The Importance of College “Fit” for ADHD Students
It seems to me that if I was going on a long and difficult journey that involved a lot of walking, I would need a pair of shoes that were sturdy, guaranteed to last until I made it to my destination, were good in all kinds of weather, and kept my feet protected and comfortable as I went on my way. I might even consider having them custom made, as my right foot is bigger than my left and my toes are bent somewhat from arthritis. Most of all, I would like my shoes to feel like they were made just for my feet.
As a college admissions counselor, I take the view that colleges should fit my students like a great pair of shoes, more comfortable than stylish, along with being sturdy and supportive. But just how important is college “fit” to post-secondary success? Currently, the most used measure of college success is the graduation rate of the college (1). So, if we do examine graduation rates, the news is not so good for college students with ADHD. In fact, Maitlin reports that college students with ADHD “may have lower overall retention & graduation rates that range from 11%-50% lower than students who do not have ADHD” (2).
It turns out that the link of college fit to post-secondary success seems to be a very important factor. Some observers, including Pelligrini and Horvat, suggest that many school problems experienced by children with ADHD do not result solely from the inborn, biological factors that underlie the disorder, but from a mismatch between the child and the environment (school) (3). In fact, according to a 2008 report from the University of Chicago, researchers “consistently found that college choice matters, particularly for well-qualified students” and that “good fit is a college that meets a student’s educational and social needs, as well as one that will best support his or her intellectual and social development” (4).
In my opinion, a good college “fit” for students with ADHD should include three critical factors: level of support, location and the degree to which students are engaged.
One of the most important factors in college fit, is the ability for an ADHD student to access support services. Obtaining accommodations and support services at college can dramatically improve the odds of success for students with ADHD (National Resource Center on ADHD). “When parents drive away after dropping their son or daughter off at college, they take their organizational skills with them and leave their child completely on his/her own, sometimes for the first time. Although many students with ADHD may relish this initial taste of freedom, many quickly find themselves floundering and experience great difficulty managing their daily routines” (5). ADHD students may also find the academic element of college especially challenging as these differences are at odds with the core symptoms seen in students with ADHD particularly poor executive functioning, which affects both time management and organizational skills (5).
With the passage of Section 504 of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1973, all colleges and universities that receive federal funding, MUST file an assurance of compliance (i.e., a document attesting to the fact that the institution does not discriminate based on disability), provide notice to participants that the recipient’s program does not discriminate based on disability, identify a specific employee to coordinate compliance, conduct a self-evaluation, engage in voluntary action to correct those circumstances that may have limited the participation of students with disabilities, adopt grievance procedures, and remediate violations of the act (6). This means that almost all colleges, public and private must provide “reasonable” accommodations for ADHD students under federal law, usually under the auspices of the college’s Office for Students with Disabilities. Accommodations for ADHD students can vary from college to college, but can include extended test time, scribes, proctors, oral exams, note-takers, tape recording classes, audio books, electronic texts, ADHD coaching, tutors, priority class registration and more.
Even though I am a college counselor, there have been several occasions in my work when I thought it was better for my student NOT to go away to college. That means that living at home and either working and/or attending a local college might be in the best interests of the particular student. In fact, Nadeau says, “The truth is that many high school students with ADHD are not ready to leave home at age 18, or don’t have the determination or self-discipline to earn good grades in college” (7).What’s more, many students with ADHD are not well-suited to the academicenvironment. There are a couple of urban myths about students who do not immediately attend high school after college (7):
- Many parents worry that if you don’t go to college immediately after high school that you’ll never go.
- Parents also worry that without a college education that you’ll never earn enough money to live a comfortable life.
However, others dispute these ideas based on their own experience in working with ADHD students.
In addition, students can explore other choices. For example, the student could delay college for 2-3 years, attend a community college, enroll as a “non-matriculating” student in a four-year school, or perhaps pursue interests through other training or work experience (7).
However, if the student does choose to go away to college, in addition to those institutions that primarily serve mainstream students, there are those that primarily serve students with learning differences, such as Landmark College in Vermont. And at Lynn University in Florida, for example, 20% of the student body has a diagnosed learning disability. In addition there is the well-respected S.A.L.T. (Strategic Alternative Learning Techniques) program at the University of Arizona.
Finally, another important factor in college fit is the level at which students are “engaged” at college, regardless of whether or not the student has a learning difference. On their website (8), the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), a non-profit organization dedicated to this important aspect of every student’s college experience, provides their definition of this concept:
“Student engagement represents two critical features of collegiate quality. The first is the amount of time and effort students put into their studies and other educationally purposeful activities. The second is how the institution deploys its resources and organizes the curriculum and other learning opportunities to get students to participate in activities that decades of research studies show are linked to student learning.” In a guide provided to faculty at Mohawk Community College (9), methods that college instructors can use to facilitate the engagement of ADHD students include:
- Having very clear expectations for all tasks written into the syllabus.
- Keeping transitions flowing smoothly and provide assistance at transitional times.
- Helping student(s) know how to get your attention appropriately.
- Providing motivating learning opportunities to help the student to remain engaged.
- Providing help with review.
- Providing appropriate cues and prompts that help students focus.
- Providing adequate accommodations and encouraging the student to use his/her accommodations and “checking-in” to make sure the student is not struggling with the curriculum.
- Making sure the specific students learning styles are addressed.
- Allowing extra time for processing and comprehending information.
However, like anything else, good college fit also depends on what is best for the individual student, including other factors not discussed here. However, as the National Association of College Admissions Counseling points out on their website, “the idea of “fit” is complex. You have to shed your ingrained way of shopping for “fit” and understand that there are many important, intangible and often unseen variables that must be considered beyond how a college campus looks and feels at a glance”; much like a great pair of shoes.
- Predictors of Academic Success among College Students with Attention Disorders. Patricia L. Kaminski; Patrick M. Turnock; Lee A. Rosén; Stephanie A. Laster. Journal of College Counseling. 2006 , DOI: 10.1002/j.2161-1882.2006.tb00093.x
- Characteristics, Enrollment Patterns, Graduation Rates and Service Use of College Students With ADHD/LD. Theresa L. Maitland, PhD. The Learning Center’s ADHD/LD Services, UNC Chapel Hill. IRB Approved Study #07-1097.
- Consortium on Chicago School Research (2008) The University of Chicago, “From High School to the Future: Potholes on the Road to College”. http://consortium.uchicago.edu/downloads/1835ccsr_potholes_summary.pdf
- Ensuring college success for students with ADHD. Contemporary Pediatrics (2013) Patricia O Quinn.
- McCarthy, M. M., Cambron-McCabe, N. H., & Thomas, S. B. (1998). Public school law: Teachers’ and students’ rights (4th ed.). Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon.