More students with learning disabilities are enrolling in college than in the past — the number has tripled in the last two decades. However, students with learning disabilities are dropping out of college at a higher rate than their peers.

Why? The students often do not reveal their disability to college personnel.

As students with learning disabilities begin their fall semester at the college or university of their choice, they are ultimately responsible for seeking educational accommodations and modifications that previously were provided to them under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004.

The Individual Educational Plans (IEPs) that provided specialized education in public schools do not follow a student to higher education institutions. Instead, students are merely protected by the laws of Americans with Disability and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.

College students are required to seek their own accommodations and modifications through the Office of Students with Disabilities (OSD). It is most beneficial for them to have prepared well before beginning the college class in order to receive these from their professors.

In 2012, researchers conducted interviews of students with learning disabilities to find out why students wait to seek disability services, when many had previously received services in their high school settings and were suitably assisted by them. They determined the majority of students fell into one of the following categories:

  • lack of time
  • lack of knowledge
  • wanting to establish an identity independent of a disability
  • feeling that everything was going well

The authors of this study indicated the importance of well-developed and monitored transition plans and services in high school before a student entered college was extremely important. Students should participate in planning for their future by co-developing transition goals with school staff and parents.

They should be involved in learning what possible career paths would be successful for them based on their skill set. Students should have opportunities to visit possible colleges and explore the OSD program at the colleges-of-choice to be familiar with what they offer and how to access the assistance.

Equally important in the study was the development of student self-advocacy skills so the student could discuss his or her own learning needs and strengths with college personnel and professors. It was noted that these skills could be developed in college if they had not been developed before college, but they needed to be sought by the students with learning disabilities. Until a student self-disclosed a disability, colleges could not provide support services.

While a student with learning disabilities is in elementary, middle and high school, his or her parents are directly involved in IEP and transition plans, along with school staff. Because of the parent and staff involvement in educational goals, students may inadvertently depend on others rather than understand the importance of self-advocacy and knowledge of learning needs.

It is essential that parents and school staff release more and more responsibility to high school students so they are ready for college. Students need to understand well, and be able to speak to others about, their learning disabilities and how they affect their classroom learning. They need to be aware of personal, interpersonal and academic supports that have been in place in the past and are essential for continued success once beginning college.

The transition begins with the student taking responsibility for himself.