Special Report
College & Workforce Readiness

College Special-Needs Students Face Choice: Seek Help or Go It Alone?

By Holly Kurtz — May 29, 2015 7 min read
Jacquelyn Smith, right, a senior at Metropolitan State University of Denver, helps her younger sister, Stefanie Smith, get ready for her high school prom in Aurora, Colo. Both sisters have dyslexia and made plans for college after high school. But only Stefanie is choosing to request study accommodations for her disability.
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On paper, it looks simple. But Stefanie Smith’s individualized education program can’t really capture what it feels like to spend an entire school day on a college-admissions test that is only supposed to take four hours. It doesn’t convey the anxiety that her dyslexia might trip her up on the driving test and she will have to continue to rely on her mother for rides. Or the joy of discovering that German is a phonetic language and that she could read an entire novel—Homo Faber by Max Frisch—in a language other than the one that has been making her head ache since she first figured out she was the only one in her kindergarten class who could not yet spell her own name.

Mostly, the IEP contains statements: brief, declarative, and stark.

“Stefanie,” reads the document, “will attend a four-year college or university and study finance or business.”

“I helped [my sister] move into her dorm when I was a sophomore,” said the subject of the IEP, who is now an 18-year-old senior at Grandview High School in the 54,500-student Cherry Creek district near Denver. “I said, I really want to go to college.”

At one time, a wish like that might have remained unfulfilled. As recently as 1995, just over a quarter of students with disabilities had enrolled in postsecondary education within four years of graduating from high school. But between 1990 and 2005, college-enrollment rates for students with disabilities increased by 19 percentage points, according to data from two federally funded studies that tracked post-school outcomes for youths with disabilities.

By contrast, during that same period, overall college-enrollment rates increased just 9 percentage points. The federal data show 67 percent of all youths and 60 percent of those with disabilities enroll in college within eight years of leaving high school.

Off the Radar

Who are those students and what happens once they leave school? It’s not always easy to say. When children are younger, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act places the onus on the elementary or secondary school to identify, evaluate, and serve students with special needs. But in postsecondary education, the onus is on the student to identify him- or herself as having special needs and to seek assistance.

The problem is, once students reach college, most (63 percent) no longer consider themselves disabled, according to the longitudinal study data. The nondisclosure rate is even higher for students with learning disabilities like Stefanie’s. Those students make up the single biggest category of secondary and postsecondary students with disabilities and 69 percent no longer consider themselves disabled once they reach college.

Although Jacquelyn Smith is quick to say her dyslexia is less severe than that of her younger sister Stefanie, she also had an IEP in high school. But when she graduated from Grandview, in spring 2012, Jacquelyn left it behind.

Postsecondary Enrollment

In the years after high school, young adults with disabilities largely engage in postsecondary education. According to data from the National Longitudinal Transition Study-2, 6 in 10 young adults with disabilities enroll in a postsecondary school. When disaggregated by type of disability, data from the NLTS-2 study indicate that engagement in postsecondary education varies considerably across diagnoses. More than 7 in 10 young adults with hearing or visual impairments enroll in a postsecondary school. By contrast, fewer than 3 in 10 young adults with intellectual disabilities take that step.


Sources: SRI International and U.S. Department of Education, 2011

“I rebelled against it,” said the older sister, who is now 21. “I didn’t want it to hold me back. I think I wanted to see if I could do it on my own.”

Metropolitan State University of Denver, known for its inclusivity, has a “modified open enrollment” policy and Jacquelyn had been accepted, with a 2.7 high school GPA and an ACT score of 17 out of 36. Although she had qualified for extended time, she said she had filled in the bubbles randomly and finished early, rushing to go hang out with friends.

The acceptance letter did come with a caveat: Jacquelyn had been admitted on the condition that she successfully complete the university’s Summer Scholars Program, which targets those on the cusp of meeting university-entrance requirements, regardless of whether they have a disability.

Study Strategies

In a paper presented this spring at the American Educational Research Association’s annual conference, researchers used the longitudinal data to contrast the college-completion rates of two groups of students with learning disabilities and two groups of students who were deaf or hard of hearing.

For each disability category, both groups were similar but for one exception: One group obtained disability-specific assistance, which students can receive only if they tell their college of their disability. The other did not.

The researchers found no significant difference between the assisted group and those who were on their own for students with learning disabilities, although they did find one for students who were deaf or hard of hearing.

But what did make a difference for students with learning disabilities were the types of supports available to them and nondisabled students alike—supports such as tutoring, the writing center, or a study or math center. Seventy-four percent of students with learning disabilities who received such supports completed their two- or four-year college programs compared with 35 percent of a statistically equivalent group that did not.

“It was amazing,” said Lynn Newman, the paper’s lead author and a senior education researcher at SRI, a Palo Alto, Calif.-based research organization. “So many of us have had blinders on, only thinking about disability-specific help. It’s impressive that generally available help makes a difference to completion rates, because you don’t need to disclose a disability to get that type of help, and very few students with disabilities choose to disclose their disability to their college.”

Getting Help

Back in Cherry Creek, Jacquelyn said she was initially “bummed” at having to take part in Summer Scholars. “Everybody else was having the summer of their life after high school, and I had to go to school,” she said.

But the program turned out to be a godsend. By the time the summer ended, Jacquelyn had memorized the campus, planned out the courses she needed for her major, and found a friend who persuaded her to live in student housing rather than commute from her mother’s suburban home. There, in that tiny apartment, Jacquelyn found the best individualized education program of all, a new BFF.

Postsecondary Completion

Completion of a postsecondary program can be an important pathway to careers and a range of other opportunities. According to information from the National Longitudinal Transition Study-2, 40.7 percent of young postsecondary students with disabilities completed a higher education program, compared with 52.4 percent of all postsecondary students their age. When disaggregated by demographic characteristics, study results for students with disabilities indicate that no more than 45 percent of any gender, racial and ethnic, or household-income group finished a postsecondary school.


Sources: SRI International and U.S. Department of Education, 2011

“She helped me with my homework,” said Jacquelyn. “She was like my mom. She would turn off my TV so I would study.”

In December, Jacquelyn expects to graduate six months ahead of schedule, with a major in criminal justice and a minor in business management. “I wanted to get it done and over with,” said Jacquelyn, who has loaded her schedule with up to six courses at a time. “Because of my dyslexia, I’ve never been much of a school person.”

When it comes to enrolling in and succeeding in college, how can high schools increase the odds of outcomes like Jacquelyn’s?

Success Factors

College-preparatory coursework and strong high school GPAs are associated with higher levels of postsecondary enrollment, said Ms. Newman, the author of the AERA paper.

Stefanie had both, maintaining a 3.48 GPA and earning nine college credits in business and advanced German at Grandview.

Behavior matters, too: Students with emotional disabilities, for instance, earn some of the highest scores on achievement tests, but their high rates of suspension, expulsion, and criminal-justice-system involvement may make it difficult for them to function in school, leading to lower rates of college enrollment, added Ms. Newman.

Parental involvement and expectations of college attendance also make a huge difference, almost to the point of dwarfing the educational Goliath of socioeconomic status, analyses of the longitudinal data show.

It didn’t hurt that Stefanie and Jacquelyn’s mother is a college graduate who expected her daughters would follow suit.

Nor did it hurt that Grandview is, itself, a school where postsecondary enrollment is the norm—nearly 80 percent of graduating seniors went on to college or vocational schools last year. Stefanie’s best friend, whom she met on a playground in 3rd grade, is a top student headed to an elite East Coast university.

Finally, transition planning makes a difference: It helps when students are involved with the plans, when IEPs spell out accommodations needed in college, when high school advisers contact colleges on students’ behalf, and when college representatives participate in the process, Ms. Newman said.

Early one April morning during spring break, Stefanie leaves the gray house in a neighborhood full of sidewalk chalk drawings and driveway basketball hoops, the kind of neighborhood where people move “for the kids.”

With her in the car is her IEP, her IQ test results, and other forms. The packet, assembled with help from her caseworker at Grandview, represents a momentous decision, the decision to seek accommodations in college. Stefanie is driving 60 miles to hand deliver it to the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, the school that will be the next step on her transition plan.

“I didn’t want to mail it,” she said. “I don’t want this getting lost.”


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