UC Santa Cruz looks to strengthen academic accommodations provided on campus

March 04, 2020

By Matthew Alvarez 




From 2012¹ to 2016², the United States has seen a 75% increase in undergraduate students reporting disabilities. According to the 2018 University of California Undergraduate Experiences Survey³, over the last decade, the number of UC students who are requesting accommodations has more than doubled. 

test-stats-500x320-jpgUC Santa Cruz now has the largest percentage of students with reported disability/accommodation needs. The rise is due in part to changes in national policy as to what constitutes an accommodation, but also in a reduction in stigma.

Academic accommodations are defined by the Disability Resource Center as a “reasonable accommodation, modification or adjustment that enables a student with a disability to have an equal opportunity to enjoy the benefits, opportunities, and privileges that are available to all students with or without disabilities.” 

In an effort to meet this growing need, an academic accommodations working group was charged by Jaye Padgett, Vice Provost for Student Success. The group, which has been meeting since fall, is looking to surface systemic issues, then problem-solve them, and advise the campus leadership on how best to adjust current practices. The working group includes 21 members from across the campus, including staff, faculty, and students. With this broad collection of perspectives, members are seeking to recommend improvements to a very complex, decentralized process.

girl_in_window.320x500jpg“For us, this is really more about learning how UC Santa Cruz is prepared to effectively support students with disabilities,” says Pablo Reguerin, associate vice chancellor for Student Achievement and Equity Innovation in the Division of Student Success, and the convener of the working group.

Tracy Larrabee, associate dean for Undergraduate Affairs in the Baskin School of Engineering and a member of the working group notes, “We want to be fair and inclusive to students, but it's not just students. We also need to be fair and inclusive to the instructors and fair and inclusive to the staff that will implement all this.”

So what has the working group accomplished so far? The first goal of the group was to map out the university's current academic accommodation practices across divisions and departments. The mapping phase allowed the working group to see what is currently being done to meet the growing need for accommodations in the classroom, what is effective and working well, and what is actually not working well at all. 

“We've spent a lot of time exploring how things are provided, because that wasn't something that was immediately clear,” says student representative and Disability Student Union Representative David Miller Shevelev. Although there have been reports among individual departments, there has never been an overarching study of the different systems in place for providing academic accommodations, nor an analysis of the experience that students have as they navigate the systems already in place.

Following this broad understanding of the student experience with accommodations, the working group then engaged other, comparable UC campuses. Interviews with Disability Resource Center directors at UC Santa Barbara, UC Davis, and UC Riverside took place in the fall and a summary report of findings was written. The review of other campus practices allowed the working group to better understand university accommodation processes and best-practices. It also made clear that UC Santa Cruz isn’t the only campus struggling to meet the academic accommodation needs of their students. 

“Our interviews found that we are not alone,” notes Gwynn Benner, assistant vice provost for the Division of Student Success, who conducted the study with Rick Gubash, director for the Disability Resource Center. “There are so many factors at play meeting the specific needs of students while also ensuring curricular requirements are met. It’s a fluid process that needs to be highly tailored while accommodating the needs of, potentially, large groups of students, for example, in a large lecture setting.” 

By understanding the systems in place across multiple campuses along with the issues and complexities UC Santa Cruz faces, the working group has been able to move to a third and final phase: developing and recommending a way for UC Santa Cruz to best locally address the existing, growing testing accommodation needs of students with disabilities.

 “There's no [easy] answer. But we are talking about possibilities,” says Tracy Larrabee. Regardless of the complexities, the group members have all invested time to ensure the university moves forward in the best possible direction. Their findings will be compiled in a final report in the coming months.

¹ Serena E. Hinz, Caren A. Arbeit, and Alexander Bentz, “Characteristics and Outcomes of Undergraduates With Disabilities,” National Center for Education Statistics, December 20, 2017, https://nces.ed.gov/pubs2018/2018432.pdf

² National Center for Education Statistics, “Students with disabilities,” https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=60

³ Institutional Research and Academic Planning, University of California Undergraduate Experience Survey.  https://www.universityofcalifornia.edu/infocenter/ucues-data-tables-2018


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