College Students With Learning Disabilities - Six Behaviors to Avoid

It is an established fact that the college graduation rate for students with learning disabilities is significantly lower than that of their peers. Is this because students with LD lack the raw intelligence to succeed in college? That does not appear to be the case. According to the McGraw-Hill Concise Dictionary of Modern Medicine, a learning disability is defined as "a suboptimal ability to read (dyslexia), write (dysgraphia), perform mathematical operations (dyscalculia), or other cognitive skills in a child of presumed normal intelligence".

After thirteen years as a college Learning Specialist, this author codified six behaviors that consistently result in freshmen downhill slides. They are:

Failure to disclose - Students who choose not to disclose usually do so to shed the stigmatizing "LD" label they have worn for years. Without realizing it, they are making their first egregious mistake. In college, students with learning disabilities attend the same classes and must meet the same academic requirements as other students--no one is labeled. Disclosure is entirely confidential--only the disability services office and any teachers the student informs are aware. In high school, IEPs guarantee that students receive academic support and special services. On the college level, IEPs are non-existent. Students who fail to disclose suddenly discover they are no longer protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act and are ineligible for the accommodations/services recommended in their documentation. In other words, the student goes from having a safety net with a lot of support in high school to walking a tightrope without a net in college. This dramatic change is often overwhelming and hard to overcome.

Beginning with a full course load - Another major mistake is the assumption that if students handled five subjects in high school, they can manage that load in college. They fail to recognize that an entire textbook can be covered in a 15-week college semester. Traditionally, high school students with disabilities have little homework and no more than a few hours of studying per week. The standard formula for college students is for every hour they spend in class, they can expect two to three hours of outside work. Therefore, assuming a full-time load is 15 credits, students may have between 30 - 45 hours of homework and/or studying per week, on top of the 15 hours they sit in classes. Rather than take a full load, students should take only what they feel they can successfully handle. It is far better to start slowly and build confidence than begin too quickly and flounder. Students who start with a reduced course load are more likely to earn high GPAs (grade point averages). It is far easier to maintain a high GPA than it is to raise a low one, not to mention that a high GPA creates enthusiasm for school and a "can do" attitude. The only way a student can take a reduced course load and remain on his parents' insurance plan is if the disability services provider writes a letter indicating that "Joe is considered a full-time student with nine credits due to a documented learning disability." Call your insurance company anonymously to confirm that your child will retain coverage before doing this. Submit the letter only if the insurance company requests proof of full-time student status.

Lack of time management and organizational skills - Perhaps the single most important factor in college organization is the daily planner. While an assignment pad in high school sufficed, it is almost valueless to college students who have far too many tasks to track. They need to keep all responsibilities, academic, social and work, in this planner, so they do not double-book themselves. The best planner is an academic one, which runs from August to August, and has M/W on the cover, meaning it has weekly and monthly views. This assures that students see immediate and long-term views.

Too many employment hours - In a perfect world, students would have the luxury of not having to work while attending college. For many students, however, this is not a reality. Because of the unique challenges of college, students should work no more than 15 hours per week - the fewer the better. Students who work while attending school often lack the ability to switch gears. Remember, colleges have long winter and summer breaks when students can work full-time and accumulate money for the school year. However, maturity is required to delay gratification and live a less lavish lifestyle for the ultimate reward of a good education. Ideally, school should be considered the student's full-time job.