Accommodating Special Needs Learners In Higher Education

How does special education factor into higher education? Special education has a home in higher ed. However, it looks completely different than the K-12 sector.

One significant difference is that there is no special education placement or an IEP in higher education. The IEP process only applies to students until high school graduation. However, other laws protect the rights of disabled college students and their accommodations. In higher education, an IEP can be used as a starting point in obtaining accommodations.

In K-12, an IEP is a legally binding document that requires an entire team of professionals and at least one parent or guardian to review the student’s learning goals, academic performance, and the services the school will provide.

This team must review the IEP annually, allowing them to adjust the specialized academic instruction and accommodations needed to support the student.

In college, it is up to the individual students to disclose their needs and ask for accommodations. The responsibility of disability advocacy has now moved to the student, and this can be daunting for many young adults who haven’t navigated this process on their own before. The student is also responsible for requesting accommodations and initiating the disability services process.

Critical Challenges for Special Education in Higher Education

Ever changing demographics. Students enroll and drop out of higher education programs often. Unlike K-12, it is challenging to keep up with the paper trail of thousands of students coming and going and who may or may not need accommodations.

Undisclosed student disabilities. There are so many students who attend college and never disclose their needs. This is challenging for any institution aiming to educate and graduate successful students. The student needs to report their needs because often, the institution will never know that they need help.

Overstretched support. Staffing challenges are a common denominator in K-12 and higher education as well. With a campus of anywhere from 20,000 to 80,000 students, it’s incredibly daunting to accommodate every student with a known special need.

Retention. Retention is a keyword in higher education. It’s essential for student learning and success, and it’s also crucial for the success and economy of the institution.

How can our higher education system help students who have special needs and require learning accommodations?

Meredith Biesinger: Special Needs Accommodations in Higher Education
Most Common Accommodations Needed for Adult Learners
  • Additional time on exams
  • A distraction-free testing environment (some colleges have testing centers specifically designed for this purpose)
  • Enlarged print for exams and assignments
  • Extra white space on exams for working out equations
  • An exam reader (immersive reader software)
  • Seat preference
  • Note taker
  • Digital curriculum that offers multiple learning tools

The most important thing an adult learner can do is communicate their needs to their professor or learning institution. Higher education institutions should also consider having every instructor send out a survey at the start of each semester that allows every student to discuss their needs.

Every learner is different and comes with their own strengths and needs. When those needs are communicated and accommodated, success is inevitable.

Written By: Meredith Biesinger 

Professional Writer/ Education Specialist 

Meredith Biesinger is a licensed dyslexia therapist in Mississippi, in addition to being an experienced classroom teacher and K-12 administrator. Meredith also works as a consultant, where she bridges the bridge the gap between K-12 school districts and ed-tech organizations. With a passion for literacy, she is also a professional writer and syndicated author. With a M.Ed in Educational Leadership and a B.S. in English Education and Creative Writing, she has had rich and diverse opportunities to teach students and education professionals in different parts of the country as well as overseas. 

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