Transition to Postsecondary Education for Students With Learning Disabilities

Dr. Raymond Witte

Transition to Postsecondary Education for Students With Learning Disabilities

Raymond Witte

Miami University


The following article provides a brief overview of the major transition issues and effective practices for students with learning disabilities as they shift to postsecondary educational settings.  Leaving high school to enter college represents an unparalleled educational conversion for all students including those with special learning needs. For that reason, school professionals along with parents and students themselves must be knowledgeable and skilled in this transformation process.

Transition Planning

Students with special learning needs continue to seek out postsecondary instruction and in particular approximately one quarter of all students with learning disabilities move on to college (Kurth & Mellard, 2006; Stodden, Conway, & Chang, 2003; Wagner, Newman, Cameto, Garza, & Levine, 2005) with the majority of students being served at two-year institutions (NCES, 2011). Planning for the college transition typically occurs at the middle and high school levels but should actually start at the elementary level. Adhering to the highest academic standards and meeting the same or comparable learning outcomes as their non-identified peers provides students with special learning needs a more successful transition experience (Landmark, Ju, & Zhang, 2010; Williams-Diehm & Benz, 2008). In truth, college preparation and readiness begins at kindergarten and continues with every grade.

Students with learning disabilities who enter college often present unique constellations of skills, needs, and necessary instructional supports (Skinner & Lindstrom, 2003; Sparks & Lovett, 2009) which can create challenging learning experiences and potential obstacles in the classroom. Concomitant with these academic challenges and stressors are the personal and psychological issues that can coexist such as general anxiety, social isolationism, and even depressive conditions (Vogel & Reder, 1998).  Along with student variables, the learning setting at the postsecondary level varies considerably from the K-12 environment as is demonstrated in Table 1. A unique characteristic of the college setting is the movement away from a group/team-centered approach to an individual student approach. All contact and responsibility regarding the transition process and subsequent instructional/learning delivery falls directly onto the student who must advocate for him or herself (Cawthon & Cole, 2010). Given this reality, every student needs to take advantage of every opportunity during their K-12 experience to develop their self-reliance and advocacy skills.

Academic and Personal Preparation

The demands of college require that every student be as prepared as possible  in areas of academics as well as functional life skill. Therefore, in addition to being strong (at grade level or higher) in foundational academic domain areas such as reading, math, and writing it is also important for students to be able to exercise effective learning support skills (e.g., effective note taking, review procedures, study preparation, time management) as well as personal health management practices (e.g., adequate sleep, exercise, friend and family support).

The focus of a college preparatory program typically starts in middle school and proceeds through the high school years. Researchers (Brinckerhoff, 1996; Skinner & Lindstrom, 2003) have identified basic transition goals for the high school years (Table 2).

At the end of the secondary transition process, a summary of performance (SOP) is mandated and must be completed in the student’s final year prior to graduation. Within that report the student’s academic achievement and general functional skills along with required classroom accommodations and modifications that have been provided are documented (Floyd, 2012). This document serves as a critical “instructional connector” between these two educational settings. University personnel rely on this information during the transition process.

Qualifying for University Services

Every college student with special learning needs must disclose the nature of their disability, provide documentation of that disability, as well as advocate for all necessary and appropriate classroom accommodations. IDEA does not extend to the postsecondary setting, however students are covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). As civil rights legislation, ADA guarantees equal opportunity for employment and equal access to all programs, including college for all individuals with disabilities (Cawthon & Cole, 2010). That includes individuals who have been served through special education (IDEA) as well as Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

In the confirmation of a learning disability, the three most common identification approaches include the antiquated aptitude-achievement discrepancy method, response to intervention (RTI), and low achievement performance (Sparks & Lovett, 2009). Major limitations with the aptitude-achievement discrepancy model are acknowledged and low achievement alone is not considered adequate for a learning disability determination (Francis et al., 2005; Machek & Nelson, 2007; Sternberg & Grigorenko, 2002). The Response to Intervention (RTI) model, which is designed to provide and evaluate the effectiveness of direct academic skills intervention, continues to be recognized as an effective model of learning disability identification (Fletcher, Denton, & Francis, 2005).

Consequently, non-ability, intervention-based reports are becoming more common at the postsecondary level, which provide confirmation of effective learning interventions and classroom accommodations that can be directly integrated into the college classroom. Despite these instructional advantages, the specific academic intervention focus (e.g., mathematical reasoning) consistent with RTI does not always align well with the broader postsecondary curriculum goals and outcomes (Sparks & Lovett, 2009).

It is important to recognize that a standard psycho-educational evaluation (consisting of results from both ability and achievement measures) can still serve as a formal verification document of a student’s disability in college (Sparks & Lovett, 2009). With this approach, a disability is typically recognized and substantiated as a significant discrepancy between an individual’s capacity to learn (as measured through an ability or intelligence measure) and his or her actual performance level in a respective achievement area such as reading or math. If this evaluation method is accepted, many college admissions/disabilities offices require that the evaluation be current (within one year prior to the student’s arrival on campus).

Regardless of the identification approach that is used, it is important to recognize that in addition to the documentation of the disability itself, the impact of the condition or disability on the student’s life and personal functioning must be demonstrated. The disabilities coordinator, who serves as the official university contact person that receives, reviews, and identifies potential accommodations in the classroom, will carefully review the generated report. What is reported (and what is not reported) is important in regards to the potential services and accommodations that can and will be considered. This information is then provided to a student with special learning needs. Key areas that are typically covered within a report include the identification of the disability or condition itself, how it was determined, current functional limitations of the student, needed recommendations for accommodations, assistive services and devices, compensatory learning strategies, as well as needed support services.

All college students must provide disclosure of their condition or disability as well as act on their own behalf in seeking out classroom accommodations (Floyd, 2012). Identified students are expected to meet the same program and degree requirements as their non-identified peers. Therefore, the focus for postsecondary institutions is to provide accommodations throughout the campus, including the classroom, to ensure that students are not discriminated against because of their disability. Accommodations are often involved in course delivery (e.g., tape recording classes, note takers, obtaining instructor’s outlines or lecture notes), classroom support materials (e.g., taped textbooks), and in course requirements themselves (e.g., extra time to complete tests, alternative tests).  Due to the adult status of college students, all business (e.g., disability confirmation, disclosure, advocacy) is conducted directly with the student and only the student.

Effective Transition

        As with any transition, success is predicated on constructing and executing a well-designed plan.  As part of any comprehensive transition plan, many actions and decisions should take place during the middle and high school years and include some of the following:

·      A college bound transition plan needs to exist within a student’s IEP no later than middle school (college plans/actions can precede this). Transition plans are required by the age of 16 under IDEA and a statement of transition is required by the age of 14. In addition, a SOP is required for all identified students and must be present during the final year of high school. This document should be shared with the college disabilities coordinator, preferably at least a semester before admittance into college (Floyd, 2012).

·      The guidance counselor should be a part of the student support team in order to ensure that the transition plan and the student’s schedule is focused on selecting appropriate college preparatory courses and obtaining the necessary number of credits in all core areas (e.g., English, math, science, foreign language). The acquisition and refinement of learning support skills (e.g., study skills, note-taking, testing skills/preparation, self-assessment/progress monitoring, problem solving skills) should be promoted throughout the middle and high school years.

·      Support options such as private tutoring should be considered (if needed) along with taking or retaking classes, if appropriate, during summer school. A lighter academic load (with fewer core subject courses and more electives) during the academic year can be helpful. This approach can be particularly helpful for athletes with special learning needs given the training and participation time demands placed upon them during their playing season(s).

·      Possessing an updated academic profile during the senior year of high school is important. Up-to-date academic performance data, along with current accommodations and their effectiveness are important sources of information that can be used in the provision of potential services at the postsecondary level.

·      Searching out and selecting potential colleges and universities is important. This can start as early as the freshman year and should involve actual on-site visitation if at all possible. Researching an institution and getting an idea of its “track record” in supporting students with special learning needs is important. Identifying an institution’s learning assistance services and meeting with appropriate service personnel can go a long way in determining whether this school is a good fit. Calling and setting up an appointment is recommended, as drop-in meetings can be cumbersome and limited. Getting questions answered early help in the decision making process. Differences in resources will likely exist among schools and it is important to be aware of those potential differences.

·      If a student enters college and is 18 years of age or older then all contact information is directed to the student. Parent involvement can only happen if consent by the student is provided. Given this reality, during the middle and high school years it is important for every student with a learning disability to be given responsibility for attending scheduled school meetings, for reviewing their schedules, and in general overseeing the process of their secondary education.

·      Transcripts provided to the university should contain a complete listing of courses taken in core academic areas, credits earned, as well as any special aspects to those classes (e.g., advanced placement courses taken with AP credit received, skill remediation courses).

·      Prior to enrolling at a college or university, students with learning disabilities need to be fully informed regarding their rights, protections, and procedural safeguards afforded to them through the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. In addition, students must be aware that college professors will vary considerably in their knowledge of this legislation and the accommodations (e.g., effective implementation, attitude toward accommodations) that may be subsequently established for an identified student (Katsiyannis, Zhang, Landmark, & Reber, 2009).

·      As mentioned earlier, students with special needs must self-disclose, which means they must formally indicate to a designated university official (e.g. disabilities coordinator) that they have a disability in order to be considered eligible for services at the postsecondary level. A disclosure letter signed by the student along with a professional evaluation is typically presented as evidence of the request and qualification.

·      Every university or college by law should have a designated disabilities coordinator who serves as the official contact person for identified students and helps to coordinate and oversee rendered services. Once accepted, the disabilities coordinator becomes an important resource and contact person. This is typically the individual to contact whenever academic issues or concerns arise.

·      College-supported learning and counseling services are usually available on most campuses. Students from time to time may need to talk to someone about the pressures, stressors, as well as seek general support as they pursue their academic studies.

·      Postsecondary institutions (both 2 and 4 year institutions) typically require a formal evaluation and report along with the necessary documentation of a learning disability. However, differences in admission criteria may exist among institutions. For example, some 2-year colleges may have an “open door” admissions policy with few academic requirements. In addition, developmental courses centered on skill preparation and review may be available and needed in order to adequately raise student skill levels.  These courses are sometimes necessary to take if a student graduated from a high school with limited skills in certain core content areas (e.g., reading or math). Admissions criteria should always be identified and carefully reviewed for any institution that is considered.


Transition is an inevitable part of the educational career of every student. With early and continuous planning and periodic monitoring of progress, a successful transition can be experienced at the postsecondary level for students with learning disabilities. However, the breadth and depth of preparation is important given the continuous demands of the college setting. Landmark et al., (2010) states that, “transition is a results-oriented process” and for that reason every student with a learning disability must be as academically prepared and organizationally competent as they can be (p. 173). Proficiency in basic areas including academics, learning strategies and academic planning, as well as personal and mental health management are essential for success at the postsecondary level.



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