Friday, September 25, 2009

Applying to college with a learning disability

From The New York Times:

For students with learning disabilities, the thicket of applying to college can be even more impenetrable than for students without such issues.

How to explain that failed Spanish class? How much help should worried parents give? What’s the best campus environment for a young college student who needs structure? And should an applicant even disclose a learning disability at all, and to whom?

One of the afternoon workshops at today’s Nacac conference, “Supporting the Transition to College for Students with Learning Disabilities,” set out to answer some of those nettlesome questions for high school counselors trying to guide students with disabilities — including dyslexia, ADHD and Asperger Syndrome — toward supportive colleges where they might thrive.

Though this is a conference for high school counselors and college admissions officers, there was plenty of useful material, some of it cautionary, for parents, too. One panelist, Ben Mitchell, director of admissions at Landmark College, a 25-year-old school in Putney, Vt., quoted from a 2007 survey from the Association on Higher Education and Disability that found that just 28 percent of students with learning disabilities graduate. And only 25 percent of students with disabilities take advantage of the services available to them on campus.

“There may be a correlation there,” said Mr. Mitchell, who recounted how he failed out of college himself. “Students may be embarrassed about it, they’re not willing to ask for help. They feel like, ‘I’m in college now, I should be independent’.”

Even the decision about disclosing a learning disability is difficult. Catherine Axe, the director of Disability Support Services at Brown University, said that it was illegal for colleges to directly ask whether a student has a disability and that applicants do not have to tell the college. But it could help admissions officers decide whether an applicant should be admitted, by providing an explanation for something unusual on a transcript, or example. Either way, it should be a “careful, thoughtful process,” she said.

If an applicant does disclose a disability, the information about it, like from a psychoeducational evaluation, should probably go directly to the school’s disabilities services office, which will know better how to handle the information than the admissions office.

Before students apply, they should contemplate what they’re looking for in college, and decide where to apply based on the best fit. In such cases, that fit might be defined as the level of accommodation the college is willing to make; the kind of services it provides, and whether it has a structured program for students with learning disabilities.

A college in a small city could have fewer distractions for students who have trouble focusing on their studies, Ms. Axe said. Will graduation requirements be waived? Depends on the college.

“Are they going to be forced to sit through Spanish and then fail it?” she asked.

Another panelist, Trudy Fleisher, a high school college advisor at the Lab School of Washington, which has 325 students, recommended that applicants know their own transcripts inside and out, and that they also closely review their psychoeducational evaluation, so that they will know what information a college will see when it reviews their application.

“For some of my students, they’ve never really gone over that report – they don’t know what it says,” she said.

Knowing their strengths and weaknesses should help guide where they apply, she said. She used an example of two students who, on paper, looked very similar: comparable GPA’s, similar SAT scores. Both had excellent work habits; both had outstanding extracurricular activities. Both applied to six colleges. Student A was turned down at five and accepted at one, and received no merit scholarships. Student B? Accepted at all six colleges, and all six offered merit scholarships.

“It’s a cautionary tale,” she said.