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Learning Disabled Students Welcome

Special centers at colleges and universities are making a positive difference for a growing student population.
University Business, May 2012
Student Caitlin Smith of Adelphi U gets a helping hand from Susan Spencer Farinacci, executive director of the Learning Disabilities Program there.
Student Caitlin Smith of Adelphi U gets a helping hand from Susan Spencer Farinacci, executive director of the Learning Disabilities Program there.

At first glance, the sprawling University of Arizona and University of Connecticut campuses might not have much in common with Adelphi University and Curry College, smaller private institutions in the suburbs of New York City and Boston, respectively. But all of these schools have built robust programs for undergraduates with learning disabilities (LD), distinguishing themselves in the process.

They’re among an expanding number of institutions working closely with students who decades ago might have struggled to graduate—or not made it to college at all.

Along the way, these schools, with counterparts such as The University of Iowa, Augsburg College (Minn.), and Northeastern University (Mass.), are attracting a once-untapped cohort of students who can succeed—and pay tuition. It’s a cohort likely to expand in coming years. LD experts estimate that dyslexia and ADHD each now affect more than 10 percent of the population.
Stephen Strichart, who co-edited Peterson’s Colleges With Programs for Students with Learning Disabilities or Attention Deficit Disorders (1997), says the numbers of schools providing such help have increased steadily.  “More of these students believe they can succeed, so more have applied,” he notes. And colleges are more aware that these students can do quite well, with the right help.

The learning problems for these undergrads range from ADHD and dyslexia to dyscalculia (the dyslexic equivalent of dealing with mathematics). Students receive ongoing, often daily support to navigate the regular college curriculum, with an emphasis on individualized learning techniques.

For generations, untold numbers of people with these very disabilities, many without knowing they had them, have attended and graduated college and pursued successful careers. But, experts in the field say, even greater numbers may not have made it to—or through—an undergraduate career.

Academic resource centers, study skills help, and accommodations such as untimed tests are commonly offered but don’t go far enough for students with LD, Strichart says. “Those resource centers are set up for the general college population and usually have no personnel to work with a special needs population,” he points out.  “You’re not getting specialized tutors or people certified in learning disabilities.”

A Better Understanding of LD

Most of today’s campus-based centers for LD students charge annual fees separate from tuition. Some programs are even self-sustaining financially. The growth of fee-based programs in the past few years does not surprise Joseph Cullen, who directs the Program for the Advancement of Learning (PAL) at Curry. In a recent survey, Cullen, who is also a professor in the school’s education department, found 43 such programs nationwide. “Ten years go, there were a dozen or so colleges that had fee-based, structured centers [for LD students],” he observes.  “As enrollments have been dropping, these colleges needed to reach for higher hanging fruit to fill classes.” At the same time, Cullen adds, LD students have been making unprecedented progress in K-12.

There have been quantum leaps over the past two decades in understanding how dyslexics process information, which has led to improved techniques in teaching reading skills early on. Likewise, there’s been increased attention to the conditions under which students with ADHD learn best.

As a result, the individualized education plans (IEPs) required in public schools for students with learning disabilities have become more targeted, Cullen says. “Schools have moved away from a parallel curriculum,” which used to assign LD students to less rigorous classes. In many school districts, he adds, such students study the standard curriculum, but with appropriate learning support and accommodations.

Susan Spencer Farinacci, executive director of the Learning Disabilities Program at Adelphi, says today’s LD students are better educated about themselves. “Over the years, they have become better and better equipped to understand how their learning disabilities have an impact on their lives. And they are much more aware of their learning styles.”

Assistive technologies have become more advanced and affordable, as well. Computer programs that read printed material aloud and turn spoken words into writing are now common in K-12 schools. “These kids come to us already knowing instructional technology,” Farinacci says.

Adding SALT at Arizona

The Strategic Learning Alternative Techniques (SALT) Center rises three floors in the middle of University of Arizona’s Tucson campus, right alongside sorority row.  The center evolved from a successful program that began working with LD and ADHD U of A students more than 20 years ago. 

Funding for its construction, says SALT Executive Director Robin Wisniewski, came largely from alumni who had benefited from that program and gone on to successful and lucrative careers, and from parents grateful for the difference SALT made to the college careers of their children.

Wisniewski notes that the program clearly means something to the larger university, which provided the prime location in the center of campus. “It’s not a small item that the university said, ‘Here’s the land for you,’ ” she says. 

“We’re run much like a private college.  We have admissions, marketing, and development offices,” Wisniewski continues, with 90 percent of the budget coming from student fees and 10 percent from development efforts. “It’s a very sustainable model.”
The SALT Center—often ranked first nationally among college LD programs—includes strategic learning specialists, a psychologist, and undergraduate tutors, who work with nearly 600 students in the program. Eighty-five percent of those students have come from out of state.

They pay $2,450 per semester freshman and sophomore years, in addition to tuition, and $1,050 junior and senior years.  
Learning specialists are assigned to individuals, whom they meet with weekly and coach on everything from time management to self-advocacy. Students get help figuring out to whom to disclose their disability, and how to approach professors and talk to them.

Tutors help students break down assignments and develop graphic organizers. “Drop-in” labs support writing, math, and science. Assistive technologies such as the Dragon Naturally Speaking and Kurzweil 3000 programs, which convert spoken language into written words and vice-versa, are a click away.

Curry’s Super PAL

Curry College has been a national leader in educating undergraduates with language-based learning disabilities. These students comprise up to 25 percent of each incoming class, and of this year’s freshmen, 140 are enrolled in PAL, which opened in 1971. PAL faculty are assigned groups of 15 students each. Freshmen receive college credit for their PAL classes, which stress language processing, visual organizing of learning materials, and maintaining self-esteem. 

Those accepted into PAL pay $6,550 a year in addition to Curry’s $30,000 annual tuition. There are also part-time options for $1,750 a semester, or $1,220 a semester for one hour a week of formal contact, often a recommended track for upperclassmen.
Parents want a service that’s structured and intensive, not casual, Cullen notes. “They want their sons or daughters to have regularly scheduled appointments with an advisor.” But, it’s not always easy to provide those services. “Students are notoriously insistent on their prerogatives; we have to be sensitive to their autonomy,” Cullen says. “We start out with the student as the primary source of information, and then we explain what we have to offer and give feedback: ‘If you do this, this is the outcome.’ ”
The approach is working. PAL student retention has ranged between 67 to 70 percent for many years and matches Curry’s overall population. The graduation rate of PAL students entering as freshman is about 40 percent, a few points higher than the school as a whole. “I think what we do makes a huge difference,” he concludes.

Success at Adelphi and UConn

Adelphi and the University of Connecticut, meanwhile, offer smaller programs that are making a big difference. Adelphi’s Learning Disabilities Program serves about 125 undergraduates, culled from hundreds of yearly applicants, according to Farinacci.  “We get students from France and Africa,” she notes. “I get calls from Alaska and Hawaii.”

The staff consists of 10 learning specialists and five social workers. Farinacci says that the latter tend to have emotional issues that are often overlooked. “There’s stress and anxiety for students with learning disabilities,” she explains. “Imagine how frustrating an academic setting can be for them.”

The $3,735 per semester fee includes a minimum of two 45-minute sessions with a learning specialist and one with a social worker. Extra sessions are available at no extra cost.

Farinacci emphasizes that her students go far at Adelphi and beyond. “Over half earn a 3.0 average or better, and between 25 and 33 percent make the dean’s list with GPAs of 3.5 or higher, while only five percent end up on academic probation,” she says. “They go on to become attorneys, teachers, doctors, social workers, and artists.  Most of them are gifted and talented as compensation for their disability.”

At the University of Connecticut, the Center for Students with Learning Disabilities offers the BOLD (Building Opportunities for Students with Learning Disabilities) program for $1,700 a semester, which matches LD students in a one-to-one relationship with a graduate coordinator, usually a student at the Neag School of Education. BOLD students also can see tutors who have gone through a training module to understand alternative learning strategies for handling the content of college courses.

There is also a Focused Academic Skills Training (FAST) program available, which Center Director Donna Korbel calls “BOLD Lite” and focuses more on academic coaching. “The cornerstone of our success is to have students develop a good awareness of their strengths,” Korbel says. “We teach students to work smarter, not harder.  We help them become more savvy learners.”

Korbel adds that both programs include a healthy dose of training in self-advocacy.  “A lot of times in the first couple of sessions, students aren’t comfortable talking with professors and voicing any concerns,” Korbel explains.  “We do a lot of modeling of how a conversation with a professor might go,” including, she says, trial emails.

UConn’s LD center also offers the SEAD (Strategic Education for Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder) program to nearly 20 undergraduates, with an emphasis on developing social and interpersonal skills. The fee is $3,200 per semester (or $1,700 per semester for less intensive services).

“The sophomore retention rate of our programs is 92.5 percent and mirrors that of the university,” Korbel notes. “I am so proud of that.”