A Preliminary Investigation of the Factors
Influencing Successful Transition to Higher Education
for Students with Learning Disabilities

©2004 Nancy Mott


edited 4/13/14


The purpose of this study was to investigate the factors influencing a successful transition for traditional age freshmen diagnosed with learning disabilities at a four-year competitive, private regional university. When enrolling in a postsecondary institution, students with Learning Disabilities (LD) often move from an environment where they are carefully guided to a setting where they are expected to achieve on their own. (Brinckerhoff, Shaw, McGuire, 1992) Colleges and universities have recently begun to recognize the lack of effective transition services for students with disabilities. Implementing a program on campus that provides support during the critical transition to higher education is becoming more of a necessity. Although all students in college experience new learning conditions, students with LD are at a greater risk for failure because of their inherent learning disabilities. (Lerner, 1997) Their ability to self-assess strengths, deficits, interests, and values is often impaired, and they may find decision making to be a difficult and problematic process. (Cummings et al., 2000; Field, 1996; Getzel & Gugerty, 1996; Lerner, 1997; Levinson & Ohler, 1998)

Student Expectations of Support

In the four years since I was hired to initiate an office on campus to service students with learning disabilities, I have repeatedly witnessed difficulties with freshmen transitioning to the college environment. Many of the admitted LD students have benefited in their pre-college years from intensive and on-going support from family members. This may have been in the form of private tutoring, specific educational support programs, and intense parental involvement. All of these supports in K - 12 have certainly helped the student to achieve admission, but unfortunately the student arrives on campus anticipating the same level of personal support. All of the admission information describes a high functioning, dedicated student, yet what I find are students unable to function independently in both their academics and their socialization to campus. As a result of the pre-college intense, dictated structure, students appear to arrive with all the necessary skills for success, but end up being clueless in personal management issues.

Unawareness of their Diagnosis

Another area of concern is the inability to communicate an understanding of their disability or even their strengths and weaknesses. In higher education it is critical for the student to be able to self-advocate. Nothing automatically happens so far as accessing services, which is quite different from K -12. The student needs to be able to communicate his/her needs to the professor, yet I am continually finding students that do not even know their diagnosis. They know they may have received extra time for tests, but in many cases that is the extent of the student understanding. Documentation is extensive, but an explanation of that documentation was apparently never given to the student. Since laws do not allow a university to access specific information, it is often difficult to gauge just how much support a student is going to need during this transition process. It is reasonable to expect, however, that any student that comes from a highly controlled, structured environment to the unstructured freedom of the university campus will need some level of transition support.

The Study

I decided to discuss these issues with students diagnosed with learning disabilities that had completed the transition to higher education on our campus. The students were at various levels in their undergraduate program, from just completing their freshmen year to recent graduates. All four of the colleges were represented with a wide range of current GPA's. This discussion took place as a group and provided a list of skills that the group felt should be included in a successful transition program. The most consistent suggestion resulting from these sessions was the need for on-going transitional support for students. There was a general consensus that having a summer program before entering freshmen year would not be a good idea. The students didnŐt think there would be good attendance if the program was held during the summer since they remember wanting to spend as much time as possible at home prior to leaving for college. The most agreeable alternative was to offer a course that would meet weekly during the first semester for freshmen. The students thought it should be open first to students with learning disabilities and then opened to other freshmen. A few students felt that it should be mandatory for students with LD. There was great concern over what to name the course, since they did not want anything that would reveal that the students in the course had a disability. The students then listed the topics that they felt were key to a successful transition: study skills, time management, notetaking, advocacy skills, stress management, classroom tips, and how to feel comfortable with a disability. There was an interesting level of excitement as the group talked about the key topics. The students thought this would be a great benefit to new students because it would teach them useful skills and allow them to have a chance to become comfortable with a group of students and not feel alone. There was agreement within the group, myself, and my review of the literature, that self-advocacy skills and personal management were essential to a successful transition.

Problems Dealt with by Interviews

As I reviewed the information from our group discussions, I felt that I was not getting the specifics that I wanted in that setting. Working with students with disabilities is such an individual relationship with very individual needs for the student. I felt it was too easy to get the group to agree on issues. A student that struggles with communicating their academic needs to a professor might also hold back in this group environment. I then decided that the only way to investigate would be one on one interviews.

Deciding who will be interviewed also took several forms.

  1. Should I include service providers from other colleges? I decided against this since several aspects of our setting would not be similar to other institutions. Our admission requirements may be different which would impact the level of academic preparation and possibly the transition needs for the student. The level of university acceptance could be very different on campuses. If self-advocacy and communication with professors have a strong impact on transition, the professors on this particular campus will be key ingredients. The physical setting of the campus can impact the ease of access and communication.
  2. Should I include secondary transition coordinators? Students with an Individual Education Plan in secondary education or a 504 plan are required by law to have a transition plan in place from the time a student reaches the age of 14. It is supposed to be a coordinated set of activities based on the individual needs of the student. Unfortunately at this time most of the transition plans address transition to work and not higher education. The most prevalent goal listed on a transition plan is a statement suggesting that the student begin investigating various college programs. With the increase of students with disabilities now moving on to higher education this area of transition will soon receive some additional emphasis at the state level, but they are not there yet. As I started to formulate questions for the high school transition coordinator, I realized that it put too much emphasis on areas that were completely out of the university control at this time. I need to work with what I have today and figure out how to address the skills that are lacking in this particular university setting.

            I made the decision to work exclusively with the students that have entered the university and at least completed one year at the university. I also included students in their junior and senior year, as well as students that have graduated and have moved to a new transition out of college. I made a conscious effort to have a student to represent each of the colleges on campus. I have found that students choosing certain majors, such as engineering, enter with a very different set of academic and management skills from the arts major. I wanted to see the different skills that the students felt were necessary for a smooth transition. A third criterion was that I wanted students with different levels of academic success based on their GPA. It is significant to know the level of support received prior to entering the university and the difficulties or successes that each of the students experienced once they were on campus. What really had an impact on their GPA? Were they on probation? Did they withdraw from one or several classes? What were the reasons for the withdrawal?

            A final selection criterion was that I wanted to include students that had an early diagnosis (pre high school) along with students that were diagnosed after arriving at college. My experience has been that students diagnosed at the college level have a much better capacity to explain their strengths and weaknesses as a result of this late testing. Perhaps this is because they are the main player in the testing situation and the evaluator is dealing directly with the student, not their parents.

Thus far, as a result of my initial dialogue with the group of students, my review of literature, and my personal experience, the core concepts derived were:

Personal Management

Self-assessment of strengths and weaknesses

Self-advocacy including the ability to communicate their needs to professors

After establishing my criteria for choosing students for my interviews, I began to encounter different topics beyond the initial group discussion. I needed to focus on locating a mix of students from the different colleges on campus. I wanted to see some of the different skills that the students felt were necessary for a smooth transition. It would also be important to know the level of support prior to entering the university and when they were diagnosed with their disability. The type of parental support a student received prior to college can significantly impact a student's ability to understand their disability and how they function as a self-advocate. I have worked with a number of students that did not participate in any type of review of their disability with their evaluator and therefore were clueless about their needs. Mom or Dad went to the meetings and the only result the student knew was the specific type of accommodation they would receive.

Topics to be Explored

In hopes of getting specific responses, I began a list of information topics that I felt would be helpful in determining the level of transition support. These could not be satisfactorily addressed in a group session, but might work on an individual basis.

1.     The specific types of academic supports in high school. (Parental support, tutors, friends, teachers, etc. and feelings about this level of support- was it helpful, intrusive, non-existent, etc.)

2.     Academic preparation for college

3.     Academic challenges in college

4.     Assessment of personal management skills

5.     Adjustments made since entering college

6.     Integration to college community

7.     Friends, organizations, professors

8.     Social issues

9.     Greatest successes

10.  Reflection on first year of college

11.  Scenarios of self-disclosing to professors

Brandt and Berry (1991) reported that academic preparation, personal/social skill development, and individualized transition planning were common problem areas for students with learning disabilities attending college.

When students are admitted to a university based on GPA, SATs and recommendations the admission office is attempting to select individuals with the best possibility of success. But what supports did the student receive prior to arriving on campus? Did they have a parent that was intensely involved in every aspect of their academics, including dictating the structure of the student's day?

Did the student receive one on one tutoring for all their academic subjects? Did the high school waive foreign language or upper level math courses? How many times did the student take the SAT before meeting the admission requirement? Did they have accommodations when taking the SAT? Has the student developed and demonstrated good time management skills? Have they acquired strategies to compensate for their learning disabilities? Is the student able to successfully integrate into the college community with peers, professors, and staff? Is the student able to access the support that is available on campus, and if so, can they communicate their needs? Are they fully aware of their strengths and weaknesses and the learning style that is successful for them? These are all legitimate concerns in establishing a successful transition to higher education. I would not be able to gather this type of detail in a group setting.

            After 20+ years of working with students with learning disabilities, I thought I had a reasonable handle on the issues that they deal with in academics. I felt that this knowledge would assist in identifying the factors that influence a successful transition to higher education. As a result of my research, I believe that my initial key concepts have been validated, but additional themes have emerged of equal or greater importance.

The Interviews

The conversations that I began having with students participating in the individual interviews have been enlightening. I conducted live, intense interviews with 4 students and a series of email interviews with an additional 4 students. The youngest student just completed his first year in our engineering program and the oldest student graduated from our Arts College three years ago. The range of academic success, as measured by the GPA, is from a low of 1.7 to a high of 3.8. Two of the 8 students were diagnosed in college, and the others received a diagnosis prior to high school. I was well aware of the negative feelings that many students have regarding early diagnosis and being relegated to the basement classrooms for special education, but I did not anticipate the level of fear and anger that came to the surface in these interviews. The labels inflicted on young students were heavy loads to overcome. A feeling of inadequacy seems to pervade their entire experience. Until beginning these interviews, I did not put much emphasis on the personal and social side of transition. My initial emphasis certainly leaned more toward the academic. But the underlying fear of being found out, of someone seeing the label, LD, impacts the student's ability to be comfortable socially and thereby continues the segregation experience of the studentŐs early grades from the regular class into the basement resource room.

The Role of Parents

When discussing personal management issues, an additional theme emerged that I was aware of but considered it part of one of the other concepts. Based on the overwhelming responses, the role of parents was the most consistent theme for all participants. Parents were seen as the primary or sole support prior to college and in 6 of the 8 interviews the parents are viewed as the main reason for their success.

My parents were very involved. My mother through most of grade school. I was diagnosed pretty early, and she would do reading to me until we were able to get recorded books later on. But she used to read everything to me. I used to get report cards that would say that I was a great reader and I was just listening. She used to help me a great deal in organizing my time and really do things É to some degree she still does. I can really panic or go around the bend and she basically can straighten me out over the phone and say do this or that and anything else. (senior astronomy major, early diagnosis)

Each of the six students that were identified prior to high school identified their parents in a very positive way as helpers in not only personal management issues but as in the above example, with their academic success. What I found interesting is the two students that were identified in college identified their parents as very supportive, but a few of their comments had an underlying feeling of blame.

My dad was a big part of my support in grade school and high school. I donŐt think I ever really got it myself. So that when I finally came here I had a tough time because I didn't do it myself. I didn't have my own study habits. I would wait for him to tell me what to do. He would tell me to do something -- study for a test -- and I would. Then I would do well and ask that I be left on my own. Then I wouldn't do well, and he would step in again. That was the cycle.(Engineering student, completed 1st year, newly diagnosed)

I think my parents were always trying to scare me. "You will never get into college with these grades"- I think they were just trying to prod me to do my best. My parents were very sure that I would commute my first 2 years of college wherever I decided to go. Honest to god, I don't know to this day why they did that. They were afraid -- maybe they thought they could keep me from misbehaving like any college kid, but I don't know what they were thinking. In my mind, if I had the opportunity to go off to school, I would have taken it so seriously. I would want to prove that I am not a screw up. It would have been that whole part of college that people said is so important and it just passed me by. It is probably the reason that I am not that sad to leave. (recent graduate from Arts college, diagnosed 2 years ago)                      

            All of the students noted that self-assessment of their strengths and weaknesses was important to their success, particularly in college. Not all of the students have demonstrated to me that they have a full understanding of these strengths and weaknesses. Just as in the earlier discussion of the Personal Management core concept, another theme emerged as part of this discussion and the one related to self-advocacy. The students have a tremendous fear of being found out, of someone seeing that earlier label, or in the words of one of the newly diagnosed students, ŇÉsome people think you are slower on the triggerÓ. An example of this fear follows:

I really noticed that I was having problems back in sophomore year of high school, but I don't know, if I told them what was going on with me would they have put me in remedial or special ed classes -- would that be college prep? I wouldn't say anything because I would have been labeled and that is a bunch of crap. There is something wrong with the system. (Recent Arts Graduate, college diagnosis)

I believe that the key concepts that emerged in my initial conceptual model have been supported through these interviews. My initial thinking had parental support as a key ingredient; however I was looking at the possible negative aspects of that involvement. I was anticipating more evidence of a parental take-over of student responsibility that would impact the studentŐs ability to transition successfully. There certainly was some of that, however the majority persevered and slowly developed their own management system. In all interviews, parental support was the dominant theme and therefore, it warrants a more prominent consideration in a successful transition.

The other theme that I addressed within the initial three concepts was that of the fear and anger associated with the stigma of a label. This was a much more dominant theme than anticipated. In all but one of the 8 interviews students mentioned it with one or more wounding examples. These attitudes certainly contributed to other aspects of the studentŐs transition from the ability to request accommodations to being able to join in on the social activities of the campus. Three of the students were able to turn this stigma into a determination to prove people wrong.

I read a book "Driven to Distraction" -- only thing I find myself looking back at it and there is so much that comes into play. #1 is the diagnosis -- please encourage parents to not treat their kids like they are moronic, that they can't do something. My parents never spoke to me as if I couldn't do something. My parents wouldn't allow me to use the LD as an excuse. I think everyone in their life has been distracted, so I would stress that the diagnosis for a child, especially a pre-adolescent, that label or stigma puts so much on a person at that time. You really need strong parental support through this. give students the basic skills they need to succeed, whether it is time management or however you learn. Some students may be auditory learners or some will need to read stuff. So provide resources for students different styles and then resources on how to manage their time, study skills, how to ask for resources. If this was provided in high school for all students, there wouldn't be any stigma. I think the label is critical. If an office is called learning disabilities it will cause apprehension for a student about even walking in there -- they won't respond or request resources if that label is there.    (Arts graduate, early diagnosis)

I got told by my history teacher in high school that I wouldn't be able to cope or excel with track 1 classes, and then a biology teacher told my mother that I should not be pushed into college. I wouldn't be able to make it in college. I faced a lot of opposition in school, and especially from my elementary and junior high transition. I had no support in elementary school and then in high school I had to work my way up to track 1. I really had to fight for things. I don't like telling people that I have a LD. My mom would say that when I would go to college I should take whatever accommodations that I was eligible for, but I have always been apprehensive about doing that because of my experience with the faculty and staff in the elementary and high school. (graduate, now applying to law school after working 3 years)

In the beginning I had so much stacked against me in that I had this blind determination. I was pulling my hair out- I had so many instances where I thought should I switch to journalism or something, but it really wasn't what I wanted to do. I didnŐt just squeak through -- I have actually done research and I am published- I didn't just get a diploma. My grades aren't great, but I proved that I can do research and I can do it well -- that is what's important. I know I can do a good job. (astronomy major, due to graduate in December, anticipates enrolling in a PhD program for astronomy)

            I have found this field study to be of tremendous value to my work. As mentioned earlier, I underestimated or misinterpreted the significance of parental involvement in a successful transition. I have barely scratched the surface in determining the various factors influencing transition and which are more significant to student success. I do realize that it is important to have a full understanding of the various supports in secondary school and how we can make that continue as needed on campus. One of my interviewees summed up the goal of transition appropriately with the following:

Students need to learn how to cope with college life. They need to have enough self-autonomy to empower themselves to succeed in whatever they do. Sometimes there is a dependency on a resource or a medication. You have to be the one to take the initiative, be aware of the situation and to take it back to the box. You have to break away from the resource so that the student will succeed. You have to go and do it -- take the initiative. It is a huge transition to go from Mrs. So and So at the high school or Mom and Dad monitoring everything including getting you up on time to living independently at college. ( Graduate, Arts College)


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Brinckerhoff, L.C., Shaw, S.F., & McGuire, J.M. (1992). Promoting access, accommodations, and independence for college students with learning disabilities. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 25(7), 417-429.

Cummings, R., Maddux, C., & Casey. (2000). Individualized transition planning for             students with learning disabilities. The Career Development Quarterly, 49, 60-72.

Field, S. (1996). Self-determination instructional strategies for youth with learning             disabilities. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 29, 40-52.

Getzel, E.E., & Gugerty, J.J. (1996). Applications for youth with learning disabilities. In P. Wehman (Ed.), Life beyond the classroom: Transition strategies for young people with disabilities (pp. 337-389). Baltimore: Brookes.

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Levinson, E.M., & Ohler, D.L. (1998). Transition from high school to college for             students with learning disabilities: Needs, Assessment, and services. The High School Journal, 82(1), 62-69.