Need Extra Help? Just Ask

Schools will go out of their way to support students with learning disabilities.

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As a high school freshman in Harker Heights, Texas, Lindsey Disher found herself struggling to read the scientific terminology in her biology textbook, regardless of the hours she put in. Around the same time, her English teacher noticed her written work was filled with reversed and inverted letters. "Have you ever been tested for a learning disability?" she asked.

The tests that followed showed Disher suffered from dyslexia—one of a variety of learning disorders that affect how the brain processes information. "But just because you have a learning disability doesn't mean you are not as smart or you can't excel or do what you want to in your education. It just means you learn differently," she says. Disher should know: She completed high school in just three years and, at age 19, has completed two years at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, her grades a mix of A's and B's. Learning to be more self-confident, she says, "has allowed me to study better for tests, not to be nervous to speak out in class, and to genuinely know that I can go as far in the academic setting as those around me."

As Disher's experience shows, a learning disability need not prove a barrier to college. The proportion of students with learning disabilities entering four-year colleges rose from 0.5 percent in 1983 to 2.8 percent in 2004, according to UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute (the next survey will be conducted later this year). That increase sounds dramatic—but it's consistent with the number of students with learning disabilities attending elementary and secondary schools. It reflects what Victor Saenz, who is associated with both HERI and the University of Texas-Austin, describes as "an evolution of understanding" about the subject that is reflected in greater awareness, earlier interventions, a decreased sense of stigma, and a legal requirement that students with learning disabilities be accommodated. That can mean extra time for taking tests, access to books and lectures on tape, and additional classes or tutoring.

Getting AHEAD. Carol Funckes, associate director of disability resources at the University of Arizona in Tucson, says that approximately 1,600 of the university's 36,000 students identify themselves as disabled. About 1,100 of those have learning disabilities, a 100-fold increase from the 11 students who received help for learning disabilities in 1980. "The increase isn't a reflection of more students who have LD but more who have been diagnosed and are willing to come forward and ask for help," says Funckes, who is also president of the Association on Higher Education and Disability, or AHEAD. "There are an increasing number of people who are ready for college because the high schools are recognizing and preparing the students rather than just assuming they're not smart enough."

These students are no different from other high school seniors searching for a college with the right fit. But for them, the right fit means a school that, in addition to all the other qualities they're looking for, provides the services they need.

Elizabeth Breininger, 22, a 2008 University of Arizona graduate, had "excellent" grades throughout high school, she says, but scored significantly lower in math than English on her SAT and ACT tests as a result of her math learning disability. She visited and applied to colleges "with very well- structured programs for students with learning disabilities" and ultimately decided on Arizona. "Coming from a small town in Pennsylvania, I wanted to go to a big college with high-level athletic programs, lots of activities, and lots of people," she says. Equally important was the level of support offered at the university. In addition to being eligible for accommodations provided by the office of disabilities, LD students may apply for more assistance from the university's Strategic Alternative Learning Techniques Center. For an additional fee (from $950 to $2,200 per semester), each student in the SALT program has access to tutoring as well as computer, math, and writing labs and is assigned a learning specialist with whom he or she meets weekly to evaluate how the semester is progressing and whether any further help is needed.