Are colleges adapting to increasingly diverse students?


I note that the media has recently been discussing the increasing numbers of children being diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum.

I was pleasantly surprised to hear and read the recognition that this does not mean there are necessarily ‘more’ autistic children – rather, that the medical community is becoming better educated about recognizing autism in it’s many different presentations – which can vary significantly from one person to the next.

I wonder though, about the way education is going to need to continue to change as socially we recognize the degree of difference that is present among a classroom full of children. I would suggest that with so many children experiencing autism, AD/HD, learning disabilities, dyslexia, affective disorders, etc. that the education system is past the point of being able to expect the ‘majority’ of children to have significantly similar learning styles, considering that even when they do not have any form of disability, people often have different ways of best learning new things.



My own work and research echos what John Dewey observed at the turn of the last century; if there is one way of best teaching, it is to provide mentored opportunities for a person to learn, hands on, by doing. What it means to ‘do’ will vary – writing requires opportunities to write, discuss, revise (and read others’ writing); science requires experiments; social studies means experiencing other cultures, traditions, and ways of thinking about things…some of this does happen currently yet, hands-on practices still do not make-up the majority of learning opportunities in the education system.

Think particularly of higher education; how often do we still expect people to learn by sitting in a lecture hall and listening? This is particularly true for first year classes – a student’s crucial first year often requires trying to learn in a style that fewer and fewer students are well suited to. If a student survives the entry level classes, there will be increasing opportunity for the student to gain hands-on opportunities with field work, seminars, or work shops. These opportunities are seldom available to freshmen.


It seems impossible to avoid the conclusion that as learners continue to change, the institutions responsible for educating them will also be required to adapt. Many of the students who previously were not diagnosed as autistic, were not diagnosed in part because they functioned well enough to still participate in social functions like seeking an education. As the medical community becomes more adept at recognizing that these high functioning people also live with a disability, more people who attend college will arrive with documentation that they live with a disability. Students who in the past would have had to struggle through on their own, will increasingly have documentation that they live with a disability – and will be at last eligible for the accommodations they require. Those who teach or administer in the higher education realm would be well served to be increasingly prepared as these students arrive on campus.


Housing, classroom expectations, peer social interactions/support, needs for counseling – these are all areas where planning should be taking place now to facilitate the increasingly diverse student population. Meanwhile, families should be practicing routines with children which will also support their college success: taking medication, following basic social protocols when meeting new people, learning study techniques even if the student is intelligent enough to not need to study for class – these are all skills the child needs to practice at home, to support their eventual college success.


Preparation is needed on both the home front and in the institutions that educate, if we are going to assist the increasingly diverse student population in becoming educated social citizens. Failure to rise to the challenging but necessary work of adapting to the changing needs of students will have a negative impact on society. Too many bright young people are in danger of being pushed out of the current education system – it is time to reconsider business as usual. Focusing on one ‘fix-all’ answer (like technology) is also not appropriate, as there is too great a range of learning styles to assume that any one answer will be suited to all student needs.Diversity of students requires diversity of methods in teaching.





College doesn’t have to be for everyone; education does.


There seems to be an ever increasing amount of talk in media sources that the future of the work force and the future of the economy lies in technology. As someone who is employed at a university which specializes in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), I certainly can attest that the students graduating with degrees in these fields are very employable. What that truth overlooks though are several other truths: not everyone excels in these fields; one does not need to excel in these fields to be employable. In fact, not everyone has a learning style or capacity that is well suited to four/five year university degrees. There is more than one way for a person to become educated to do work and not all that education needs to take place in a university.


Skilled tradespeople, technical degrees that take months or several years vs. four+ years, and manufacturing jobs all continue to provide employment opportunities for people. Not everyone is interested in, or may not be well suited to longer study periods of the four to six years necessary to obtain a degree in the STEM fields and these people should be encouraged to look into other opportunities that do still exist for employment.

Ro Khanna’s, “Five Myths about Manufacturing Jobs” which appeared in the Washington Post on 2-15-13 points out that despite the talk about China being the new source of all things manufactured, the U.S. continues to produce 1/5 of the world’s manufactured goods – the same amount as China. Khanna argues that manufacturing and service jobs continue to be large employers in the U.S. and that the service sector will see the largest growth in the near future.


There have also been concerns being [under]reported since at least 2007 (Virginia Manufacturers Association; Manpower, Talent Shortage 2011 Survey Results) that a short fall of people in the skilled trades – such as welding, tool setting and operating, machine maintenance specialists – is slowing down economic growth as demand for these skilled tradespeople outstrips supply. The Virginia Manufacturers report for example, states that the statewide need was being met by “only 44 percent.”  A 66% shortfall of needed workers, trained in skilled trades.

Everyone with the capacity to learn should have the opportunity to become educated to work. The best education for working though has to be dependent on an individual’s learning interests and capacities. Those who have an aptitude for a STEM education ought to have that option; we should as a society though, continue to value and provide opportunities for people to become skilled in trades that support the manufacturing we continue to do and recognize that the service sector continues to be vital to the way our society functions. [There is a separate argument/concern that service sector jobs may not pay well enough to support a family – as a society dependent on service sector jobs to support lifestyles we enjoy, this certainly seems to be another issue we ought to be addressing.]


Improving a grade in a problematic class.




Students moving from high school to college sometimes believe that because professors appear to pay less attention to who is in class – they may not take attendance, they may not learn names, they may even say, “I don’t care if you come to class” – that going to class is not necessary, or that it is a waste of their time. “The professor just lectures from the book” or “I don’t learn anything in class” are two reasons I’ve heard students say they do not go to class. What students often do not realize is that going to class can still make a difference in what they learn.

Very few people are able to remember everything they hear during a lecture or discussion. We all tend to pick up some words, ideas, or points though. If a student does the assigned reading for a day, goes to class and even half-listens to what is said, they are likely to pick up a few key terms that are repeated by the professor that were mentioned in the textbook. This is a good indicator of a foundational idea that the student will need to learn in order to be successful in the class – these are also clues to the concepts the teacher will use when writing test questions.


If a student is having trouble grasping the key concepts, then being present in class can provide opportunities to ask the professor questions. If the professor doesn’t have time to answer the questions during class, then a student who has a face the professor recognizes from class will find they have a warmer welcome going to the professor’s office and asking their question(s).

If a student needs more support than asking the professor questions, or if the professor provides answers which don’t clarify enough for the student, then a tutor or learning center appointment(s) are a useful strategy to make use of. Many learning centers allow students to sign up for reoccurring appointments or offer study sessions so that a student can have support while working on homework.


If a student isn’t sure what to try next, then it is time to make an appointment with their academic adviser, or disability support person. The longer a student struggles in a class without support, the less likely the student is to be able to catch up on the foundational ideas they need to pass the class. There are few things more frustrating than working hard on a class only to fail it or achieve a low grade because the information was not adequately understood. Schools are attempting to provide academic support for students – students have to be willing to make use of that academic support when they are struggling in a class. Do not suffer in silence, seek out the support that is available.