December 14th, 2021

In 2022, Let’s Make College Work for All

Learning disabilities don’t end at high school graduation.

By Lindsay E. Jones, Esq. – President & CEO, National Center for Learning Disabilities

Barriers to success are lifelong for the 1 in 5 individuals who have a learning disability or attention issues. And while our education system is getting better at identifying these challenges earlier in a child’s K-12 education, we must recognize that learning disabilities never go away.

For students with learning disabilities, our country not only has placed obstacles to success in the classroom but we continue to put up roadblocks that have long standing impacts on who these individuals become and what they achieve as adults.

Students are commonly identified as having a disability through a comprehensive evaluation process under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) during their elementary through high school years. This identification allows a student to qualify for an Individualized Education Program (IEP) that outlines additional services and accommodations necessary to ensure their equitable education. 

While the IDEA does not apply to colleges, students with disabilities still have the right to reasonable accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)—accommodations like extended time on a test or a notetaker that enable students to succeed in their college classes. Accommodations afford equal access to instruction or assessments.

When students reach college, they are faced with another entirely new set of barriers to their educational experience. That’s because many higher education institutions don’t recognize their IEP (or other types of documentation, such as a 504 plan) as proof of their disability in order to receive accommodations. 

Community colleges and universities often require students to submit a recent evaluation, which puts an additional, unnecessary burden on young adults trying to adapt to college life. There’s also a financial burden—evaluations cost up to $2,500. Having to obtain a new evaluation in order to prove a disability (that has already been recognized by the educational system previously) is understandably frustrating.

Take, for example, the story of Malachai Pruett, a member of the National Center for Learning Disabilities’ Young Adult Leadership Council. Malachai entered their second year of college this fall and, like many students around the country, isn’t receiving accommodations because their school, Georgia State University, is forcing them to get re-evaluated to “prove” they have a disability. A new evaluation would cost roughly $400. These unforeseen costs are shouldered by students like Malachai, despite being previously evaluated in high school. 

Students across the nation face hurdles like these as they transition from high school to college settings. Why do university administrators think that learning disabilities go away or can be “overcome” by the time a student reaches college? Why must students constantly fight—at every step in their education—for the accommodations they are guaranteed under the ADA?

In our State of Learning Disabilities report, data from the National Longitudinal Transition Study-2 showed that 94% of students with LDs received accommodations in high school, but only 17% received accommodations in postsecondary education, a startling difference. Out of the students who didn’t receive accommodations, 43% reported that they wished they had. These numbers show the significant drop-off of receipt of accommodations from high school to college and the importance of fairer access to them for students with disabilities in postsecondary education.

Fortunately, there is legislation with bipartisan support in Congress to ensure these students receive the necessary accommodations when they get to college. The Respond, Innovate, Succeed, and Empower (RISE) Act would allow students with disabilities to use their previous IEP or other documentation as evidence of a disability when they enter college. 

Passing the RISE Act is an essential step to making the accommodations process easier for students with disabilities. It is the long-term goal to ensure equitable college access for all students with disabilities. But we can and should do more in 2022. Last year, as a presidential candidate, Joe Biden promised to direct the U.S. Department of Education “to provide guidance to all postsecondary programs to accept the accommodations students with disabilities have used in K-12 settings for postsecondary settings”. Last month, members of NCLD’s Young Adult Leadership Council urged the U.S. Department of Education to fulfill this promise. 

We don’t have time to wait for leaders in Congress to act, nor do we need to. Our nation’s leaders’ collective inaction as thousands of college-aged students are denied the accommodations needed to succeed should not be tolerated for another semester. Without immediate changes in policies that recognize previous documentation of a disability, we risk failing generations of students who will not reach their full potential. Why wait?

In 2022, as the Department of Education continues to wrestle with questions about college affordability and access, and potentially administer grants to institutions to improve retention and completion, we urge the Department to consider all ways to even the playing field for students in pursuit of a higher degree or credential. Today’s college students have experienced incredible challenges due to the effects of the pandemic. In the new year, we must challenge the status quo and seek to find ways to ensure that all college students have access to accommodations in college. 

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