November 10, 2016


The K&W Guide to Colleges for Students with Learning Differences, 13th Edition. By Marybeth Kravets and Imy F. Wax. Princeton Review/Penguin Random House. $31.99.

     It is hard to tell to what extent the evolution of the term represented by the letters “LD” has been driven by compassion and to what extent by political correctness. Most likely there is a mixture of both at work, so what was once “Learning Disabled” became “Learning Disadvantaged” and now “Learning Differently” (or, as in the title of Marybeth Kravets’ and Imy F. Wax’s book, “Learning Differences”). The desire not to stigmatize or marginalize students who lack the ability to function well and competitively within the central 80% of the traditional bell curve is an admirable one, and the desire to make sure that every student succeeds to the best of his or her ability is equally admirable. Still, terminology does matter, and while “learning disabled” seems harsh in the modern always-walk-on-eggs conversational environment, “learning differences” seems wholly inadequate, since every student has learning differences compared with all others – were that not the case, all students would learn the same way and at the same level from all teachers in all classes, and that is demonstrably ridiculous. The term “learning differences” is one of those “wink-wink” phrases: it seems quite innocuous on its face, but everyone knows (or is supposed to know) that it refers to people who need a certain amount of extra help, support, assistance, what-have-you in a classroom environment, compared with what is needed by the vast majority of students.

     Whatever term and definition you may choose to use, if you are a student for whom The K&W Guide to Colleges for Students with Learning Differences is appropriate, you know it already; and if you are a parent of such a student, you know that, too. Thankfully, although terminology is briefly discussed in this book, it is not a preoccupation: the authors do not use the book as a pulpit from which to hector people into accepting their definition of the sort of student at whom the book is aimed. Instead, they do something far more useful: they explore colleges’ special programs and services for students with LD (whatever the letters may refer to), and also look at colleges that specialize in LD-focused education. In most cases, the findings here involve programs that are within universities attended by students of all kinds and abilities, but that are specifically designed for those who are diagnosed with any of a number of conditions affecting learning. The University of Denver, for example, offers a Learning Effectiveness Program “structured to provide students with individualized support,” for a fee, and a separate no-fee “Disability Services” program for students with documented disabilities or medical issues. Curry College in Massachusetts has a Program for the Advancement of Learning for “students with specific learning disabilities and ADHD.” Guilford College in North Carolina offers a Learning Commons that provides “professional and peer tutoring, workshops, advocacy, and realistic encouragement.” On the other hand, there are a few colleges whose whole orientation is LD, such as Beacon College in Florida, which was “founded to award bachelor degrees to students with learning disabilities, ADHD and other learning differences.”

     Like other books under the Princeton Review umbrella, The K&W Guide to Colleges for Students with Learning Differences is a thick and heavy work (it runs to 848 oversize pages) that provides a two-page overview of each school discussed; but this is not a book to use on its own, since the two pages focus specifically on LD programs on campuses, not on campus life in general, overall student comments, academic requirements and expectations, or much financial information (although there is some). This is really a book for families dealing with LD to use to decide which schools to investigate further after determining for themselves what they hope a student will get out of a college education. The first question is whether he or she needs or wants such an education at all; the second is whether it would be better for his or her future life to be identified as a graduate of a college known for its educational prowess, such as Barnard or Colgate in New York State, where LD programs exist but are not the primary focus – or whether a school such as Beacon, with its very strong LD orientation, might be a better fit even though students will mingle there only with other LD students and graduates will be known to have had their education at an LD-only institution. Once families confront these basic questions, The K&W Guide to Colleges for Students with Learning Differences provides some highly useful starting points for further research with its information on admission requirements for LD students and the accommodations they are offered on campus. A brief note in each college profile on whether course waivers and/or substitutions are allowed may be particularly important for some families – for instance, Old Dominion University in Virginia does not allow course waivers, but “foreign language substitutions are available with sufficient documentation of a language processing disability.”

     Any book along the lines of The K&W Guide to Colleges for Students with Learning Differences is only a starting point for college-application decisions. This book, because of its niche focus, requires even more followup from students and families than do general books designed to help pinpoint colleges that will be a good fit for a given person. The presentation here is good and the information can be highly useful – as long as families understand that they should not, indeed cannot, make fully informed decisions using this book alone. It is, however, a well-thought-out guide in a limited way: LD students will find it quite helpful in indicating possible areas for them to research more fully through other guides or directly with colleges themselves.

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