Transition Services for First Semester Freshmen with Learning Disabilities

©2003 Nancy Mott


edited 7/6/03

A Proposal: Learning Academic Self-Management

Students with disabilities are a rapidly growing minority on university campuses. Nationally, one in eleven college freshmen reports having a disability, up from one in 33 two decades ago, according to a report by the American Council on Education. The report “College Freshmen with Disabilities: A Biennial Statistical Profile,” was based on a national survey of college freshmen conducted by the Cooperative Institutional Research Program.

The report found that 9 percent of all full time, first-time freshmen enrolling in 1998 reported having at least one disability, compared to 3 percent in 1978. Forty one percent (41%) of those reporting disabilities said they had a learning disability, as opposed to fifteen percent (15%) in 1978. As a result of the Americans with Disabilities Act, physical accommodations such as ramps and door handles have been installed, but many supports for students with “hidden” disabilities have not been fully implemented on campuses. With this great influx of students with learning disabilities into the postsecondary setting, it becomes even more important for institutions to respond appropriately to their needs.

Many students with disabilities that have been successfully admitted to a competitive university have benefited from intensive and on-going support from family members throughout their education. This may have been in the form of private tutoring, specific educational support programs, and intense parental involvement. Students may arrive on campus unable to fully explain their disability and what their needs are and uncomfortable even admitting they have a disability. All of these elements may impact the level of preparedness for college among students with disabilities. The move from high school to college is one of the most important transitions in the life of a young adult. For most students, this is the first time living away from home, sharing life with a roommate, making decisions about what courses to take, and decisions on how to organize their time.

There is agreement in the literature reviewed thus far that the number of students with LD in postsecondary programs has increased dramatically, but there is also evidence suggesting that many students with disabilities enrolled in postsecondary education have difficulty completing their program. Although all students in college experience new learning conditions, students with LD are at 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)

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. McGuire (1991) also reported, “Often college-bound students with learning disabilities fail to understand that they will face a different set of demands within a postsecondary setting. They soon become overwhelmed by the amount of assigned material as well as the fast pace of instruction. Many lack the skills and strategies that are necessary for managing and self-monitoring their learning in a variety of contexts.”

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 could appropriate support during the critical transition to higher education is becoming more of a necessity.

Over the last three years I have gathered information from our students receiving accommodations on campus. With the help of a senior student and an undergraduate intern from the Psychology department, interviews, focus groups, and surveys were conducted. The most consistent suggestion resulting from these sessions and surveys was the need for on going transitional support for the students. With the help of these current students, we developed a list of topics and activities to be incorporated as a course for first semester freshmen. This information was then presented to our department advisory board, which consists of a faculty and student representative from each of the four colleges. Directors of the various key support areas on campus are also members of the board.

The Advisory Board discussion centered on four key areas: consideration of a summer or a first semester course; concern that the course could be viewed as a “developmental” course; consideration of limiting enrollment to students with disabilities or to all incoming freshmen; consideration of providing 1 credit for the course as a pass/fail or with grades.

The identification of students with learning disabilities needing services in higher education is often difficult. The service providers are completely dependent on the student self-identifying that they have a disability and desire to request academic accommodations. Universities have no control over when the student comes forward. During the past three years, approximately fifteen percent (15%) of my freshmen identify prior to arriving for classes in the fall, even though information is sent to all students in their acceptance packet. Offering a transition course in the summer would reach this limited audience. Our student focus groups emphasized that the support was needed as more “on the job”. This on going support would be more relevant to their transition needs.

Students that are eligible to receive academic accommodations here on campus are not a part of any special “program”. There are no special admission standards, which means all students must compete for admission based on their GPA, their SAT scores, and their recommendations. These are very high functioning students that have been admitted to a very competitive university. Similar courses are offered at Stanford, Brown, and Boston University, which are similar to us in that they do not offer developmental courses.

I fully expect that the majority of students interested in this course will be students with learning disabilities. However, in our interviews and focus groups, students were consistent in not wanting the course limited to or identified exclusively with students with learning disabilities. It was also noted in our review by the Advisory Board that a general offering to all incoming students would serve as a positive marketing tool to parents of freshmen.

Offering this course for 1 credit would encourage attendance and commitment to the content of the course. Our focus groups agreed that they would not enroll in the course without the credit. Contract grading will be used as part of the learning process. Students will have specific requirements listed to achieve a specific grade. They will be required to make a decision about their contracted grade based on a review of their entire schedule. They will need to map out all of the requirements for each of their courses with the deadline dates and assignments, identify any conflicts, and include any scheduled activities. The grade they contract for will be based on the analysis of their commitments. The course would be for one credit, meet for one hour per week, and it will not satisfy any course requirements.

The course will prepare students to advocate for themselves and to effectively interact with professors, staff, and peers as they start their academic career. Students will gain an understanding of their individual strengths, weaknesses, and interests from learning strategy seminars and exposure to the various campus academic resources. All of the assignments will focus on the participants’ academic schedule. Students will be guided in enhancing the following areas and relating it to their course work: budgeting time, study skills, notetaking, stress management, anxiety reduction, and setting priorities.

Announcements about this course will be included in the web information for incoming freshmen. The web information for freshmen includes all the information about course requirements, scheduling, housing, and orientation. Students and their parents will be eagerly reviewing all of this information about their future home. Parents of students with disabilities have been the primary advocates for their children throughout their K through twelve education, and now as their children move on to higher education that primary role is removed. This transition course will be looked on favorably by parents seeking some individual support and structure since they will not be around to provide this for their child on a day to day basis.

As a full time staff member teaching the course, there are no additional costs for instruction. This would not be considered time lost from my other responsibilities since one of my primary responsibilities includes meeting with and following up with students. This course provides me with a weekly meeting time with this group of students. Participants will also be expected to meet several times per semester with their professors and their academic advisors, which will also save time on my follow-up with those individuals.

As mentioned earlier, parents are very interested in the personal, semester long support for their child. Parents have been asking if such a course exists and will certainly support this effort. Another benefit revolves around the need for students with disabilities to develop self-advocacy. Students with disabilities are often fearful of self-disclosing and struggle with professor-student interaction. This course will provide on-going practice in this key area. Often eligible students are reluctant to seek academic accommodations right away. They have been accepted to a competitive university and they want to make a fresh start without their disability. Yet retention of students receiving accommodations for the 2002-2003 academic year was 99%. This course will encourage this acceptance of support for equal educational opportunity on campus.

Analysis of the Context of the Proposal

In 1999 I was hired to initiate services for students with learning disabilities at a private, suburban university with 6000 + undergraduate students. Initially I spent fifty percent of my time educating faculty and establishing procedures. Key to this education of faculty is emphasizing that students with disabilities are not part of any special admission program. They are accepted to the university based on the same criteria as everyone else, which places them in a highly competitive group. This education of the university community is key to the acceptance of my proposal.

As stated in my proposal, the numbers of students in higher education has grown during the last two decades. Our university is well below the 9% national average of incoming freshmen with only 3% of our freshmen identifying as having a disability. However our numbers are now growing faster than the national average. Since the start of our services in 1999 we have grown by 83%. Much of this growth can be attributed to the fact that students did not have an office to visit prior to 1999. As the word spread about our services, students began to come forward. Now in our fourth year, we continue with double digit growth.

Starting with the first group of students receiving services in the fall of 1999, I have been surveying and meeting with students to evaluate appropriate and reasonable services. One of the suggestions from our Ed 709 class was that I gather data about what students want from this proposed class. A senior student and an undergraduate intern continued to gather information from the students and ultimately worked with me in developing the course proposal to present to the Advisory Board. All students have participated in a survey, interview or focus group in order to solicit their input. The main challenges voiced at the review meeting with our advisory board were almost identical to those presented in our ED 709 class.

Foremost in my planning to present this proposal was addressing the issue of “developmental” courses. The university does not have any developmental or remedial courses. It also does not participate in the TRIO programs funded by the federal government. This would be my greatest hurdle to overcome for acceptance. My emphasis on faculty education of the law, procedures, and information about learning disabilities would be the building blocks to acceptance of this proposal. Students were expected to fulfill all the same academic requirements prior to entering the University, when gaining admission to the university, and when taking their courses here. The method of delivery may be different, but the student must still fulfill the requirements of the course and they should be as capable as the next student to do so successfully. As suggested in class, I researched additional schools with highly competitive requirements that offered courses similar to my proposal. In addition to Stanford, I added the names of Brown and Boston University.

When students are admitted to a university based on GPA, SAT’s, and recommendations the admission office is attempting to select individuals with the best possibility of meeting success. But what supports did the student receive prior to arriving to campus? Did they have a parent that was so 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 allow for waivers of foreign language or upper level math courses? How many times did the student take the SAT’s 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. With the laws not allowing a university to access specific information, it is often difficult to gauge just how much support a student is going to need during this process. A definite statement that can be made is 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. Providing this type of support “on the job” will allow the student to practice the skills they will need to succeed in their transition.

Each time this course is offered, I will need to return to the Initiating and Planning Processes as described in A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (Project Management Institute, 2000). Students with learning disabilities have very specific needs so it is likely that different content will need to be emphasized for each group. It also may be necessary to enlist other interested staff members to teach a section of the course should demand increase. The Controlling Processes are built into the design of the course since feedback is essential from the student participants, their professors, and their advisors.

Many students with learning disabilities have been receiving academic support since pre-school. Each time they move into the next level (pre-school to elementary; elementary to middle; middle to secondary; and secondary to college), their success is often a function of their transition. How was the transition handled by the student, their families, and their school? Throughout the elementary and secondary years, the parent takes the lead role in determining the need for support for the student. As a result, many of these students are unable to fully explain their disability and what their needs are and will often avoid admitting they have a disability. These factors contribute to a difficult and/or unsuccessful transition to their first year of college. My overall goal for this one credit course will be to encourage the student to accept the role as their own advocate with a full understanding of their academic strengths, weaknesses, and interests.


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