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The Community College Choice

By: Wayne Cocchi (1997)

Making the choice for a postsecondary education for students with learning disabilities can be a challenging task when the process first begins. There are a number of options for students to look at including two- and four-year public and private colleges and universities, technical colleges, trade schools and some non-degree programs. In addition, students must factor in the need for financial aid, degree programs offered, reason for attending college, location and access. The decision to start investigating colleges should begin during the junior year of high school when career exploration can be matched up with both the high school program and programs offered at postsecondary institutions. Though this is an important avenue to follow, students must also consider the understanding of their disability and learning styles, support services received in high school and the support services offered to students with disabilities at the colleges they are investigating.

The number of students entering college as freshmen with disabilities has continued to grow over the years and those with learning disabilities make up about a third of this population. Additionally, these numbers have increased rapidly at two-year institutions to the point where more students with disabilities are attending two-year institutions as opposed to four-year. What is it about two-year and community colleges that attracts these students and how may this be the best choice for them as they begin their postsecondary education experience?

The first thing we must look at is the word "community." The mission of these institutions includes involvement in community in a number of areas including activities, agencies, and businesses. This gives the college a better understanding of what the community and its citizens want and how the college may be able to meet these needs. The student body of the community college also reflects the makeup of the community population, including students with disabilities. At most institutions the highest population of students with disabilities are those with learning disabilities, reflecting the national trend. In response to this, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the receipt of federal funding, particularly at the community college level, Disability Service departments were set up to provide accommodations to these students. Most community colleges serve students with a variety of disabilities.

Secondly we must review the factors that can influence the community college choice:

  1. Location Most community colleges are located within an area that serves a certain geographical section of the state (usually made up of counties) that makes it easy to access by different transportation methods and allows the student to live at home while attending college.
  2. Cost The average cost for attending a community college is well below that of a four-year public or private institution and may better meet the financial needs of the student. In addition, a variety of financial aid resources may be more available.
  3. Peers A student may find that many of their peers have actually attended a community college and have heard of these friends having a good experience there. Some peers may also be attending the community college and thereby making it a more comfortable atmosphere for them, knowing a friend is there as well.
  4. Open Enrollment Most community colleges have an Open Enrollment policy so that a student with a high school degree or GED can be accepted.
  5. EntranceExams Many degree programs at community colleges do not require the standardized entrance exams such as the SAT or ACT, though a student with a disability can take these exams with accommodations. The community college usually has a placement test that they administer to entering students that has been designed specifically for the two-year college. This test can also be given with accommodations and measures a student's skill level in math, reading and English.
  6. Programs of Study Community colleges offer a wide variety of degree programs from technical to transfer. The Associate degree conferred by the college can be one that is more technical in nature and specific to a career and leads to immediate employment, or is more academic in nature where the student has taken courses that satisfy the basic education requirements (Humanities, English, Math, Sciences, Social Sciences) and then transfer to a four-year institution to continue their education to a baccalaureate degree.
  7. Class Size Classes offered at community colleges tend to be smaller than their four-year counterparts. Classes usually average anywhere from 20-40 as opposed to up to 100 or more for freshmen or other courses at four-year colleges. This provides for a better teacher to student ratio at the community college and the possibility for more individualized attention.
  8. Course Offerings Community colleges offer a variety of courses at times that may be more accessible to students and at a variety of locations. Many community colleges have off-campus facilities located within the service area of the college as well as the centrally located main campus. Typically, courses may be offered from 7:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. Monday through Friday, as well as select courses being offered at times on Saturdays and Sundays.
  9. Length of Program The majority of programs offered at community colleges are two years in length, giving the student quicker access to employment, but also offering the flexibility to plan a schedule that will allow students to take a number of classes that better meet their needs based on their disability.
  10. Support Services Though most community colleges are commuter campuses, they offer a variety of support services to students that mirror those at four-year colleges. Student activities/services include but may not be limited to financial aid support, placement and career services, student groups/clubs, athletics of both the varsity and intramural type, library services counseling and advising services, health services, academic support, tutoring, and disability services.

It is the Disability Services offered by the college that can be the deciding factor for the student. At community colleges the institutional commitment and support for this type of service seems to be great. Again, as a college provides services to the community, this population of students is seen as an important part of that community. A variety of support services are available to the student with a disability through this department and the services offered should be investigated by the student when making a decision on the community college he or she would like to attend. Disability Services staff can work closely with the student and provide more individual service if the staff to student ratio is greater. Many local school district's Special Education programs may have more contact with the community college and its Disability Services staff as well. As with all colleges, students must selfidentify to the Disability Service department and services provided are based on the diagnostic information the department receives on the student's disability.

Recognizing all the options and finding a postsecondary institution that fits a student's needs is the most important part in the planning of career and success for the student. The community college can be the successful first step for a student by providing a more comfortable atmosphere, smaller class size, more individualized attention and the choice to further their education.

The PostSecondary LD Report is published four times per year by Block Educational Consulting, Columbus, OH phone: (614) 263-0938 e-mail: lsblock@aol.com

The PostSecondary LD Report, April-June, 1997 by Wayne Cocchi