For incoming freshmen, or for transfer students who come from smaller community college programs, the transition to the University of Minnesota can be overwhelming. This is especially true for students living with disabilities.
Not every disability is easy to see, either.
At the University of Minnesota, about 6 percent of the 50,000 students on campus receive accommodations for disabilities, and most of those—about two-thirds—have non-apparent disabilities, such as ADHD or a mental health condition.
Yet Joe Timmons, a research fellow at the National Center on Secondary Education and Transition housed at the University of Minnesota, estimates that as many as 80 percent of all students on college campuses have some kind of disability if one includes all types of unseen conditions.
Timmons’ numbers come from over 35 years of working with adolescents and adults with disabilities. His estimate takes a broad view of non-apparent disability, reflecting difficulties with executive functions, or the way students make decisions on a daily basis.
These students may not reflect what you would typically view as disabled, he said, but such students do struggle because of impairment in one or more of eight executive functions: task initiation, planning and prioritizing, impulse control, emotional control, flexible thinking, working memory, self-monitoring and organization. Problems in any one of these areas affect students’ abilities to learn in a traditional setting.
Students with mental health disorders or learning disabilities may also struggle with these executive functions, making it even more difficult for them to adjust to the demands of college.
High school doesn’t usually challenge these disabilities to the breaking point, Timmons said. That’s partly because students may be screened for disabilities and placed accordingly in accommodating classrooms. Many students also have a team of family, teachers and mentors in place to help organize a student’s time.
But when a student is accepted into a large university, that student becomes autonomous, losing the structured support systems of earlier education. On top of that, executive functions are constantly tested. The combination of autonomy and a greater workload make managing these functions incredibly difficult.
80 percent of all students on colleges campuses have some kind of disability. Only two percent are physical disabilities.
Issues of Self-Advocacy and Services
Julia Parreno, a fourth-year student studying mathematics, has lived with both depression and general anxiety throughout her college career at the University of Minnesota. She first went to Boynton’s mental health services for help after her sophomore year, but Boynton only offered up to 11 counseling appointments per 12-month period. Parreno needed bi-weekly appointments.
“It took over a month just to get into the initial appointment,” Parreno said. “My therapist at Boynton told me not to waste my mental energy sharing everything with her because I would be transferred to another therapist once my 11 appointments were used up.”
Parreno’s story is typical.
The University of Minnesota does offer some programming geared to assist with the transition from secondary to post-secondary life. These include first-year freshman programming, transfer student orientation, the Disability Resource Center (DRC) presence at many such events and an abundance of mental health campaigns. Still, as Parreno found, resources are often stretched to the limit and may not support students in the way they need.
“The DRC is more of a ‘you come to me’ type of deal, and my assistant did not make all of the accommodation options clear. I didn’t know I could ask for an accommodation letter for attendance because of my mental health until after I needed it,” Parreno said.
Experts who oversee some of these programs, as well as students who have made those transitions, say the university just isn’t offering enough for those who struggle the most. What’s more, the programs that can help are usually the hardest to develop at such a large university.
For one thing, many students are facing diagnoses for the first time in college. An estimated one-fourth to one-third of college students are diagnosed with a mental health condition or learning disability such as ADHD or dyslexia for the first time as a college student. That means students are not only trying to navigate a new diagnosis, they are learning to seek help themselves – in a system that remains up to them to tap.
“The DRC is limited by what they know or those who walk through their door,” said David Johnson, director of the University of Minnesota-affiliated Institute on Community Integration. While the DRC is a huge resource, he said, students do not always see themselves as “bad enough” to be eligible for disability services’ help.
According to Johnson, one of the biggest lessons students must learn in college is self-advocacy: learning to address their own challenges, self-disclose and communicate their accommodation needs. Students often struggle with this because of the perceived stigma around mental health and learning disabilities, he said. Even for those that do overcome stigma, they might face family or friends who question their need for the service.
“Students don’t want their first stop or resource to be the Disability Resource Center,” he said. “It reinforces the idea that they are an abnormality or failure.”
Johnson dismissed this idea, saying “not everyone needs ‘big’ help.” For students with a disability such as ADHD, it could be a simple reminder to look at their planner or take a medication.
One Solution, No Implementation
Some colleges have tried to support students with such needs through a national program called Check and Connect. Originally developed at the University of Minnesota, it has since become a model for high schools around the nation to raise the graduation rates of historically underrepresented groups.
Check and Connect was designed to assist “tier two” high school students, those who can manage school but often need additional support to do well, said Jana Hallas, Check and Connect project coordinator. In the high school programs, students are paired with a mentor to determine areas of high risk and then meet regularly to work on skills such as self-monitoring or impulse control, which are skills based on executive functions.
The program has shown clear success at smaller colleges in Minnesota. At Central Lakes College in Brainerd and Ridgewater College in Willmar, students consult with mentors for periodic check-ins relating to coursework and progress. Mentors also help students with ADHD to take their medication or encourage balanced schedules for students with depression or anxiety.
Johnson described the approach as teaching resiliency, or “putting someone important into another’s life, making them less likely to fail.” Indeed, research from the 2011 to 2014 Central Lakes and Ridgewater school years show an increased graduation rate of 18 percent for students involved in the Check and Connect program.
Although Check and Connect is housed at the University of Minnesota’s Institute for Community Integration and has been implemented in over 300 schools, five countries and nearly all 50 states, the program has not been used for students on the Twin Cities campus.
That’s largely because such programs become exponentially difficult in a larger school like the university, Hallas said. Large universities do not have the budget to pay mentors, and, on a more basic level, lack the funding to develop screenings or standardized tests to determine student needs. The system is simply more complex.
“It’s hard to tie all of the available campus services together,” Hallas said.
Timmons, Johnson and Hallas all agree that making a personal connection between students and mentors is the largest hurdle for such a program to overcome.
For students like Parreno, that connection could make all of the difference.
“I spent too much time looking for help and not finding what I needed,” Parreno said. “They really, really need to make sure students can get help, and a big part of that is just knowing who to talk to.”