• Elizabeth Hamblet

Why Aren't Some Students with Disabilities Successful at College?


In another post on my blog, disability service directors I interviewed for my book talk about what qualities they see in students who are successful at college. It’s equally important to know what they see in students who aren’t successful, too, so that parents and professionals can talk to high school students realistically about what they will need to do (and avoid) if they hope to do well, and to help them develop the skills they’ll need for success.

Q. What qualities do you see in students who are not successful?

Stacey Reycraft is Director of Student Disability Services at the University of Mississippi

A. Like all students, some students with disabilities aren’t motivated to put in the work needed to succeed.Some struggle because they don’t have the basic living skills needed to function on their own. They can’t wake up, do homework independently, even take care of doing their laundry without a lot of parental involvement. There may be issues with organization and time management as well as an inability to advocate for themselves. We also see students who either stop taking their medication or who intend to take their medication but can’t keep on schedule without someone else reminding them have trouble at college.

Jamie Axelrod is Director of Disability Resources at Northern Arizona University

A. Students who struggle don’t engage – they don’t get connected with others (peers and faculty members) on campus. They have difficulties or problems with their accommodations but they don’t let anyone know. Some wait until very last minute to decide to try to do well, and by then they have a big hill to climb (i.e., they have left too much work to be done in the time that’s left and/or have done so poorly earlier in the semester that even perfect grades won’t bring their GPA up that much).

I have seen students who get to college and don’t want to engage with the disability services office. Often, it’s because they don’t want to be associated with anything that seems like special education (even though that’s not really what we do). They want to try school on their own, without any assistance. Some take their first exam without accommodations and then come to us. Others wait until second semester, when they’re already in a hole grade-wise. It can be a lot of hard work to dig out of such a hole.

Mai Graves is Director of the Learning/Access Center at Pratt Institute

A. Those who spend their whole time struggling here (or don’t make it through) are those who have learned helplessness - they are pessimistic about everything and don’t believe they can improve. Some students who have trouble here lack awareness of the impact of their disability on how they function. They also lack important skills like time management, which causes them secondary problems with roommates because they stay up late trying to finish projects at the last minute, they don’t get to the dining hall in time to eat nutritious meals and end up snacking, etc.

Some students who struggle are immature and unprepared to manage themselves. They tend to be too reliant on their parents for many things (e.g., renewing their prescriptions, describing and/explaining their learning needs, time management).

Bonni Alpert is Assistant Dean in charge of Student Disability Services at Western New England University

A. Some are apathetic about their academic performance. Others demonstrate learned passivity because their parents were afraid to let them fail and struggle. As a result, they stumble along waiting for someone to offer to help them but they don’t seek it themselves. They don’t know they’re missing something, they don’t ask questions, and they’re not actively trying to find out answers when they don’t know them.

Cindy Poore-Pariseau is Director of Disability Services at Bristol Community College

A. Some students make the mistake of taking on too much too early. Either they’re very excited about college or they just want to get through as quickly as possible. They don’t allow themselves to adjust to the demands of this new environment before signing up for more classes than they can handle.

Some of our students have no outside support, and they don’t use the resources we can offer them here. Too often, students think of this as extension from high school and assume they do not need to proactively come to us for assistance because, at the high school, the school personnel most often initiated the assistance.

L. Scott Lissner is ADA Coordinator at Ohio State University

A. Students who struggle at college tend to be those who are unwilling to disclose their disability and ask for help. I understand why students avoid disclosing their disability to our office; they have “baggage” from their experiences with special education in the past. They should know that we are very careful about their privacy, and that they can selectively disclose their disability only to those professors who need to know about it (e.g., if they have a math-related disability that doesn’t affect anything else, they don’t have to tell the literature professor). We are very respectful about their privacy, too. For instance, when we find notetakers, we don’t tell them for whom they are taking notes.

Ward Newmeyer is Director of Student Disability Services at Dartmouth College

A. We have a quarter system and the pace is fast. If one does not adapt quickly, one may not have a successful initial experience. Some students who are not successful lack preparedness for the higher education environment. They may not know what to expect or may not sufficiently understand the differences between high school and the postsecondary environment. The good news is that most institutions have advisors that can help the transition.

To see more related posts, click here:

College disability services directors' advice & information

Strategies for college success


To see other topics I've covered in the blog, browse the categories at the right of the page or click on the magnifying glass at the top of the page to use the search feature.


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Learn what skills students need to be successful at college, where the support structure is quite different from the one in K-12. Read my book, From High School To College: Steps to Success for Students with Disabilities.



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