is greatly diminished.

    Again–I don’t consider this enabling–I call it warehousing. Educating and providing needed survival skills would require his teachers to become conversant in technological assists–and stop giving assignments as worksheets. It would require the OT and special ed teacher actually working as a team with the regular ed teacher. It would require the adults to stop taking pot shots at one another (accusing one another of enabling and feeding test answers). But I don’t know how to make that happen.

  14. Lightly Seasoned says:

    Margo: once again, you’ve hijacked the conversation to be about your son. He is not in my classroom, so I can’t assess what he needs and doesn’t need. Congratulations: you win! In the meantime, I was talking about how to help students with lds make the leap from high school to college. This involves structuring their high school experience so that they gradually learn to function with fewer accomodations (most students do outgrow some of them) and how to advocate for themselves — keys to success in college. This is an individual process and has to be tailored that way. That’s why the IDEA requires a transition plan for older students (I have participated in many of these). Perhaps your son is unable to make that progression. I haven’t the foggiest idea.

  15. @ Lightly Seasoned: At some point in high school, we need to start withdrawing supports so they know what they can do on their own — and grow past those supports if possible (many can if it is demanded of them).

    I agree with you. Unfortunately, the limitations provided by IDEA and by the College Board makes such withdrawal difficult.

    As the parent of a college student with learning disabilities, my observations are:

    1. Encourage your high-school student to the greatest possible autonomy. Parents of HS juniors and seniors shouldn’t be policing homework, enforcing bedtimes, or providing wake-up services. These are all things the student will have to manage on their own.

    2. Encourage your high-school student to self-advocate. She ought to have a pretty good idea of where the disability impacts her academic performance, and what accommodations and “work arounds” will let her perform to her academic potential. She should also be able to explain those things to a stranger (for example, a college professor). [This is where IDEA and the IEP process is of little help]

    3. One of your college-selection criteria ought to be the disabilities-services provided by the college. Even if your student decides “to go bare” there’s always the opportunity to change her mind, if college services are sound.

  16. Catch Thirty-Thr33 says:

    Liz: You say that we should encourage high school students “to the greatest possible autonomy”. When I was in high school, that was impossible: not because of my parents, but because of the school. When you have a high school dictating the entire time how to study and how to organize oneself, and so on, it is pretty difficult for even a student without learning disabilities to be encouraged to the greatest possible autonomy. For me that was one of the greatest, most liberating things about college.

  17. In the defense of college professors (of which I am one), most of us have no problem working with learning-disabled students, and many of us actually welcome the opportunity to help students out who truly need it. Many of my best students throughout 11 years of college teaching have been LD students who have great skill and just need some help in utilizing it properly.

    But at the same time, what the original article is noticing but failing to point out is that students in college are *adults*, and as such, the main onus for getting the specialized attention they need — and, I might add, are entitled to under the law — is on them, not on a parent or guidance counselor. This doesn’t make college professors any less “involved” or caring than high school or middle school teachers. It’s just a big difference in the culture of a university over against the culture of a K-12 environment. And that difference tends to get ignored more often than not, leading people to think that college students are still “children” and that college professors need to act as surrogate parents. We profs are more than willing to help out, but I’m trying to teach my students responsibility just as much as I’m trying to teach them calculus, and so I need to let them handle their end of the deal.