Watchdog: Colleges Should Improve Outreach to Students With Disabilities

The report found that many students with disabilities are unaware they must request accommodations.
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Matthew Arrojas is a news reporter at BestColleges covering higher education issues and policy. He previously worked as the hospitality and tourism news reporter at the South Florida Business Journal. He also covered higher education policy issues as...
Published on June 3, 2024
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  • The percentage of college students with disabilities has risen from 11% to 21% in the last dozen years.
  • Many of these students, however, are not getting access to accommodations they are legally entitled to receive.
  • Some students are granted accommodations, but professors and instructors don't abide by them.
  • A watchdog called on the Department of Education to do more to help students with disabilities.

The number of college students who report a disability is growing, and colleges and universities need to do more to accommodate the needs of these students, a government watchdog found.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) surveyed students, faculty, and disability services office (DSO) personnel to identify room for improvement in how institutions work with students with disabilities.

GAO's latest report found two primary areas where the Department of Education (ED) can do more to ensure colleges and universities are adequately helping these students:

  • ED should encourage agencies to inform students about how to obtain accommodations as they transition into college.
  • ED should create a system to alert DSO staff of new guidance and recommendations concerning accommodations for students with disabilities.

These recommendations are becoming increasingly important as the number of students reporting disabilities rises.

As of 2020, approximately 21% of college students report having a disability. That's up from 11% in 2012, according to GAO.

The increase is largely driven by more students reporting mental health conditions or attention-deficit disorder, the report stated.

The total number of students with disabilities increased an estimated 56% from 2.3 million in 2004 to 3.5 million in 2020.

Students Lack Necessary Accommodations

GAO's report found that many of these students are not receiving the accommodations they need and are legally entitled to.

A primary reason for this is that students don't understand they must self-advocate and seek accommodations.

In K-12 schools, students are evaluated automatically and given accommodations. But in college, they must contact DSO staff and provide the required documentation to receive benefits, GAO stated.

Two officials said that a large percentage of their students with disabilities assumed that they would receive the same accommodations in college as the academic supports they had received in high school, the report stated.

[An] official added that a lot of the academic supports their students had received in high school, such as retaking tests to improve their grades, are not considered to be appropriate accommodations at the college level.

GAO noted another issue: Professors don't always enforce accommodations after DSO staff approve them.

Faculty sometimes think that students are trying to cheat or gain an unfair advantage or that the approved accommodation is not legally required, the report stated.

Students are often unsure what to do when a professor doesn't honor their accommodations, so they may drop the class altogether.

Department of Education Needs to Communicate Better

ED offers guidance and recommendations for accommodating students with disabilities, but the department isn't always great at communicating changes. Currently, there is no one-stop shop where DSO officials can see updates and new literature from ED.

This lack of communication can have concrete consequences for students.

GAO found one instance of a school using an outdated flexible attendance policy. Abiding by that policy resulted in some students not receiving approval for appropriate accommodation.

GAO noted that ED is receptive to creating a more straightforward communication network.

Regarding our second recommendation, the report stated, ED concurred and described plans to create an opt-in email distribution list about guidance and other information related to accommodations for students with disabilities in higher education.