By Joan M. Azarva, Ms.ED
With the average annual cost of private and public colleges nearing $41,000 and $18,500 respectively, community college, witha price tag of around $10,500 per year, is an alluring bargain. For parents of teens with LD, the ability to provide continued supervision and emotional support as their teens adjust to a more challenging environment adds to the appeal. For those parents community college seems to be a “low-cost”and “low-risk option,” which helps explain why 71% of all public school students with LD attend two-year colleges. In theory, community college appears to be an ideal choice. But looks are deceiving.
As both the parent of a son with LD and ADHD and a professional who worked at a community college, I say with conviction that parents who enroll their teens with learning disabilities in community college do so with a false sense of security.
Beneath the Surface
Yes, community colleges have a disability services office. Yes, they provide accommodations to students who present documentation. Yes, they have a tutoring center for college students-at-large. Yet, with all these seeming “safety nets”how does one explain why my community college—a state-of-the-art facility with cutting-edge technology and a claim to be “dedicated to fostering the growth of all we serve”—has a graduation rate of “14% in 150% of normal time?” Why does the average 3-year graduation rate for community colleges hover in the low 20% range, with many far below that?
It is true that many apathetic students, jobless and with poor high-school records, enroll in community college as a holding tank, simply biding their time until they figure out what they want to do. Their aimlessness contributes to the high failure rate. However, among the vast number of students with LD who are otherwise capable and choose to be in college, community college fails them. Let me provide some anecdotal evidence.
When I was first hired in 1993 as the part-time sole Learning Specialist at the local community college, fewer students with disabilities were choosing to disclose. As a result, I was able to see self-selected freshmen three times per week for individual hourly appointments. They came of their own volition because they were determined. I kept a file on each student, enabling us to pick up where we left off and track progress. Back then, I was able to get students through their developmental and introductory courses.
For years, I witnessed tentative students, with weak skills upon entering, gradually morph into confident, independent learners. Just as important, they learned how to navigate the college system successfully. I had a sense of accomplishment when I saw my students attain associate degrees, and I attended graduations with pride. Moreover, most of these graduates transferred to 4-year colleges, some with partial scholarships! Students who succeed in community college are proven entities and considered good financial risks by transfer institutions, and the sky is the limit in terms of transfer possibilities and dollars offered.
What transpired during these student appointments? Depending upon their needs, I taught students how to use a monthly/weekly academic planner to manage time for homework, tests, long-term assignments, and personal responsibilities; how to read and interpret a college textbook; active study techniques that thwart boredom and promote long-term memory; note-taking and test-taking strategies; self-advocacy skills, etc.
My opinions regarding my students’ needs were influenced by the support my son was receiving simultaneously as a student enrolled in Northeastern University’s special program for students with learning disabilities. I saw how the services he received lead to his metamorphosis, and it became very clear what I wanted for my students.
An additional element I saw as critical to my students’ success was personalized academic advising. Since I was the one most familiar with their strengths, weaknesses, and learning styles, I felt strongly about advising them myself. Although each student, upon admission, received an academic advisor in the ironically-named Student Success Center, my students had particular needs about which these advisors knew nothing. I requested they see me instead.
I hand-picked classes based on each student’s learning style, the professor’s teaching style and reputation for dealing with students who learned differently, as well as the time of day that was optimal for the student.
Just as Northeastern did for my son, I made sure my students’ credit loads weren’t overwhelming, allowing them to experience success, gain confidence, and be enthusiastic about continuing. I balanced schedules with both challenging and less-challenging classes, always trying to insert a “hook”(a course of high interest) that would make them want to return.
I taught students the principle of taking easier classes on Tuesday/Thursday (90-minute classes) versus more difficult ones on Monday/Wednesday/Friday (60 minutes in length). Educational theory says that short, frequent exposures are more effective for learning difficult material.
I emphasized the importance of students knowing their academic status in all classes at any particular time in the semester by asking their professors. I wanted no surprises. I advised them when withdrawing from a class was a wise option, and I discouraged them from taking difficult classes during the short 5-week summer sessions. I helped match their interests and strengths to potential careers, so they could visualize the possibilities.
Finally, but not of least importance, I was their personal cheerleader. Whenever they hit that inevitable bump in the road common to all students, I lifted their spirits by reminding them of their strengths and how far they had come. I said if they did not leave my office feeling better than when they walked in, I had not done my job well enough.
Creeping Culture of Failure
By the year 2000, I saw the start of significant change. The number of students presenting documentation to our office was increasing rapidly, as was the demand for my services. I could no longer see students three times per week and worried that I would no longer establish that personal connection.
By 2006, I could see students just once in three weeks, yet the college continued to keep me as a part-time employee. Accordingly, I began to see a pattern of increased failure which I reported to the higher-ups. I told them my students were falling through the cracks for lack of support. I offered to look for a grant to provide our office with personnel trained to supplement my services. For whatever reason, my boss prohibited me from exploring that option—exasperating, in light of the fact that the college seemed to have programs in place for other “at risk”populations. Was not the mission of a community college to serve all learners?
The college took tuition from these students yet refused to provide support services to help them succeed. Not only did parents lose their money, students lost their self-esteem. Sadly, both arrived at the erroneous conclusion that “college was not a possibility.” In many cases, parents and students were left with loan debt and nothing to show for their investment—in effect leaving them worse off than had they never even tried.
As for my frustration, I gave it one more shot by appealing to the most important concern of many colleges—their bottom line. My arguments suggesting that greater support would result in retaining more full-time students, and even attract others from nearby counties fell on deaf ears.
I was mystified, and that is when I resigned. This was do-able, yet the college expressed no interest. Through the administrative grapevine, I learned that the community college preferred to be seen as “elite”rather than a college catering to the needs of students with LD. I was replaced by a full-time person—not a Learning Specialist—who was responsible for devoting half of his hours to helping with administrative duties, effectively reducing the help for our students.
I imagine misconceptions still exist, even among educated community college administrators, regarding students with learning differences—that they simply are not capable, so why throw money at them. On the surface, it seems incongruous that the University of Pennsylvania, an Ivy League institution that attracts the world’s best and brightest, has eight people on staff to serve students with LD, while our community college, teeming with students with disabilities, has but two.
Until community colleges become similarly enlightened, they will remain a waste of taxpayer dollars and a major pitfall that many unsuspecting LD students and their parents would be well advised to avoid.
Joan M. Azarva runs Conquer College with LD, a website for parents of college-bound students with learning differences. She also has a private practice in the Philadelphia suburbs that focuses on helping students make the successful transition from high school to college.
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