6 Keys to College Success
By Joan M. Azarva, Ms.ED
It is a well-established fact that the college graduation rate for students with learning disabilities is significantly lower than that of their peers. The 2002 Report of the Presidents Commission on Excellence in Special Education noted that students with LD face significant barriers to achieving post-secondary academic success resulting in disparate graduation rates between students with and without learning disabilities.
We know the disparities are not due to a lack of intellectual ability; by definition students with LD have at least normal intelligence. Why then do students with LD experience greater difficulties in college? And, more important, what can be done to prevent them?
Over 13 years as a college Learning Specialist, I’ve found a set of factors that contribute to the academic challenges students with LD face. They include errors in judgment, difficulty in delaying gratification, poor impulse control, immaturity, inability to prioritize, and/or lack of appropriate academic support. Following are suggestions for avoiding these common pitfalls:
1 . Disclose your LD diagnosis.
Students who choose not to disclose that they have learning disabilities usually do so to shed the stigmatizing LD label they’ve worn for years. Without realizing it, they are making a major mistake. In college, students with learning disabilities attend the same classes and must meet the same expectations as all 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 by their documentation.
Students go 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 quickly overwhelms them.
2. Begin with a reduced course load
Another major misconception is 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.
The standard formula for college students is for every hour spent in class, there are two to three hours of outside work. Assuming a full-time load is 15 credits, students can have from 30 to 45 hours of homework and/or studying per week, on top of the 15 hours they spend in the classroom. Having been accustomed to a high school workload, 30 to 45 hours is akin to diving into a 15-foot pool of freezing water.
Rather than take a full load, you should take only what you feel you can successfully handle. It is far better to start slowly and build confidence than to begin too quickly and flounder. A student who starts with a reduced course load is more likely to earn a high grade point average (GPA). 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.
But students (and parents) beware: The only way you can take a reduced course load and remain on your 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 asks for proof of your child’s full-time student status.
3. Learn 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 more tasks to manage. You need to keep all responsibilities in this planner to avoid double booking yourself. This means keeping track of homework, long-term assignments, test dates, dentist appointments, social engagements, etc. in an academic planner (runs from August to August) that has both weekly and monthly views. This assures that you’ll see the immediate, as well as long-term, pictures.
4. Limit employment hours
In a perfect world, students would have the luxury of not having to earn money 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. In addition, students who work and attend school often lack the ability to switch gears.
If possible, during a semester, school should be considered your full-time job. Remember that colleges have long winter and summer breaks when you can work full-time and accumulate money for when school is in session. However, maturity is required to delay gratification and live a less lavish lifestyle for the ultimate reward of a good education.
5. Learn to say “no”
Due to the unique structure of a college schedule, a student may have only two hours of class on a particular day, giving the illusion that there is much more free time than in high school. This is deceptive because while there is more unstructured time, there is less free time. This lack of structure tempts students to put off their schoolwork until the last minute and say yes to invitations that are incompatible with being a good student.
College students who commute often retain the high-school mentality of leaving school the minute classes end, returning home to a distracting environment of TV, computers, family, etc. Residential students often return to their noisy dorms after class, where temptations abound.
Students who succeed have the self-discipline to go to a quiet environment, such as the library, where they can work undisturbed, without temptations. Even if you can only concentrate for 30 minutes at a time, you can take a 5-minute break and return to you studying. All locales have connotations, and the school library says, “This is the place to do work.” In addition, it is a lot harder to feel sorry for yourself when surrounded by others doing the same thing you are.
6. Seek sufficient academic support – Disclosure, while often vital, by itself is no guarantee of academic success. High school students who were enrolled in special education programs or left mainstream classes for resource room help usually need at least three one-hour tutoring sessions per week with a Learning Specialist upon beginning college. Often, their high school curriculum has been watered-down and they are dependent upon support provided for in their high-school IEP.
Consider the lack of an IEP along with the heightened speed and heavier workload of college classes, and it’s no wonder many students drown without strong academic support.
Students and parents must be realistic about support needs when selecting a college. While most colleges now have large tutoring centers, they are there to serve college students at-large. Most operate on a first-come, first-served basis, and a student is usually not seen for more than 20 minutes if someone else is waiting. In addition, the tutors have not been trained to teach students with disabilities, whose needs are different and learning styles may be unique.
If a college can’t provide specialized tutoring by appointment at least three times a week, you need to consider hiring an outside specialist. As you learn the system and experience success, it is possible you may need tutoring less often. Gradually, you may be able to wean yourself altogether from regular sessions and see a tutor only as needed.
The Missing Link
What hasn’t been mentioned is motivation, the single most important determining factor in success for any college student. Motivated students who possess a realistic awareness of the challenges ahead, as well as the discipline to establish constructive habits from day one, usually start off on the right foot and continue in the same vein. These are the students who go on to graduate; unfortunately, they are still the minority.