The Learning Disabled College Student: Surviving Higher Education


Learning disability -

A disorder in one or more basic psychological process involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, in which the disorder may manifest itself in imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or do mathematical calculations. The term includes such conditions as perceptual handicaps, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia and developmental aphasia. The term does not include children who have learning problems which are primarily the result of visual, hearing, or motor handicaps, or mental retardation, or emotional disturbance, or environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage. (United States Office of Education, 5B-4) The Education for All Handicapped Children Act (PL 94-142, 1975), updated in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act Amendments (PL 102-119, 1991)

Few would question the inherent value of higher education. Completing college enhances the quality of life for the student, the student's family, and the wider circle of community, employer, and friends. The right to an education is almost as American as apple pie and baseball. Education has always been "a key to unlocking the promise of American life, a way to move from the back of the line to the front." (Manno, 1995, p. 47)

Most of us would agree that completing college is valuable for anyone who has the desire to do so. On average, a college graduate is more than twice as likely to be employed and will annually earn a salary that is 34 percent higher than someone with only a high school education (U.S. Government, 1999). I think most would agree that it is important that everyone be given equal opportunity to achieve his or her potential (Stracher, 1993). This is just as true for learning disabled (LD) college students as it is for other students. Persons with LD who complete a college education are more likely to hold professional/ managerial type jobs than those LD students who graduate from high school (Greenbaum, Graham, & Scales, 1995). Gerber, Ginsberg, and Reiff (1992) indicate that nearly all of the LD persons in their study considered highly and moderately successful had completed some college education, with 89 percent finishing a bachelor's degree or higher.

At the beginning of a new millennium, acquiring an undergraduate degree is particularly valuable. Thirty years ago a grade twelve education was often the only pre-requisite for a satisfactory-paying job that would allow a worker to marry and support a family. Today, the story is much different. Now we live in a knowledge-based society, and a university degree is most frequently the requirement for entry-level employment. In many ways, then, a college education is now the launching point toward obtaining a satisfying job (career) instead of the high school education that was considered adequate several decades ago.

Statement of the Problem

Although learning disabled students have always been part of the educational scene, it has not been until the 1990s that a significant number of LD students have attempted college. There are a number of reasons for this. Until approximately 15 years ago, it was quite possible for students-LD or otherwise-to finish high school and get a job that would provide support for a family. Today, that has changed. Even "trade" jobs now require at least a two-year college diploma. Most skilled labour jobs require significant computer ability, with training provided by local colleges.

Another reason for the increase in LD college students is the growing awareness among students, educational institutions, and guidance counselors of the enactment of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (P. L. 93-112, 1973) which mandates that institutions of higher education which receive federal funds, including federal student loans, are not allowed to discriminate on the basis of disability. The 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act further underscored the responsibility that society has in helping the learning disabled achieve their potential by requiring that employers make accommodations for workers with physical and mental disabilities and says that otherwise qualified students with disabilities must receive "reasonable accommodation" in their college program (Stracher, 1993). Such accommodations are to be based on need as LD documentation suggests, but may include extended test time, a scribe, a reader, the right to tape lectures, oral testing, etc.

An additional reason for the increasing number of students is the growing number of colleges with open admission policies. Many colleges, faced with the pressure of losing federal funding, have adopted a "lenient and open admissions policy toward LD students, making it relatively easy for such persons to be accepted."(Skinner & Schenck, 1992, pp. 369-70). This pressure to admit virtually all students comes primarily from Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act which states that " otherwise qualified handicapped individual shall, solely by reason of his handicap, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving federal assistance..." (Subpart E, Section 504). Under this policy, a student with a high school diploma is often admitted to college without question.

Thanks to this changing college environment, the numbers of LD students who self-report has increased three times over a ten-year period (Henderson, 1995). The increase has hardly been gradual. In l985, for example, 1.1 percent of all first-time full-time freshmen in the U.S. indicated they were learning disabled. By 1989, colleges were reporting significant increases in the numbers of LD students on campus to the extent that requests for examination accommodations were being difficult to fulfill (Hayeslip, Hermanson, & Scales, 1989, Personal Communication, in Wertheim, Vogel, & Brulle, 1998). And by 1996, the American Council on Education reported 3.1 percent of all college freshmen self-reporting with learning disabilities, up from 2.2 percent in 1991 (Long, 1997). Like their American counterparts, Canadian colleges and universities also have a significant LD population. The Learning Disabilities Association of Canada (in Cox, 1994) estimates the LD population to be approaching 10 percent of total student population.

This may be because learning disabilities have become more identifiable. Students have access to more comprehensive assessments, awareness of learning disabilities has grown, and parent and other advocacy groups are more active as they attempt to ensure that LD-diagnosed students are adequately educated. Consequently, as Madaus (1997, p. 26) points out, "an entire generation of students with LD has come of age and is ready for college entrance and college-level work."

Although the numbers of LD students appearing at the college threshold are increasing, the available research on college students with learning disabilities is still limited (Stage & Milne, 1996). Often referred to as "the invisible handicap" because there is usually no outward indication of a learning disability, these students nevertheless struggle in a very real way and may in fact "pose the greatest challenge to higher education's ability to accept and adapt to the diversity than any population accommodated thus far." (Longo, 1988, p. 10)

For a variety of reasons, then, an increasing number of LD students are arriving at college. Some are successful, but many are not. It is important that colleges and universities which accept these students understand why some LD students complete college while others are not.


Review of the Literature

Comparatively little has been written about the learning disabled college student (Barga, 1996). Preoccupation with LD elementary students' challenges seems to pervade the literature. In a sense this emphasis on the elementary school student is good because there are many educators who believe with Gerald Coles (1987) that learning disabilities are often created by a misunderstanding or lack of understanding of how children learn. Therefore, by teaching using children's strengths to overcome their weaknesses, at least some of the learning disabilities that we see in higher education can be circumvented by early intervention and more appropriate teaching at the elementary level.

However, not all children with learning problems can be or are remediated at the elementary-or even high school-level. In spite of early intervention and prodigious amounts of tutoring, students with dyslexia, for example, will always struggle to a certain extent with language-based assignments. And there are currently college students who are of average or above average ability who struggle to learn in traditional ways. We are only just beginning to understand how students learn and how different students learn. After all, the human brain is one of the last frontiers known to mankind (Watson, 1999), and many of the students who are now arriving at college have not had the benefit of having been taught by teachers who understood their students' ways of learning. To compound the problem, many college teachers have no training in how to teach at all; they have arrived at their profession because they did well in their subject matter, not because they understand how to help their students to learn.

By far the bulk of articles written deal with language-related difficulties, and a survey of literature regarding LD students' ability to generate text (Newcomer & Barenbaum, 1991) reveals many studies of elementary-aged LD writers. While these studies are useful to elementary teachers and parents, the LD college student often requires other approaches. O'Hearn (1989) states, "[T]he relative absence of scholarship in this area is indeed unfortunate because composition is crucially important to the success or failure of the [college] learning disabled student. Difficulty with the conventions of writing is one of the most obvious and enduring characteristics of the learning disabled individual . . ." (p. 275).

Because inability to generate written language is one of the most evident deficits among learning disabled students (Sills, 1995)-evident in up to 85 percent of students with learning disabilities (Moats, 1996),-- much is being written describing English department test projects, which include strategies to assist LD students in generating college-level text (Sills, 1995; Pardes & Rich, 1994; Manganello, 1994; Gore, 1993; Graham, Schwartz, & MacArthur, 1993; Stracher, 1993; Graham, 1992; Gajar, 1990; Graham, 1990; Martin, 1991; MacArthur, Schwartz, & Graham, 1991; O'Hearn. 1989; Collins, 1989; Mosenthal, 1988; Vogel, 1985; Moulton & Bader, 1985; Gregg, 1983).

Other articles speak of the benefits of using technology as tools to assist LD students in the generation of written language (MacArthur, 1996; MacArthur, Schwartz, & Graham, 1991).

But school continues to be a struggle for LD students, even though by the time they arrive at college they have been involved in education for many years. A growing body of literature indicates that negative attitudes and perceptions exist in LD college students, those who teach them, and the students with whom they associate (Houck, Asselin, Troutman, & Arrington, 1992). These attitudes may well interfere with LD students' college experiences.

A few case studies exist that focus on the experiences of one LD individual (Meyers, 1985; Ganschow, 1984; Rawson, 1982), examining in depth the particular needs and frustrations of one student.

Some authors address the affective aspect of learning disabilities and academic performance (Cosden & McNamara, 1997; Chapman, 1988), particularly examining the element of self-efficacy in the success of the student.

Other articles focus on teaching college students how to learn, pinpointing the metacognition that is a requirement for success for any LD student with a language-based deficit (Bat-Hayim, 1997; Jordan, 1996).

The late 1980s and early 1990s, with the arrival of the first significant wave of LD students in college, spawned a number of articles about access and accommodation at colleges in the U.S. (Finn, 1997; Madaus, 1997; Keim, McWhirter, & Bernstein, 1996; McGuire, Madaus, Litt, & Ramirez, 1996; Brinckerhoff, Shaw, & McGuire, 1992) and the legal implications for colleges that accept federal aid money.

Purpose of the Study

Being an LD student appears to be rife with challenges. In general, we know that students with learning disabilities drop out of school more frequently than students with other handicaps (Ysseldyke, Algonzzine, and Thurlow, 1992). For example, Lichtenstein (1992) reports an alarming 40 percent high school drop-out rate among LD students compared to 25 percent of their non-disabled peers. For the hardy 60 percent who complete high school, Miller (1988) points out that the transition from high school to college can be traumatic for even the most competent learning disabled student.

We know that LD college students are more vulnerable to academic stress and failure than their non-LD counterparts (Cosden & McNamara, 1997). Studies also indicate that, compared to non-LD students, LD college students report lower self-esteem, higher rates of failure, and lower college graduation rates (Vogel & Adelman, 1992).

Despite seemingly overwhelming odds, however, some learning disabled students do successfully complete college. I would like to explore the experiences of these LD students. How do they do finish college? What is their experience in the setting that has given them considerable challenge throughout their academic lives? In other words, how have they survived college? How have they been successful?

In asking this broad question, I would also like to explore the role that others have played in their education. For example, What are characteristics of "helpful" teachers? What kinds of mentors have the students used?

I am interested in the learning strategies that have worked for each of those questioned as well as the extent to which accommodation has been provided and/or needed at the college which they have attended. I would like to explore what, if any, remediation has been provided along the way and whether the student spent time in special education settings. I am interested in how they have managed their disability.

Because it is important that these students perceive their college education as the beginning of their lifetime adventure, rather than the end of something, I am interested in their perceptions of their future. What is their sense of self-efficacy? How empowered for lifetime success do they feel?

LD students have families and lives outside of the educational setting as well. What part do families play in students successfully completing college?

Finally, since so many LD students have significant difficulties with language processing-either written or oral, or both--I would like to know how they have dealt with the preponderance of reading and writing that is inherent in a traditional college curriculum.


Most qualitative research interests come from personal experiences and a long interest in a topic which develops from personal history. This approach, occasionally called "opportunistic research" requires that the researcher choose a case rather than a variable in an attempt to gain an understanding of a broader phenomenon.

Merriam (1988) defines the qualitative case study as "an intensive, holistic description and analysis of a single entity, phenomenon, or social unit. [They] are particularistic, descriptive, and heuristic and rely heavily on inductive reasoning" (p. 16).

Because the case study focuses on one specific phenomenon like a person, process, institution, or group, it is called "particularistic." The "descriptive" aspect of the case study refers to the "rich, thick description of the phenomenon under study" (p. 11), and Merriam refers to the case study as "heuristic" because of the study's power to "illuminate the reader's understanding of the phenomenon under study" (p. 13). Case studies use inductive reasoning because new relationships and understandings emerge from studying the data (Merriam, 1988).

Eisner (1991) describes qualitative research as being field focused, that is, it "tends to study situations and objects intact" (p 33). In qualitative research the reseacher is "the instrument that engages the situation and makes sense of it." (p. 34) Another feature of a qualitative study is that it is interpretive. According to Eisner (1991), this includes not only the ability to explain why something is happening but the meaning of the experience for those involved in the situation. In addition, "voice" or "expressive language" is evident in text. Using subjects' own words becomes part of the evidence in the researcher's quest for understanding.

The case study approach is appropriate when the researcher is exploring the "how" and/or the "why" of a research question. According to Yin (1994), a case study "investigates a contemporary phenomenon within its real-life context, especially when the boundaries between phenomenon and context are not clearly evident (p. 13). Thus, using this method is useful and appropriate when contextual conditions may have bearing on the phenomena being studied.

Some LD students have made it through college; many do not. And I am not aware of any case studies that actually detail those successes. For this qualitative case study, I will interview and tape record four LD students, two at York University, a public university close to my North York (Canada) home, and two at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, MI, a 3,500-student institution of higher education operated by the Seventh-day Adventist church. I will in-depth interview each student for approximately four to six hours total (in 1 ½-2 hour segments). I will observe the students in their classrooms, look over their academic records and their academic work in an attempt to learn how they managed to be successful. For purposes of this study, nearing the completion of their four-year college program will be the indication that they have been "successful." I want to find out the how's and the why's of these students' academic success. I will interview teachers whom students identify as being particularly helpful. Where possible, I will also interview the parents. I will inductively analyze the data, searching for relationships, concepts, and themes.

For this study, I plan to use purposeful sampling, with subject selection based on predetermined criteria to the extent that the subjects can contribute to the research study (Vaughn, Schumm, & Sinagub, 1996). According to MacMillan and Schumacher (1997, p. 397), purposeful sampling is useful "when one wants to understand something about those cases without needing or desiring to generalize to all such cases. . . . [these] samples are chosen because they are likely to be knowledgeable and informative about the phenomena the researcher is investigating."

I am most interested in students with language processing disorders (e.g. dyslexia). Indication of developmental dyslexia (as opposed to "deep" dyslexia) is a significant discrepancy between the student's innate abilities (measured by IQ) and reading/language performance. Evidence of such a disability most often includes difficulty in learning to read, erratic spelling, and lack of ease in manipulating written as opposed to spoken language. Subjects should have documentation of a learning disability from a school file (e.g. psychological report, IEP, private psychologist, or a private agency), assurance of minimum full scale IQ within the average range (i.e.FSIQ>80); absence of compounding physical or sensory disabilities, and absence of significant barriers in spoken or written English because of a foreign language background.

Qualitative researchers are most interested in consistency, trustworthiness, and dependability which are validated through triangulation of method/data, an audit trail, and stating researcher biases (Merriam, 1988). Throughout the data collection and analysis process, I will ask participants for feedback to validate my interpretations (member checks). Students and others will have opportunity to read and respond to the material I use from their interviews. As the study design emerges, the audit plan will be described in more detail so that the conclusions drawn will be clearly indicated from the evidence collected.

According to Tellis (1997, p. 6), triangulation "arises from the ethical need to confirm the validity of the processes." Data will include the transcribed interviews of four students, several parents and teachers (field text), plus my own field notes based on what I have seen, heard, and experienced during the process of collecting and reflecting on the collected data (Bogdan & Biklen, 1982). I will also examine other documents, such as student-generated writing. As the primary instrument of both data collection and analysis, I will both clarify and summarize as I progress through data collection. Data analysis will be concurrent with collection.

I am aware that I enter this study with biases as both a teacher of college students with learning disabilities and also the parent of a learning disabled college student. It is clear from the opening pages of this proposal that I believe that attending college should be a choice open to any LD student who is otherwise qualified. My past experience as a teacher and my on-going connection to an LD college-aged child can be both a strength and a liability. It is a strength because it motivates my passion to learn. Undergirding this entire study is my own desire to find out how more college-aged LD students can be successful. I recognize, however, that this same background carries the affective aspect of being a caring and involved teacher/mother who must exercise care in accurately interpreting the data.


Although learning disabilities, in contrast to other disabilities, tend to be "invisible," the effects are not-to the student, to teachers, to parents, to employers, and to friends. The purpose of this study is not to solve the definitional problems surrounding learning disabilities which still exist, though perhaps to a lesser degree than they used to (Hammill, 1990). Rather, my main concern is to inquire into the experiences of a few students within the learning disabled category who have worked-successfully-to complete a college education.

From this study I will look for emerging themes that may be useful to other LD students, their families, and educators so that they may be more aware of the needs and challenges of at least one group of LD students in college settings and how those challenges can be ameliorated. By emphasizing the elements of success, educators in particular can more intentionally provide the real support necessary to the growing number of LD students desiring a college education.

Interview Questions for Students

Demographic Information

Age _____, Gender _____, GPA _____

Number of years in school _____

Number of years in college _____

Number of colleges attended _____

Number of years retained in school _____

Major _________________

Career choice ___________________


Understanding of Learning Disability

What is your specific learning disability?

How do you see yourself as student ?

Tell me about when you first become aware of a learning disability?

Tell me what elementary/high school/college was like.

Tell me who you think you are-in terms of strengths and weaknesses.

Have you ever been in special education classes during your academic career?


Are you aware of others in your family who are LD?

How important has your family been to your college success?

Describe how your family relates to your LD.

A. How have they been not helpful?

B. How have they been helpful?

Attending College

Why did you go to college?

How important is a college education in your family?

Who in your immediate family have completed college?

Tell me about your freshman year at college.

A. What classes were easy? Why?

B. Which classes were difficulty? Why?


How do you choose classes?

Describe a class where you felt comfortable.

a. Requirements b. Teacher c. Other students

What's your strategy for "managing" classes?

Tell me about "wrong" classes.

Have you ever studied a foreign language?

Have you attempted a foreign language class in college?

What is your process for writing papers?

How do you manage the reading that is required?


What kind of support, remedial education, tutoring have you used prior to college?

What kind of "outside" support has been most useful to you?

What accommodations have you used through high school?

What accommodations have you used in college?

Have you taken any remedial classes in college?

What kind of support have you tried and found to be not useful?

What kind of support have you used and found helpful here?

What kind of support are you aware of here at ____ University?

What do you do when you have difficulty with a class?

Are you aware of your "rights" as an LD student? What are they?

Think of three people who have been most helpful to you in getting you through college.

Why have you selected these people? How were they most helpful?

Can you explain how technology helped you as a student?

Dealing with Stress

How stressful is school for you?

What causes the most school-related stress?

How do you cope with the stress of school?

What do you do for fun?


Are your friends/significant others aware of your learning disability?

Do you have friends with learning disabilities?

Has your learning disability affected either negatively or positively your relationship with friends?

What are helpful peers like?

What is your life like socially?


How do you think other people "see" you?

In what situations do you feel confident?

In what situations do you feel less competent?


To what extent are good grades important to you?

What is your reaction when you receive a good grade?

How do you feel when you're given a poor grade?

What do you predict for your future?


Interview Questions for Parents

1. What is __________'s specific learning disability?

2. When did you first become aware of your child's LD?

3. What was elementary/high school/college like for your child?

4. What are your child's strengths? weaknesses?

5. Has s/he ever been in special education classes?

6. Are there other members of your family who have learning disabilities?

7. How important is a college education in your family?

8. How does your family relate to your child's LD?

9. Who in your immediate family has/have completed college?

l0. Why did your child go to college?

l1. Can you identify some factors-either intrinsic or extrinsic-that have contributed to your child successfully completing college?

12. What does your child do best?

13. What do you predict for ____________'s future?


Interview Questions for Teachers

1. ___________has identified you as being a particularly "helpful" teacher. Can you identify how you were helpful?

2. When were you first aware of ___________'s learning disability?

3. What do you know about the rights of LD students?

4. What types of learning disabilities have you encountered in your classroom?

5. How many LD students have you encountered?

6. What strategies have you used in dealing with them?

7. What specific training have you had in dealing with LD students?

8. How much personal reading have you done, if any?

9. Are you aware of any resources on campus for dealing with LD students?

10. Have you have referred students to these sources?



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