April 04, 2019
(++++) SPECIAL-NEEDS COLLEGES
The K&W Guide to Colleges for Students with Learning Differences, 14th Edition. By Marybeth Kravets and Imy F. Wax. Princeton Review/Penguin Random House. $31.99.
From its politically correct title (“Learning Differences” rather than “Learning Difficulties” or, heaven forbid, “Learning Disabilities”) through its expert advice on disability law and how to make use of it, The K&W Guide to Colleges for Students with Learning Differences is an intelligent, well-written, exhaustively researched foray into the special needs of students whose ability to learn is hampered in some way. There is a line to be drawn here: the book is not for students who, say, have trouble with large lecture-style classes and need private tutoring, or who cannot absorb material well from books because they are visual learners. Those are more matters of learning style than what Marybeth Kravets and Imy F. Wax call “learning differences.” This is really a book for families in which students have autism-spectrum disorder, ADHD, or similar diagnosable perception difficulties that place them well outside the mainstream (however “mainstream” can now be defined – itself a tricky issue).
In any case, this is a helpful, practical book, not a philosophical one. Its subtitle tells the whole story of its intentions: “338 Schools with Programs or Services for Students with ADHD, ASD, or Learning Differences.” The key here is that every college mentioned has different programs or services, with some schools wholly devoted to the students at whom this book is aimed and others finding ways to incorporate special assistance within an overall academic environment that also serves students with more-standard learning abilities. It is important to note that Kravets and Wax do not use the book as a pulpit from which to hector people into accepting their definition of the sort of student for whom the book is intended – their idea is that if you are a parent of such a student, you know it already and can dispense with arguments about precise definitions of “learning differences.”
The book’s organization takes some getting used to. It is alphabetical by state and, within each state section, alphabetical by school. But there are no tabs to show where one state’s listings end and the next one’s begin, so parents who want to focus on specific parts of the country will want to bookmark the start of state sections to be able to find them again easily as they continue their research and try to narrow down the choices.
Also important for using this book is the understanding that the schools themselves define what they offer – the authors have not personally investigated and reviewed each program, but have left it up to school officials to explain what they provide. Thus, a typical snippet of text, in this case for the University of Denver, says, “The Learning Effectiveness Program (LEP) was founded in 1982 as an academic support program for University students with learning disabilities. Since then we have developed some of the most comprehensive and innovative learning disability (LD) and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) support services provided at the post-secondary level.” The passage is not given in quotation marks and is not attributed to a specific individual or university office, so parents may at first think it is written by the authors and indicates that they were involved in developing the school’s programs. In reality, this is the school itself – likely its marketing people or equivalent – presenting the program in the best possible light in view of the authors’ planned discussion of it.
There is nothing wrong with this, but parents need to understand that part of what they get in the new edition of The K&W Guide to Colleges for Students with Learning Differences, as in previous editions, is competing self-interested marketing material rather than objective presentation of programs and services for students with LD (whatever those letters may refer to). This is important because, while there are a few schools in the book 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,” most of the material here relates to programs and services offered within general, “mainstream” colleges and universities. Boston College, Tulane University, Barnard College, Duke University, and many other first-rate schools appears in these pages, but it is up to families to decide whether their LD students will prosper in environments that are by and large not conducive to the sorts of accommodations that many LD students require – even though accommodative programs do exist.
Like other books from Princeton Review (which, incidentally, is not associated with Princeton University), The K&W Guide to Colleges for Students with Learning Differences offers 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 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, assuming – this is a first point for discussion – that the student will benefit from college at all rather than from, say, a career-focused trade school. Furthermore, families need to decide whether it would be better for an LD student’s future life to be identified as a graduate of a college known for its educational prowess, such as Cornell College or Colgate University, where LD programs exist but are not the primary focus – or whether a school such as Beacon, with its foundational 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. Choosing a college that will be a good fit for any student can be difficult; choosing one for a student with special learning-focused needs adds an extra layer of complexity. The K&W Guide to Colleges for Students with Learning Differences does not reduce that complexity, but it can certainly help point students and parents toward schools worth looking into further, while eliminating ones whose LD programs do not seem to address the specific, individual needs of a particular student.