Students With Learning Disabilities Get Help With College

College Living Experience helps students with learning disabilities pursue their dreams of higher ed.

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Before moving away from her Southern California home to become a student at the Community College of Denver, Brittany Ross was nervous. She had tried college once before, but her Asperger's syndrome made it difficult for her to connect with her peers and stay focused on her schoolwork. Her grades were "all over the place," Ross says, because she had test anxiety, trouble writing essays, and panic attacks that grew worse with each social and academic misstep.

The difference between Ross's first college experience and her time in Denver is the support she receives from College Living Experience, a private program operating in six cities around the country that helps students with learning disabilities thrive in a college setting. Students enroll concurrently in CLE and a college near one of the program's centers and work with CLE staff not just on their coursework but also on their social skills, their emotional maturity, and their ability to live independently. Though CLE will serve students with any type of learning disability, it is one of only a few programs nationwide that specialize in helping students with autism spectrum disorders and Asperger's syndrome gain access to college.

In the early 1990s, the definition of autism expanded to include a range of milder conditions, and the swaths of children diagnosed then are starting to consider higher education now. While colleges and universities are required by law to offer students with learning disabilities extra time on tests, note-taking services, and other accommodations, the schools are not required to provide support as comprehensive as what some students require. This gap in available support led to CLE. Although its cost is $33,500 per student per year—a sum that only some states will partially subsidize—it's an option that opens doors for some learning-disabled students and their parents.

Stephanie Martin, director of CLE, says the program currently has 187 students enrolled, many of whom pay in full (in some cases, a federal tax deduction is possible) and consider the opportunity to work toward a college degree at a vocational, two-year, or four-year school an investment in their future. The program opened its first center in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., in 2005, recently opened its sixth in Rockville, Md., and plans to continue expanding as demand grows, Martin says. Like Ross, about 30 percent of CLE's students tried college at least once before enrolling in the program. Preliminary results of an ongoing federal Department of Education study show that fewer than half of students with learning disabilities have received postsecondary education and that the proportion of students who complete their degrees is even smaller.

The transition between high school and college is huge for students with severe learning disabilities like autism, says Tom Welch, the clinical psychologist for CLE's Denver program. In high school, the goal for these students was merely to pass a class, complete a grade level, or graduate, Welch says. At the college level, students start to envision what is possible for them as independent adults. "Our understanding of what's possible for us in this world is as narrow as our experiences," Welch says. "To make a friend or lose a friend, to meet someone researching something you never knew about or to meet a friend training for a career you never knew was possible for you—it opens up a whole new world for these students."

Welch's job at CLE Denver is to support each of the location's 50 participants in their emotional and psychological development. Some students, he says, can be up to six years behind their age developmentally and need support to complete a semester without failing classes. Because many autistic students struggle with executive functioning--the ability to understand time, maintain a schedule, or plan ahead--the preparation required to take a final exam can seem overwhelming, Welch says. It is common for students who have worked hard all semester to allow their anxiety to sabotage their effort and suddenly stop attending classes. Programs like CLE, Welch says, can help students recognize and address the problem before mounting absences and missed assignments mean flunking out.

Corrected on 02/26/09: An earlier version of this article misspelled clinical psychologist Tom Welch's name.