I waited anxiously as the professor returned our retake exams. Flipping through mine, I remembered how much I had desperately wanted more time to finish it. As I expected, her red marks filled the blank spaces that the exam clock had not allowed me to fill.
I had nearly failed my exam, again.
After scoring low on the original test, I had become determined to improve my performance. I took quality notes in class, worked tirelessly on problem sets and sought extra help from my professor and tutors. When the time had come to take the test again, I understood the material. I just needed more time.
Extra time, however, is not easily granted. My college, like many others, requires medical proof of a learning disorder before providing extended time or any other academic accommodations. When I inquired, I was directed to the college’s understaffed counseling center.
After waiting two weeks for a response, I learned that staff were not qualified to conduct neuropsychological testing to evaluate me for possible learning disorders, such as dyslexia or ADHD, that would warrant extra exam time. I also learned that despite my high-financial-need status, I would have to pay for my own evaluation, which averages $3,000 to $3,500 in my state. When I tried to make an appointment with a local specialist, I was told I would be added to a six-month-long waitlist.
I realized the evaluation process would take longer than I thought, and that I had to continue the semester without the help I needed. Soon after, I discovered that mystruggle for more exam time is a single symptom of a larger, systemic issue within higher education: Many postsecondary institutions require that students submit medical documentation about their need in order to access academic accommodations, yet do not help low-income students with disabilities obtain that documentation.
This flaw in higher education is not obscure; it is codified into federal law. Unlike public school districts, universities are not legally required under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to identify students with disabilities or cover evaluation costs. Instead, students are expected to self-disclose their disability status and seek professional evaluations on their own, usually for the first time in their lives.
Students from wealthier backgrounds are often well-equipped with the resources necessary to arrange accommodations as soon as they matriculate. However, for students transitioning from under-resourced high schools, and without self-advocacy skills, legal knowledge or access to medical resources and insurance, pursuing accommodations in college can be daunting, prolonged and expensive.
I embarked on a mentally exhausting pursuit for academic accommodations that made me doubt my belonging and ability to succeed at my school.
Even if all students with disabilities attended public schools with in-house advisers knowledgeable about college accessibility services, they would still face the challenge of trying to demystify the accommodations policies that differ across institutions. Currently, there are no standardized regulations guiding how schools should determine student eligibility, decide on appropriate accommodations or report accessibility policies.
For example, at some colleges and universities, students will find that their history of accommodations in high school is not a sufficient criterion to access support. In 2010, 43 percent of all colleges only considered medical evaluations that had occurred within the last three years, while others used the ambiguous term “recent” to describe valid recommendations. Little has changed since.
This lack of standardization is reflected on the secondary level too, as only some public schools reevaluate students prior to graduation. Because high schools are not legally required to pay for exit evaluations, students with disabilities attending understaffed schools often graduate without the proper documentation they need to access accommodations in college.
These barriers may explain why, in 2016, only a third of students reported their disability status to their institutions, and only 85 percent of students who disclosed disability status received accommodations. The percentage receiving services was significantly lower (just 57 percent) at two-year institutions, where many low-income, minority and first-generation students choose to enroll.
As colleges and universities admit more students with disabilities and make an effort to create a path to education for low-income and first-generation students, it is their responsibility to provide those students with adequate resources to succeed academically. To do this, institutional accessibility policies should be standardized, synchronized with K-12 state policies and made transparent and understandable to students.
Postsecondary institutions that require new medical documentation before granting accommodations should have in-house professionals available to evaluate students and subsidize any associated costs. Finally, colleges and universities should conduct outreach to combat stigma around learning disabilities, and proactively inform students about the free support services available on campus.
A year ago, I embarked on a mentally exhausting pursuit for academic accommodations that made me doubt my belonging and ability to succeed at my school. Now that I have been diagnosed with ADHD, I know that my poor exam performances do not accurately reflect my academic capabilities. When federal law and institutional policies reflect the new and fair standards described above, students like me will be able to pursue their degrees with confidence and reach their full academic potential.
Jalen Woodard is a senior at Amherst College and a LEDA Scholars Policy Corps member.
This story about academic accommodations was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.