Admissions Advice for College-bound Special Needs Students


by Crystal Reed of No Drama College Counseling, https://www.nodramacollegecounseling.com/

Over three million young people graduate from high school in the U.S. each year. Some of them can’t wait to rush out and take on the adult world, but just as many are terrified. Students with special needs often fall into the second category.

The truth is, they typically have lags in their maturity and other aspects of development, in addition to their official diagnosis, and most of them have realized they need more support than their regular education peers by this point. They’ve noticed their own issues with socializing and independent functioning. They don’t necessarily want us to bring it up, but in most cases they know these things about themselves and it’s vital for parents to consider these traits when helping their special needs kids make plans for “what’s next” after high school.

What’s Next?
I emphasize the concept of “what’s next?” with all of my clients, because that’s what we should be focusing on. Parents and other well-meaning adults are too quick to ask, “What do you want to do with your life?” and I’ve met very few teenagers who don’t hate that question. Special needs or not, young people understandably feel overwhelmed by the concept of planning out the rest of their lives when they’re barely trying to make it through each day, and sadly, most seem to think that screwing up anywhere along the way will have disastrous, irreparable results.

The proper question is, “What are you going to do after high school?” That’s the extent of what young people need to think about when they’re 16 to 18 years old.

And as parents and professionals, it’s our job to help them figure out the right next step — right for that particular child, regardless of what anyone else in the family has done or what their friends are doing or, to some degree, even what they think they want to do.

When considering college options for any student, there are obvious questions to be asked:
• Does the school offer majors of interest?
• Can the family afford it?
• Is the student a good candidate (GPA and test scores being of primary importance)?
• Will it work geographically? (Distance from home, weather, transportation, etc.)
• Does the school offer the kind of support the student needs?

You can possibly think of a few more that apply in your own particular situation, but here’s the most critical one that most families overlook: Is my child even ready?

Being Ready for College
When people think about college readiness, often they give too much weight to academic performance. They feel that if their son or daughter is getting A’s in school and is perhaps even taking some AP classes, that naturally equates to them being “ready for college.”

Almost all students who’ve completed a college-prep curriculum (something we refer to as the A-through-G requirements) should be able to handle freshman coursework at some college or another. Finding a good match to their ability level is important, but there’s a very wide range of rigor in the higher ed system, there’s basically a place for everybody, so that’s not really a concern.

But there are so many other factors that are more important in determining whether a student will be successful in college and people don’t pay enough attention to these.
According to Landmark College Institute for Research and Training, the most important skills for college success are:

• Executive functioning
• Self-advocacy
• Strong independent work habits

Notice that academic ability doesn’t even make the top three.
And I would add perseverance, or what college admissions offices these days are calling “grit.”

Personally, I’ve known students with pretty severe reading and processing disorders who were able to make it through a bachelor’s degree program because they were self-aware and self-accepting and had the qualities mentioned above. They knew they would take three times longer than average to get through each reading assignment and they would have to seek out lots of help to make sure their written work was up to par, but they decided to pursue the goal of a college education anyway.

Getting Help in College
Unless your child is enrolled in a specialized college just for students with extra needs, no one is going to ask if they need help. This is one of the major differences between high school and college. Students have to be proactive in seeking out help and answers or they’re certain to struggle unnecessarily or even fail.

Additionally, the help that is available in college is never going to be comparable to what was potentially available through K-12 Special Ed.

Until completion of high school, if your son or daughter had been enrolled in a traditional school, they would have been covered by IDEA legislation (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act). But that ends at graduation (regardless of how they were schooled) and in college they’ll fall under the more general ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act).

The ADA gives each college the prerogative to determine what “reasonable accommodations” they’re going to provide, if any at all. Students have to qualify by presenting documentation that the college deems sufficient. Public school students can use their IEPs and the psych-ed reports generated by their districts, but homeschooled students will need to obtain current educational and psychological testing from a clinical psychologist or other qualified professional. (A report from one’s therapist with a master’s level education is not adequate.)

Even when a student has qualified, some colleges will offer them only the bare minimum, like extended time on tests or letting visually-challenged students sit at the front of the class. Other schools make a genuine effort to be supportive, however, and then some have fee-for-service programs that offer a menu of more extensive services. (More on that later.) But no matter what, college support will almost never match what students received throughout their compulsory education, so this will be an adjustment in itself.

Another thing to be clear about is that all of these, even the services you pay extra for, require the student to be proactive in seeking out help. Staff do not go to them, they need to reach out to the staff. And parents cannot advocate for their kids. The students must step up and handle this business independently.

Our goal, as parents and educators, is to raise functional adults, who understand and accept themselves, know how to seek out the right kind of help, and can function autonomously. And I assure you, the young people want this. It was the primary complaint my non-public school students had whenever I polled them about what was good and what could have been better with their Special Ed experience. They always said they wished everyone would focus more on making sure they could do hard things for themselves, instead of clearing the path so everything was easier.

More Differences Between High School and College
As part of their preparation for transitioning to higher education, it’s important that we prepare them for the reality that college is not just 13th grade. The academics are usually a manageable step up like they’ve experienced each year previously, but everything else is significantly different. Even these small things blow my students’ minds when I tell them:

• There won’t be any bells to signal the beginning or end of class, you just have to be there on time. A teacher can even lock you out if you’re late!
• You have to buy your own textbooks, which often cost several hundred dollars per class.
• In some classes your grade will be based just on tests, with no credit given for homework or effort. When homework or writing assignments are required, no late work is accepted.
• Your parents cannot talk to your professors on your behalf, or to find out how you’re doing.
• Classes usually only meet once or twice a week, but you have way more homework per class than you did in high school, which you must manage on your own.
• No one tells you what classes to take. You have to figure that out yourself and usually about a half semester in advance. If a class you need is full, you’re just out of luck.

Just these logistical differences are quite a bit for them to take in without even doing any actual work yet, and they won’t really understand their new circumstances fully until they experience them firsthand. That’s why I always recommend a lighter courseload for the first semester. The transition to a new campus, perhaps with not a single familiar face in the whole place, and certainly with significantly heightened expectations, is enough of a challenge at first.

Too many parents get caught up in the idea that they want their child to have the “full college experience” because they remember it fondly from their own college days, or maybe they didn’t get to go away to college and are compensating by insisting their child should, etc. But let’s talk about this “full college experience” for a minute. It means living in the dorms 24/7 with a stranger for a roommate and no adult supervision or assistance to remedy problems. It means no one there to help them prioritize homework and sleep-over partying or playing video games. It means making and tracking their own schedules and appointments, fitting in time to go to the laundromat (and having the foresight to obtain a roll of quarters), deciding of their own accord that they should eat right, and having to figure out how to socialize not too much — but also, not too little.

Based on my two decades of working with special needs students, I can say confidently that it’s the minority, not the majority, who are ready to take on this “full college experience” right after high school. So, remember to focus on figuring out what is the right “next step” when making plans for the year after graduation. The developmental milestones will come (if they’re meant to), but often at a later age than they do for other kids. Only put your child into situations s/he is ready to handle or be ready to clean up the mess.

Out of the Box
Since some special needs students require more support than is offered through a college’s disabilities office (especially outside of the classroom), here are some options you might want to consider, as your budget allows.

Dorm alternatives. College Living Experience and College Internship Program are two examples of “dorm substitutes.” Students attend their local university or community college like everyone else, but instead of staying in the regular residence hall, they live in a specialized dorm with adult supervision, tutoring and study skills assistance, life skills training, planned social activities, etc.

Special needs colleges. These are few and far between, but they exist. In my opinion, Landmark in Vermont sets the bar really high for the others, but it’s all about the right fit so don’t hesitate to shop around and do your research to find the one that’s best for your child.

Campus-based fee-for-service programs. This is a category of support that is growing rapidly, thank goodness! SALT at University of Arizona is an example, as are PAL at Curry College and Arch at Dean College. Like the alternative dorms, these programs can be prohibitively expensive but also might make the difference between a student successfully completing college or not.

Precollege year. I only know of one precollege year program, Thames Academy at Mitchell College. “Pre-freshman” students attend select skill-building classes on campus and get to participate in school activities with the general population but live in a separate dorm with adult supervision.

Post-grad year. A different approach to a similar concept is the post-grad year, which is essentially a 13th grade offered by many boarding schools. PGYs are for students who have already earned a high school diploma and want to try out living away from home for school but with some of the structure of a K-12 program instead of the absolute freedom of college.

Rent-a-Buddy. OK, I’ll admit I made that name up but it’s a strategy I’ve seen used successfully many times. Find an older student (perhaps a grad student, or one close to graduating from college) who is trustworthy and interested in working as a mentor/buddy to help your child transition. Young people often take suggestions and direction better from peers anyway, so a good “buddy” will not only help them figure out how to navigate college life but can also help them improve social skills.

When College Isn’t Really An Option
When learning challenges are severe enough that a regular degree program just isn’t an option, there are still other ways that your child can participate in college life and learn some really valuable skills.

College-to-Career (C2C), certificate, and “transition” programs are booming around the country. For students with significant intellectual disabilities or autism spectrum disorders, this is great news because it means they can live either at home or on campus and take classes (sometimes even with developmentally-typical peers!) for the purpose of training for a job or just for personal development.

The ThinkCollege.net website is the best place to find out what’s available near you. Under the College Search feature, click the Advanced Filters button and you’ll see boxes for intellectual disabilities, autism, and “other disabilities.” Check whatever applies and fill in any other relevant information (such as state and desired length of program) and voilà, you’ll get an up-to-date list of possibilities.

There’s an option for everyone, so do your research to find the right “what’s next?” for your child!
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Crystal Reed has been taking the drama out of college admissions since 2003. She has extensive experience with both special needs and homeschooled students. Crystal works in person with clients in the West L.A. area and via phone, email, or Skype for all others.

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