More students with learning disabilities than ever before are attending college (Shapiro & Rich, 1999; Westby, 2000). Kavale and Forness (as cited in Janiga & Costenbader, 2002) report that between 1985 and 1996, the number of full-time first-year college students who reported having a learning disability more than doubled. Some of the increase in students with learning disabilities attending college is undoubtedly due to legislation prohibiting discrimination against persons with disabilities. At one time, college was out of the question for many students with learning disabilities. Beginning in the mid-1970s, however, federal law prohibited institutions of higher education from discriminating against students with disabilities. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 mandates that "no otherwise qualified handicapped individual...shall, solely by reason of his/her handicap, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subject to discrimination under any program or activity receiving financial assistance."

Applying the phrase "otherwise qualified" in individual cases is not always easy. It is clear, however, that the courts have interpreted it not to mean the lowering of admissions standards. The Supreme Court, in Southeastern Community College v. Davis (1979), ruled that a nursing program could deny admission to a student who was hearing impaired and unable to understand speech because, being unable to hear patients, she might put them in danger. What the law did mean was that decisions should be based on actual abilities rather than prejudicial assumptions (Brinckerhoff, Shaw, & McGuire, 1992). In addition, colleges are to make adjustments in requirements for courses, but these accommodations are not expected to alter the essential aspects of the curriculum (Westby, 2000).

Immediately following the passage of Section 504, colleges and universities did not suddenly throw open their doors to students with disabilities. Over time, as the courts have helped to define the parameters of the law and public opinion about persons with disabilities has improved, many colleges and universities have become more comfortable with the idea of admitting and accommodating students with disabilities, including learning disabilities. Some have centers devoted to services for students with learning disabilities (Westby, 2000). Others have a full-time faculty or staff person who specializes in learning disabilities. This coordinator may have a variety of support staff who provide a number of services, including monitoring academic progress, tutoring, and acting as a liaison to the faculty (Brinckerhoff et al., 2002). In fact, some institutions of higher education have gained reputations as good places for students with learning disabilities to attend because of the level of support offered.

Guidelines for Choosing a College

Choosing a college is difficult for any student. Reputation, academic rigor, location, types of majors offered, extracurricular activities, and cost are just some of the many variables that parents and students consider. In the case of students with learning disabilities, the choice can be even more difficult. They and their parents will also want to consider the level of support offered for those with learning disabilities. See Table 6.1 (page 178) for a list of questions students should consider before applying to a college.

Secondary-school teachers and counselors now recommend that students with learning disabilities who are likely to be college bound begin to seek information on different colleges early in their secondary schooling. In fact, some advocate that one of the transition goals on the IEP be that students be able to research various colleges' entrance requirements, curricula, and learning disabilities services (Blaylock & Patton, 1996).

One issue students need to address when considering colleges is whether they should attend a two-year or a four-year institution. This decision depends on several factors. Many students value two-year colleges because they more often "have open admissions policies; smaller class ratios; comparatively low tuition fees; academic and personal counseling; and a wide range of vocational, remedial, and developmental courses" (Brinckerhoff, 1996, p. 127). Some students, especially those whose disabilities are less severe, are able to handle the less structured setting of a four-year college.

Predictors of Success in College

Most college admissions officers will tell you that predicting how well a particular student will do in college is nearly impossible. Some who have excelled in high school have not been able to do the same in college. Some who barely scraped by in high school suddenly find their niche in college. College and university officials have developed a relatively uniform set of criteria based on predictive studies involving large numbers of applicants. These criteria, such as high school grade-point average (GPA) and SAT scores, are often used because they are the best predictors available, but they are far from perfect.

Selecting which students with learning disabilities are likely to succeed in college is even riskier. We do not yet have a well-established research base on which to make these kinds of predictions with much accuracy, and using traditional criteria is problematic. Students with learning disabilities may not "test well" on standardized tests such as the SAT, even though they are entitled to accommodations, and their GPAs may be difficult to interpret because the courses and accommodations they received may vary considerably, depending on the high schools they attended.

The little research that has been done on predicting college success for students with learning disabilities suggests that admissions officers should look at factors pertaining to performance in high school rather than at admissions tests such as the SAT or the ACT. One team of researchers found that, although far from perfect, such things as high school GPA and number of mainstream English courses completed with a grade of C or better were better predictors than standardized test scores (Vogel & Adelman, 1992). Some indicators such as

strong grade point averages in college preparatory courses, well-developed reading and mathematical skills, above average intelligence, and extracurricular involvement in high school correlate highly with success in college. Indeed, college admissions counselors, often working with support services coordinators, tend to look at these factors when determining whether to accept a student with a learning disability. (Shapiro & Rich, 1999, p. 128)

Demands placed on students differ from high school to college, but colleges require a great deal more student independence than secondary school. For example, there is considerably less classroom instruction in college, the implication being that students will spend more time outside of class reading and studying on their own. Many students have problems adjusting to the decreased structure in college. Students with learning disabilities may have an even more difficult time because they are prone to have problems in independence and their high school programs may have been even more structured than those of most students (Brinckerhoff et al., 1992). These observations have led many college admissions officers to point to motivation and the ability to work independently as important attributes to consider in selecting students with learning disabilities (Spillane, McGuire, & Norlander, 1992). Shannon wonders what it will be like in college:

My parents really want me to go to college, and I guess I do, too, but I think it will be really hard for me. I've heard that sometimes your grade is based on only two tests! What if I don't do well on the first one? How am I going to make myself study ahead of time? I have a tendency to wait until the last minute.


Instructional Accommodations

As noted, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act requires that colleges make reasonable adjustments for students with disabilities in order that they not be discriminated against on the basis of their disabilities. These adjustments can take three general forms: "adaptations in the manner in which specific courses are conducted, the use of auxiliary equipment, and modifications in academic requirements" (Brinckerhoff et al., 1992, p. 421). The following are some examples of relatively common accommodations for students with learning disabilities:

  • adjustments in course requirements and evaluation
    • giving extra time on tests
    • allowing students to take exams in a distraction-free room
    • allowing students to take exams in a different format (e.g., substituting an oral exam for a written one)
  • modifications in program requirements
    • waiving or substituting certain requirements (e.g., a foreign language)
    • allowing students to take a lighter academic load
  • auxiliary aids
    • providing tape recordings of textbooks
    • providing access to a Kurzweil Reading Machine (a computer that scans text and converts it into auditory output)
    • recruiting and assigning volunteer note-takers for lectures

Although the intent of the law and subsequent litigation is fairly clear relative to modification of course requirements, program requirements, and evaluation of students, it is less obvious with regard to individual instructors' approaches to instruction. One can make a strong case that, especially with regard to lectures and discussion courses, some of the same pedagogical strategies that make for good instruction for many students without learning disabilities are of particular benefit to those with them. Starting lectures with a review of past material, providing advance organizers, and using an overhead projector or computerized graphic displays to emphasize main points are just a few of the techniques that help most students, especially those with learning disabilities, attend to and retain information presented in lectures. As yet, however, the law has not been used to dictate that instructors use such techniques.

Institutions of higher education vary widely in how they handle implementation of accommodations for students with disabilities. Although Section 504 has been in effect since the 1970s, the process of interpreting the law through litigation continues. Many universities have adopted policy advisory committees to help university administrators educate faculty about accommodations and resolve disputes when they arise. The notion of academic freedom is ingrained deeply into the consciousness of many faculty, and some are immediately suspicious of anything they think will impinge on it. Policy advisory boards, some of whose members are faculty, can do much to alleviate tension concerning appropriate accommodations.

Some have also pointed out that providing accommodations can help faculty better understand their own programs. Determining what are appropriate accommodations and what are essential components of a program takes more than a cursory review of program requirements:

Defining the essential requirements of academic programs and courses is, in some respects, a Herculean task. Faculty and academic departments are being asked to define and come to consensus on the core of their disciplines. Often, faculty are faced with this task in response to an immediate request for accommodation by a student currently enrolled in a course. On a short-term basis, faculty must apply their best professional judgment in defining the essential elements of a course or program. However, determining essential requirements should ultimately be viewed as an ongoing dialogue for professional examination, perhaps extending beyond individual faculty members and departments to a topic to be addressed within the fields or disciplines. (Scott, 1994, p. 408)