In 1999, the U.S. Department of Education reported that six percent of all postsecondary students had a disability. Of that, approximately 16 percent reported having a visual impairment (U.S. Department of Education, 1999). According to the U.S. Department of Education (1999), visually impaired high school graduates (48%) attended four year universities at lower rates when compared to their nondisabled peers (62%). Further, 72% of nondisabled peers aspire to obtain an undergraduate degree, while only 57% of visually impaired students aspire to do the same. However, about 34% of visually impaired students and 36% of nondisabled peers will leave higher education without a degree. More specifically, only 16 percent of visually impaired students will graduate in four years as opposed to 40 percent of their nondisabled peers (Astin, Tsui, & Avalos, 1996). In addition, studies by Monahan, Giddan, and Emener (1978) and McBroom (1007) found that 32 percent of visually impaired students dropped out of college after their freshman year. Over ten years later, Brown (1990) noted again that the dropout rate of college students with visual impairments was more than 30 percent after the first year. Finally, according to recent data from the U.S. Department of Education (2011a) only about 43% of students with visual impairments are attending four year universities and the completion rate remains near 50%. This seems to suggest a static pattern and plateau in which students with visual impairments are now attending four year universities at a slightly lower rate than twenty years ago and fewer are completing their coursework.
A review of research and literature related to college transition for students with visual impairments was difficult. Searches of popular databases yielded primarily results for students with disabilities, rather than students with visual impairments. McBroom (1997) noted in his article that research on transition for students with visual impairments was lacking. Nonetheless, articles related to transition and higher education retention were located. The articles can be classified into two distinct categories. First, some articles address the reasons for which students with visual impairments have difficulty accessing higher education and propose strategies for best practices. Second, other articles discuss transition programming from high school to freshmen year of college and their effects on student success. Raines (2012) noted that programs with larger student enrollments and longer durations tend to result is less impact on student success.
McCurrie (2009) noted that college students today have their own perspective on what college success and learning means and often these two are distinctly different. Many college freshmen feel silenced in high school and as such they define success in college as the ability to make choices about the texts they read, the topics they study, and using their own language. In general, McCurrie (2009) found that success in college meant higher grades, whereas success in learning centered on taking ownership of learning opportunities. Therefore, McCurrie (2009) suggests that students are more concerned with fulfilling their own goals, rather than conforming to the expectations of higher education.
The research on transition programs for minority students is inconsistent, but the goal of helping students learn skills to be successful their freshmen year is consistent throughout (Raines, 2012). Summer bridge programs that aim to help recruit, retain, and graduate at-risk youth are becoming increasingly popular (Raines, 2012). Some summer bridge programs focus on specific subgroups, while others focus on particular academic areas (Raines, 2012). Additionally, these programs vary in length and whether residential components are included. At King’s College in Pennsylvania, a group of 89 students participated in a summer transition program and the results of that experience indicated a higher retention rate among those students as opposed to the average retention rate for the college (Stewart, 2006). However, the grade point averages for the 89 students were actually lower than a control group of 89 similar students. On the other hand, a similar program at Georgia Tech resulted in no significant difference in the retention rate for students who participated in the program as opposed to the general student body (York & Tross, 1994).
Raines (2012) studied a ten day summer program at a Tennessee university. The 35 students came from all over the state and had indicated interest in a science, technology, engineering, or mathematics major. The students were given a pre-test and then provided intensive instruction in mathematics similar to what would have been provided in high school. A posttest indicated improvements in all areas for all students. During their freshmen year, twenty one of the students successfully completed a precalculus course. Overall, 88 percent of the students reported that the summer program better prepared them for their mathematics class freshmen year and the retention rate of the thirty five students was 77%, which was higher than the university average.
In 1978, another program at a California university was created that aimed to prepare students for the academic and social demands of college life. Unlike the Tennessee program, this program is not remedial in nature (Buck, 1985). This summer program is four weeks in duration and offers course credit for completion (Buck, 1985). Throughout the program, students meet in small groups of two to five to discuss the rigor and demands of college life, including communication, assertiveness, making friends, and taking responsibility. Peer support is offered throughout the first year through academic tutoring and counseling by previous summer program participants. Overall, the retention rates of students who attended the program exceeded that of comparison groups from 1978 to 1982.
Belch (2004) examined two college transition programs to identify what role those programs play in graduation rates for students with disabilities. He reports that, in 1994, 16 percent of students with disabilities graduated with an undergraduate degree, but that percentage later decreased to 12 percent in the year 2000. His examination revealed that self-advocacy training, campus involvement, mentoring, and practical application of skills best increased the chances for a successful college experience for students with disabilities. At the University of Washington, high school students attend a summer long program in which peers serve as mentors and all students attend classes on self-advocacy and independent science exploration. About 80 percent of the students who attend this program go on to graduate from college. At the University of Georgia, an annual orientation for freshmen with disabilities focuses on study skills, assistive technology, career planning, and leadership development. 46 percent of the freshmen who attend this specialized orientation graduate from the University of Georgia within four years, whereas about 51 percent of students with disabilities nationally typically graduate within six years.
An article by Curtis and Reed (2011) examined the perceived barriers to higher education by focusing on the student perspective. The study was conducted in Canada and included special education and regular education teachers as well as students with visual impairments in both high school and college settings. They noted that many universities lack transition programs specifically designed for the visually impaired. Of the respondents, only about 28 percent believed that universities did a sufficient job of communicating to high school teachers and students about available disability services (Curtis & Reed, 2011). Additionally, only about 18 percent of high school teachers were aware of the accommodations, technology, and services available (Curtis & Reed, 2011). Interestingly, 24 percent of teachers reported that students with visual impairments oftentimes refused accommodations so they would not appear different than their peers (Curtis & Reed, 2011). Furthermore, 72 percent of the respondents indicated that trips to university campuses and peer mentoring support were needed prior to high school graduation (Curtis & Reed, 2011). Overall, the respondents indicated that assistive technology and accommodations expectations differed so much between high school and college that students with visual impairments are not prepared for the shift (Curtis & Reed, 2011).
Another important perspective is how students with visual impairments feel they perform in the higher education environment. 40 percent of students with visual impairments noted that they struggle academically because most material is presented visually (Curtis & Reed, 2012). Further, about 16 percent had difficulty accessing assistive technology on campus because it was limited to specific locations. Additionally, about 30 percent of students responded that they felt they could not participate in campus activities (Curtis & Reed, 2012).
Additionally, a study of students with visual impairments at institutions of higher learning in the United Kingdom indicated a split between student identities (Bishop & Rhind, 2011). Some students felt the need to not register with disability services for fear of any stigmas associated with it. However, others felt that registering for services helped them to avoid having to explain their disabilities to others on campus (Bishop & Rhind, 2011). Students did not report any significant negative impacts related to campus navigation (Bishop & Rhind, 2011). Further, the campus environment, including accessible signage, various forms of lighting, and transportation were notable difficulties. In particular, lighting and identifying the correct bus to board were inconsistent throughout the campuses (Bishop & Rhind, 2011).
Finally, McBroom (1997) noted in his study of 102 college students with visual impairments that about 32 percent of students with visual impairments dropout of college. This typically occurs during the freshmen and sophomore years. McBroom (1997) sought to identify what resources current students with visual impairments utilize to be most successful in college. He began by mailing letters to disability services offices at sixty six colleges and universities around the country seeking participants for telephone interviews. These offices made the letters available to their students. A total of 102 students from all geographic regions of the United States responded and are represented in the sample. All of the respondents held junior or senior classifications. The sample included an almost equal number of males and females. A majority of the respondents had been born with their visual impairment, while about a quarter developed their visual impairment during high school. 42 percent of the respondents felt it was important to participate in a college preparatory program and 76 percent stated visiting prospective campuses was important. 75 percent stressed the importance of working with both disability services and vocational rehabilitation agencies. 77 percent of the respondents indicated that ordering books early was important and 93 percent emphasized communicating with professors. 82 percent thought identifying transportation options was important too.
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