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Colleges Bend the Rules for More Students, Give Them Extra Help

Colleges Bend the Rules for More Students, Give Them Extra Help

With an influx of students classified as disabled, schools move to accommodate their needs


Douglas Belkin

Wall Street Journal, May 24, 2018

As many as one in four students at some elite U.S. colleges are now classified as disabled, largely because of mental-health issues such as depression or anxiety, entitling them to a widening array of special accommodations like longer time to take exams.

Under federal law, students can be considered disabled if they have a note from a doctor. That label requires schools to offer accommodations depending on the student's needs. A blind student, for example, would have access to specialized software or a reader for an exam.

The rise in disability notes for mental-health issues has led to a surge in the number of students who take their exams in low-distraction testing centers, are allowed to get up and walk around during class or bring a comfort animal to school, among other measures.

"At Pomona, we have extremely talented bright students with very high expectations who are coming in with a good level of anxiety and are highly stressed," says Jan Collins-Eaglin, the Claremont, Calif., college's associate dean of students for personal success and wellness. "Our job here is to help them really thrive."

At Pomona, 22% of students were considered disabled this year, up from 5% in 2014. Other elite schools have also seen a startling jump in disabilities, according to data from the federal government and from the schools. At Hampshire, Amherst and Smith colleges in Massachusetts and Yeshiva University in New York, one in five students are classified as disabled. At Oberlin College in Ohio, it is one in four. At Marlboro College in Vermont, it is one in three.

Small, private schools have the greatest concentration of students with disabilities. Among the 100 four-year, not-for-profit colleges with the highest percentage of disabled students, 93 are private, according to a WSJ analysis of federal data.

Public schools have also seen a significant uptick in test accommodations. From 2011 to 2016, the number of students with special accommodations increased by an average of 71% among 22 flagship state schools, according to data obtained by The Wall Street Journal.

The most common accommodations come during testing. Students who receive extended time may get twice as long as their classmates to take an exam.

Some professors question how this affects the fairness of exams.

"If you grade on a curve, does it disadvantage the rest of the class?" asks Ari Trachtenberg, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Boston University who is critical of the rise in accommodations. "There's no calibration between how much extra time they want me to give and any sense how that would actually affect the exam."

Lila Manstein double-majored in chemistry and math at Amherst and will graduate this year with a B+ average.

She was given 50% more time than her classmates on exams because she was diagnosed with reading-comprehension difficulties and Attention Deficit Disorder.

A classmate once told her she would have had a 4.0 GPA if she, too, had extended time. "I told her it wasn't the sort of thing I would have if I didn't really need it," Ms. Manstein says. "That shut her up."

Psychologists have many theories to explain the rise in mental-health diagnoses among college-age students, from social-media habits to less stigma around mental illness.

At the University of Minnesota, a test center for students entitled to low-distraction environments or extended time on exams administered 9,681 tests last year, nearly double the number in 2013. The growth has forced staff to give up their offices during finals to make room for students. This past year, the school rented out an additional 10,000 square feet of space in a nearby hotel.

At the University of Kentucky, a dozen students at time took finals inside cubicles in a room in the testing facility with carpeted floors and dim lights. Blue painter's tape covered door latches so they open and close silently. Students being tested on computers each sat in a private room so the clickety-clack of the keyboards wouldn't disturb classmates. The facility administered 7,827 tests in 2016-17, up from 853 in 2007-08.

"We're seeing a lot more requests for private rooms," said David Beach, director of the school's disability resource center.

More than a decade ago, the College Board, which administers the SAT and PSAT among other tests, stopped alerting colleges when students received extra time, and the numbers who requested it began to increase. From 2010-11 to last year, the number of accommodations requests jumped 171%, while the number of people taking the exams increased 22%. Last year, 94% of those requests were approved.

The extra time allows students to use various strategies to reduce stress levels so they can overcome their disabilities, administrators say. Without them, many wouldn't graduate, says Monique Burgdorf, the assistant dean of students and interim director of disability resources at Oberlin.

"If I have anxiety and get panic attacks during exams, extended time will give me a chance to check in with myself and calm myself down," Ms. Burgdorf says.

Miriam Kurtzig Freedman, an attorney who has represented public schools in special-education and disability law and has written several books about accommodations, said that giving some test takers extended time on the SAT is "like lowering the basket from 10 feet to eight feet; you're changing the game."

"The reason we pay all this money for the test is so that we can compare someone from South Dakota to someone from California," she says. "If the test is no longer standardized, then what are we paying for?"

The ACT, which has seen a similar uptick in requests for extra time, said this past week it would limit the additional time students can take on each section. The company said it made the change "to improve fairness for all examinees."

Wealthier students are more likely to receive accommodations than poor students, Ms. Freedman said.

Other expensive liberal arts colleges with high percentages of disabled students include Pitzer in California (18%), Vassar in New York, Reed in Oregon and Mount Holyoke in Massachusetts (all three at 16%) and Haverford in Pennsylvania (15%).

Among the nation's most elite institutions, those with the highest percentage of disabled students were Stanford (14%), Brown (12%), Yale (11%) and Columbia University (8%).

Public flagships with the highest percentages include the University of Vermont (16%), University of Massachusetts, Amherst (10%) and University of Arkansas (10%).

The rise hasn't impacted the academic rigor of the school, says Jodi Foley, Amherst director of accessibility services. "The academic profile of Amherst's student population continues to increase as it continues to diversify."

Write to Douglas Belkin at doug.belkin@wsj.com

Corrections & Amplifications 
Students may report more than one type of disability. A previous version of this article included a chart that didn't account for students reporting multiple disabilities. (May 24, 2018)