How to Support 2e College Students
Many students with learning disabilities never graduate college, but what about twice-exceptional (2e) students who have a learning disability and are also gifted? Are these students also at risk of drop-out? Can they excel in college with the right supports? If so, what supports would be most helpful?
There isn’t much research about 2e college students - not yet. But there is a small group of researchers from the University of Tennessee, and their colleagues, who are studying 2e college students in a creative way. I recently summarized four of their studies of 2e college students for an article on 2eNews.com. Based on the results of their studies, the researchers encouraged colleges to adjust their entrance criteria, screen students for 2e status, provide extra support to 2e college students, and nurture 2e students’ talents.
What can parents and 2e college students themselves do to support a positive college experience? Here are a few suggestions inspired by the research. Unfortunately, no studies have examined which interventions actually help 2e college students, but these ideas offer some places to start:
Don’t over-focus on scores. Standardized test scores and high school GPA don’t predict which 2e students will be successful in college even though these metrics predict college success well for other students. Some 2e students may choose to apply to colleges that eschew test scores or use holistic assessment procedures for admissions. 2e students with a single strong ACT or SAT subtest score should be encouraged to promote that strength instead of worrying that their scores in their disability area are not as high.
Nurture talents. The students screened as twice-exceptional in these studies excelled in at least one academic area. Such students would likely benefit from services traditionally aimed at high-ability students, such as honors coursework in talent areas, mentor relationships, and undergraduate research opportunities. In other words, focus on a student’s strengths - college affords excellent opportunities to explore strengths and passions in courses and extracurricular activities.
Seek extra support. In two studies, 2e college students who excelled in reading with a lower score in math earned lower college GPAs and were more likely to drop out their first year. The researchers emphasized that the first year of college is “particularly critical” to support 2e students who may otherwise leave college early. They speculated that 2e students may benefit from accommodations, support with organization, supplemental academic advising, first-year seminar courses, or career counseling. As I mentioned above, no research has examined which interventions would be most helpful for 2e college students, but many of these interventions have been researched with other college students, and it seems wise for 2e college students to seek support. The disability services office or disability resource center can be a great resource for students with identified learning disabilities. Students are also encouraged to form a relationship with their advisor so they can access support as needed and get help selecting coursework that is a good fit with their strengths.
Overall, 2e college students need more attention than they currently receive — from college admissions officers, academic advisors, disability services offices, and from giftedness researchers themselves. Parents and advisors can likely help 2e students by normalizing the use of college support services, researching available options, and supporting students’ strengths.
If you’d like to read the whole article summarizing these studies, you can read it below or on 2eNews.com. Links to the studies themselves are at the bottom of this page.
Does your gifted high school student have a learning disability or a big gap between their reading and math scores? I hope some of these ideas are helpful. If you’d like professional help making a plan for college, or if you're looking for more resources and strategies designed with gifted and 2e kids and teens in mind, my parent consultation services may be a good fit. The first step is to schedule a free 20-minute call with me to discuss your situation.
Research: How to Support 2e College Students, originally published on 2eNews.com
Many students with learning disabilities never graduate college, but little research has examined whether gifted students with learning disabilities show similar struggles. Are twice-exceptional (2e) students likely to excel in college like their gifted peers? Or are they at risk of academic failure and dropout, given the organizational and academic demands of higher education?
Most research on gifted college students has not considered twice-exceptionality, but over the last four years, researchers from the University of Tennessee and their colleagues have used a unique research method to learn about college students who may be 2e. Using official college records, these researchers identified students who performed very highly on one section of a college entrance exam and scored significantly lower on another section, which suggests they may have a learning disability in the area with the lower score.
For a study published earlier this year in Innovative Higher Education, for example, Virginia McClurg and colleagues selected students who earned an ACT or SAT math or reading score in the top 6% and who had an unusually large discrepancy between their math and reading scores. These criteria identified 6% of 32,000 students in the sample as potentially 2e. In a 2017 study published in The School Psychologist, Dr. Elizabeth Hays and colleagues used a similar method and found that potentially 2e students had a difference of 12 or more points between their ACT math and reading scores even though the average difference was only 4 points. Clearly, these potentially 2e students entered college with both a clear talent and a notable weakness.
How does this large discrepancy between math and reading ability affect 2e students’ college readiness and college performance? Researchers using this method have found that:
2e students may have more trouble choosing a major than their gifted peers. Dr. Hays and colleagues found that 76% of college students screened as 2e were undecided about their major when they enrolled compared to 65% of students screened as gifted. The 2e students were similar to the general population though; 73% of students in the general population were undecided when they enrolled.
College students screened as 2e were less likely than gifted students to return to college after the first year, but their retention rate was similar to that of students in the general population.
Despite having a lower first-year retention rate, students screened as 2e were just as likely as students screened as gifted to complete college within six years. As the researchers wrote, “These findings imply that students screened as 2e may be particularly vulnerable during their first year of college, but that the students who make it to the second year are generally resilient and go on to graduate.”
Academically, college students screened as 2e earned lower college GPAs than peers screened as gifted but performed as well or better than students in the general college population. These results align with previous research that has shown 2e students usually have lower overall achievement than gifted peers but can excel in specific areas.
College students screened as 2e with a talent in reading had more academic difficulties during college than those with a talent in math – they were more likely to drop out of college in one study and earned lower college GPAs in another.
The researchers tried to figure out what contributed to 2e college students’ success or challenges, but they discovered that traditional predictors of success or failure didn’t apply to 2e students:
High school GPA and composite ACT scores usually predict first-year retention rates and college graduation rates for students who are gifted or in the general college population, but high school GPA and composite ACT scores were unrelated to these college outcomes for students screened as 2e.
Common sense and previous research suggest that students should perform better when they choose a major that matches their natural strengths. In a 2020 article in Journal of College Success and Retention: Research, Theory, and Practice, Dr. Kelly Snyder and colleagues looked at whether college students screened as 2e were more successful when they choose a major in line with their academic strength. For students with a strength in reading, majors in the social sciences and humanities such as Communication, Special Education, and English were considered aligned with their strengths whereas majors in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math) such as Architecture, Electrical Engineering, and Nursing were considered aligned with their relative weakness; the reverse was true for students with a strength in math. The researchers found that 2e students earned similar GPAs regardless of whether their major was more aligned with their strength or their relative weakness. Although college students can choose their majors and thereby influence some of their coursework, it seems that having this choice doesn’t necessarily make coursework easier overall for 2e students.
Given 2e students’ potential difficulties and unique dynamics, how can colleges and universities support their 2e students?
Adjust entrance criteria. The researchers suggested that colleges should examine whether traditional selection criteria such as standardized test scores and high school GPA are appropriate and equitable for students with disabilities. Although these metrics predict college success in the general population, they don’t predict which 2e students will be successful in college, and over-reliance on these criteria may depress admission rates for 2e students who could succeed in college. Alternatively, colleges could identify potentially 2e students with talents in specific areas by examining entrance exam subject scores, not just composite scores.
Screen for 2e status. Universities could use a method like that used in these studies to screen for students who may be 2e. Without a screening procedure, students’ gifts might mask their struggles and vice versa, which makes it difficult for advisors and instructors to see that some bright students need additional supports.
Provide extra support. Students screened as potentially 2e could be offered additional academic counseling and support services. Based on the results from these studies, the researchers speculated that 2e students may benefit from services for students with learning disabilities or who are undecided in their major. For example, 2e students could receive accommodations related to their weaknesses and support with organization. Hays and colleagues also wrote that “these students will likely benefit from research-based interventions that are commonly provided to undecided students, including supplemental academic advising, first-year seminar courses, and career counseling.” More research is needed to determine which of these services, if any, improve 2e college students’ achievement and retention.
Emphasize support during the first year. Dr. Hays and colleagues emphasized that “while the first year is widely recognized as being critical to students’ overall success in college, the first year may be particularly critical for students screened as 2e” to support 2e students who may otherwise leave college early.
Nurture talents. 2e students may also benefit from services traditionally aimed at high-ability students, such as honors coursework in talent areas, mentor relationships, and undergraduate research opportunities. As McClurg and colleagues wrote, “Student entrance exam scores are available to advisors and advisors can, in concert with their student advisees, examine possibilities that align with strengths on those measures. It is likely that advisors do this already for many students, but it may be especially critical for those that have 2e characteristics.” Again, more research is needed to know whether talent-focused advising would improve 2e students’ college success.
Develop supports specifically for students with math weaknesses. Because students with a reading talent and math weakness struggled more in college than students with the opposite profile, these students may need targeted support. For example, academic advisors could help these students select coursework that will leverage their verbal strengths and meet general education requirements for math and science courses without feeling overwhelming. Advisors might also encourage these students to identify extracurricular and community-based opportunities to nurture their talents, such as writing for the college paper or working with a literary nonprofit.
Overall, 2e college students need more attention than they currently receive – from college admissions officers, academic advisors, disability services offices, and from giftedness researchers themselves. Many of the suggestions above are based on research with non-2e populations, and research with 2e college students is needed to determine whether these ideas would support 2e college students’ success.
Hopefully 2e students who plan to attend college can also use some of the information from this research to guide their own approach to college. Some 2e students may choose to apply to colleges that eschew test scores or use holistic assessment procedures for admissions. Based on the above research, 2e students are also encouraged to access support when they arrive at college. For example, students may find it helpful to make good use of academic advising, request career counseling as needed, advocate for accommodations, and seek out talent-development opportunities that will help them feel supported, engaged, and successful in college. Likewise, parents and advisors can likely help 2e students by normalizing the use of college support services, researching available options, and supporting students’ strengths.
Academic success of general education college students compared to those screened as twice-exceptional and gifted (2021); McClurg, Wu, & McCallum, Innovative Higher Education
Success of students screened as twice-exceptional as a function of major selection and academic strength (2020); Snyder, McClurg, Wu, & McCallum, Journal of College Success and Retention: Research, Theory, and Practice
Academic outcomes in higher education for students screened as twice-exceptional: Gifted with a learning disability in math or reading (2017); Hays, McCallum, & Bell, The School Psychologist
Academic outcomes in higher education for students screened as twice-exceptional: Gifted with a learning disability in math or reading (2015); Hays, doctoral dissertation
Looking for more resources like this that are relevant for 2e teens and young adults? Want more support parenting your 2e child and preparing them for college and beyond? Schedule a free 20-minute call with me to discuss your situation and whether parent consultation would be a good fit.