Have you ever wondered how to find a good college match if you have learning challenges? In order to answer that question and provide insight, I conducted interviews via email and phone with Gabrielle E. Miller, Ed.D., Assistant Vice Provost, Learning Services and Executive Director of the Strategic Alternative Learning Techniques (SALT) Center at the University of Arizona and Julie Yindra, Director of Student Access Services at Hofstra University. Both of these women are experts in the field of university services for students with learning challenges at two of the most highly rated and respected university programs for students with learning challenges. Dr. Miller and Ms. Yindra provide invaluable insights into how to choose a college if you have learning challenges and offer details about their university’s programs for students with learning challenges.
What are some tips to find a good college match for students with learning challenges?
Dr. Miller: With thousands of colleges to choose from, finding the right fit can feel like an overwhelming task, especially if you don’t know where to start or what to ask. That’s why, even before diving into the college search process, I recommend that students with learning challenges spend some time asking themselves some questions to ensure they have a good sense of what they will need from a college.
As students reflect on their past educational experiences, they might start by asking themselves questions like: What types of academic support and adjustments have I found to be helpful thus far? Do I need extra test time, tutoring, study apps, regular meetings with an advisor? Do my parents or teachers have anything else to add? Write down the responses and start organizing them making special note of those things which are most important to you. Also, ask yourself about the type of college experience you would like to have. For example: Do I want to attend a school near my family or go out-of-state? Do I want to attend a school specifically for students with LDs or would I be more comfortable at a traditional college?
This self-reflection exercise will help form the basis of an individualized checklist that you can use to narrow down your selection and then take to colleges to make sure that their level of support matches up with your unique needs.
After having asked themselves some tough questions, the next step I recommend is for students to turn around and start asking probing questions of the colleges they are considering. These days, a lot of information can be gathered quickly online or with the help of college guidebooks. Other insightful details you’ll need to contact the colleges to get. You can use a spreadsheet or notebook to keep your findings organized.
Here are some additional questions you might find useful while remembering to adapt them to your personal circumstances.
- How often do students meet with support staff or tutors?
- Are the staff and tutors specifically trained or experienced in working with students with learning and attention challenges?
- What percentage of students graduate within 6 years?
- How many students attend this school?
- What kind of sports and extracurricular activities are available?
- Is support available for online classes?
- How long has the school or support program been around?
- What degrees does the school offer?
- Is the school well known or ranked for my major?
- How do you help students as they prepare to transition into the workplace or graduate school?
- What is the average starting salary of recent graduates?
- What is the surrounding community like?
- Can I come and tour the campus and different programs?
- Can I talk to students enrolled in the program or alumni to get their perspective?
Ms. Yindra: Go visit the campus, ask to meet students, ask to meet with the office that provides accommodations—the manner in which they offer accommodations, and how, makes a big difference. If they begrudgingly hand you a form to fill out or if they are truly interested in helping and getting to know you, makes a big difference.
Many communities have private K-12 schools for students with learning challenges. Take advantage of these schools as resources and ask them where they’re sending their students to college.
In addition to visiting campuses, use the Click Test.
The Click Test is going on a university’s website and figuring out how many clicks it takes to get to the learning challenges part of the school’s website. This can be very telling. Is the learning challenges page of the website front and center or does it take many clicks to find it?
Also, search for colleges that are looking for students with learning challenges. Reach out to someone who works in the learning challenges program and they should get back to you. The speed with which they get back to you can also be very telling.
What specifically does the SALT Center offer for students with learning challenges?
Dr. Miller: The SALT Center offers a suite of comprehensive services designed to maximize student engagement and success at the University of Arizona.
For most of our students, this success grows out of a close relationship with their specific Student Support Specialist, an experienced professional that meets with them every week to implement an individualized learning plan, help them explore study strategies, stay organized, and navigate the complex college environment.
Students also benefit from our robust array of tutoring services. With around 100 peer tutors on staff, we’re able to offer one-on-one and small group tutoring appointments for almost any undergraduate class at convenient times throughout the week. Students can also visit our drop-in tutoring labs for help with most reading, writing, math, science, and business courses. Our CRLA certified tutors are specifically trained to help students with learning and attention challenges and endeavor to create a learning environment that facilitates independent and lifelong learning.
Another popular service that we offer is our educational technology support. Students can consult with a student Tech Coach or the Educational Technology Coordinator for help with a specific tech concern or explore different apps and tech tools to get better organized or study more effectively.
For students experiencing significant emotional health concerns, we’re able to offer our in-house psychological services. Generally, our psychological team assists with issues related to anxiety, depression, stress, grief and loss, substance abuse, sleep disorders, and managing life in college. These confidential meetings with qualified staff provide students with a clinical assessment, treatment plan, additional supportive strategies, and if deemed necessary, referral for outside resources.
Throughout the semester we also put on a variety of workshops designed to give students the opportunity to learn new skills and academic strategies, provide a better understanding of their learning challenges, and explore ways to adapt learning strategies to best suit their individual learning styles.
In addition to our core offerings, students are also provided with various opportunities to develop their social and leadership skills in both formal and informal settings. These include regular outings with a member of the university faculty, career readiness events provided with assistance from SALT Center alumni, small-group social skills workshops for students needing additional focused support, and opportunities for employment as a SALT Center Ambassador, Peer Tutor or Tech Coach.
What specifically does the Program for Academic Learning Skills (PALS) offer for students with learning challenges?
Ms. Yindra: PALS is a comprehensive fee-based program. PALS pairs students with a Learning Specialist. Students have regular one on one meetings with their Learning Specialist to discuss better ways to write a paper, better ways to study for a test, etc. They really do a deep dive into the student and get to know the student well. Learning Specialists do not necessarily tutor in a particular subject per se, but it is the job of the Learning Specialist to make sure the student gets connected with a tutor from whatever particular subject the student is struggling with. The Learning Specialist helps with learning skills and acts as the student’s caseworker and helps them coordinate all of their support team. Learning Specialists help students organize and manage their daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly schedules, etc.
What sets the SALT Center apart from other universities’ support services for students with learning challenges?
Dr. Miller: Since our founding in 1980, our approach has been widely recognized as one of the most effective in helping undergraduates thrive in higher education. I feel that much of this success is a result of our unique position as one of the world’s only comprehensive academic support programs housed within a top tier research university.
As an integral part of the university community, we have long been at the forefront of developing and pioneering research-informed interventions. We have strong national and international research partnerships and a history of collaborating with researchers from around the globe. Bartlett Labs, our in-house research division, orchestrates these efforts and strives to ensure that our students are benefitting from the resulting discoveries.
As part of our commitment to providing students with the highest quality support, we also make it a priority to invest heavily in the professional development and continuing education of our staff. We work closely with our campus community of educational and wellness practitioners to provide relevant training and opportunities for collaboration and exchange. Additionally, we are continually evaluating our approach and processes adjusting them to ensure that we are not only in compliance with best practices but setting a new standard for excellence.
Lessons gleaned from decades of LD research inform everything we do all the way down to the design and construction of our award-winning, 21,000 square ft., building. Our center was custom built to meet the unique needs of our staff and students and integrates the latest in educational technology systems, collaborative work areas, and modular learning spaces spread over three different levels.
Students at the SALT Center also have the benefit of attending a university filled with some of education’s brightest minds from across the academic spectrum. Most professors are keenly aware of our efforts and are eager to learn how they can enhance their instruction to better work with students who learn differently. To amplify our impact and raise awareness of our mission, we regularly meet with instructors and advisors from across campus, holding training and forging partnerships that open doors for our students to be better understood and valued as important members of the learning community.
The last thing that I would say sets our program apart is the degree to which we partner with students to foster their self-awareness, confidence, resilience, and growth.
Many of our students view the SALT Center as their second home and spend several hours a week with us where they are taught to embrace their hardships and learn from their failures. A growth mindset is at the heart of everything we do, and we often hear from alumni that their time at the SALT Center altered the trajectory of their lives giving them the self-confidence and attitude to thrive as adults.
What sets PALS apart from other universities’ support services for students with learning challenges?
Ms. Yindra: The way that PALS is structured—it is a very long-term commitment. Many students meet with their Learning Specialist all four years, while others attend regular meetings for the first year and then feel confident enough to tackle the rest of college on their own.
However, PALS is always there for students with learning challenges. When you’re a junior or senior and applying for an internship or a graduate program, PALS Learning Specialists will write recommendations for students, etc.
Another thing that sets PALS apart is that it is embedded in the campus community at Hofstra, where we communicate and collaborate across all departments at Hofstra. The Learning Specialist is not only in close communication with the student but also with tutors and all across campus. This sets PALS apart from other programs. Our PALS program generates an 85% success rate in terms of freshman to sophomore year retention. The graduation rate of students in the PALS program is the same as, or sometimes slightly higher than, the graduation rate of the general population at Hofstra.
This interview article was conducted and written by Insight Counselor Jason Katz.
Jason has helped hundreds of students gain admission to their best-fit universities. In addition, he wrote more than 170 college admissions/college life columns for the Palo Alto Daily News and the San Jose Mercury News.