Autism, learning disabilities services grow on college campuses
Autism and learning disabilities no longer prevent students from attending college as schools offer more accommodations and private organizations provide additional support; however, cost of services still represent a barrier for many students.
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"Our underpinning belief is any student, young adult with a learning difference, has potential," he said. But "we knew he would struggle as a mainstream student at most colleges" and chose Landmark for its tight safety net for students who struggle to advocate for themselves.Skip to next paragraph
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Will is starting his third year at Landmark, pursuing an associate's degree. The college is unrolling its first four-year program, and he may stay on. The goal, Meinen said, isn't a degree per se but a meaningful life. But, he added, a degree "increases the probability of a meaningful life. It opens up the options."
Tuition plus room and board at Dean runs close to $50,000, and the supplementary services can tack on another $7,000 or more. The college runs a handsome but no-frills campus, which Rooney says lets it give most students financial aid.
Betit, the Landmark co-founder, says there is also aid available but acknowledges his school (base tuition, room and board: $59,930) is among the handful of most expensive colleges in the country, and that low-income students are not yet fully benefiting from most of the expanded options nationally.
EMU's program charges its 12 students between $4,500 and $7,500 per semester, on top of regular tuition ($9,364 in-state). That appears to be within the common range for programs within traditional universities. In some places, state programs may help cover some costs.
Another option is for-profit programs that support students while they're enrolled in nearby institutions. One such program, College Living Experience, has six locations around the country. It charges $43,500 for its full program, which could include everything from intensive academic support to basic life and social skills training. Company president Stephanie Martin says the necessary help simply isn't available at many colleges.
"Many of the students who go to college who don't succeed, it's not because they can't do the academic work," she said. "It's the other aspects of their life that get in the way."
Still, Pamela Lemerand, director of clinical services at EMU's Autism Collaborative Center, says there are advantages to on-campus programs.
"We're in the fabric of the university," she said.
Educators in this field say they're hopeful, and their institutions, once deeply skeptical such students could succeed, are increasingly embracing their work. But they say it still requires painstaking one-on-one labor and extraordinary patience.
"Parents have expectations that A, B or C is going to happen in that order," said Julie Leblanc, director of the Morton Family Learning Center at Dean, and an alumna of the college. "We know in this business that sometimes it doesn't happen that way, and sometimes it's best it doesn't happen that way."
Every student is different, but the fundamental challenge is often the same. In high schools, many students come to rely on parents for everything from dressing themselves to packing lunch to making sure homework gets done. In college, the focus shifts to developing self-reliance – which sometimes means pushing them with tough love.
"I can say, 'What's it going to be like if you're 40 and still living with your mom?'" Lemerand says.
Tony Saylor isn't sure what the future holds. The immediate plan is to keep living at home. He admits his shyness and awkwardness have made it hard to make friends outside class. And he sounds like a lot of college students these days when he says he isn't sure what his degree (children's literature and theater) will offer him, only that he'll be better off than without it.
Angela Saylor says she's grateful for what EMU has offered, but knows how lucky she was to come across the program, and how hard it can be for others to find a good fit.
"I see more information becoming available," she said. But still, "given the statistics on the number of people being diagnosed with autism," she said, "they're going to have to come up with more options."