College Living Experience is a privately operated and for-profit company that operates residential programs to assist students with special needs in attending college. Students with Asperger’s Syndrome, learning disablities, and emotional and/or behavioral disorders have used College Living Experience, which focuses on academics, independent-living skills, and social skills. Students can enroll in one of three facilities (in Austin, Ft. Lauderale, and Denver); they attend daily sessions at a learning center while taking college classes and living in private, off-campus apartments. A full-time staff meets with students in the program to help them with independent-living skills (from tooth-brushing to housekeeping) and social skills, as well as homework.
The program is designed to hold students’ hands as they navigate college. Its staff members become their advocates, schedulers, therapists. All of that individualized attention is expensive, however — and it does not always help students succeed. Some experts worry that such programs attract students who should not be in college in the first place.
Yet proponents say College Living Experience and similar programs can stoke the ambitions of students who are not self-sufficient enough to pursue higher education on their own. And the support that such companies provide surpasses what most colleges can offer.
The families of students with special needs are often desperate for their children to have a shot at college, says John M. McLaughlin, executive vice president and chief development officer of Educational Services of America, the Nashville-based company that owns College Living Experience. His program, he says, allows parents to offer their children a choice: “Either you’re going to be living with us and sitting on the sofa for the rest of your life, or we’re going to give it a go.”
College Living Experience costs $27,500 per year, on top of college tuition, rent, and funds for social outings. So far, most of the students in the program have been from well-off families; since this past October, the program has been approved by Sallie Mae, which is the US’s largest provider of student federal loans.
Other programs that assist autistic students in college are:
- The College Internship Program, with facilities in Massachusetts, Florida, and Indiana
- Achieving in Higher Education With Autism and Developmental Disabilities, which is based in Pittsburgh and currently assists eight students at Carnegie Mellon University and at the University of Pittsburgh
And here are both a caveat and support regarding these programs as noted in the Chronicle of Higher Education:
- “You will see some kids who aren’t ready for college, no matter what, and the parents are pushing it,” says Fred R. Volkmar, a child psychiatrist who is director of the Yale Child Study Center, at the Yale University School of Medicine. In these programs, he says, “you can find students where it’s a waste of everybody’s time and money.”
- “For the appropriate population, I think it can be very effective,” says Jane Thierfeld Brown, director of disabilities and student services at the University of Connecticut School of Law, who is a well-known consultant on autism-spectrum disorders. “You can think of it almost as the super R.A. That’s what a lot of those students need that can’t be provided by higher education.”
More and more colleges and universities are aware of the growing number of students with autism applying to and attending college, and are seeking to develop their own support services.