A Leg Up for Students with Learning Challenges

My colleagues and I are often contacted by the parents of students with learning challenges who want to know what colleges and universities can offer their son or daughter the best learning support services over the course of their four years – as well as offering a great equestrian experience.  As diagnostic techniques for students with learning issues have become more and more sophisticated, I found that I encountered a lot of students during my time as an admission counselor who had been diagnosed with a variety of challenges and today I continue to do so in my educational consulting practice.

The good news is that students with learning challenges can have a great college experience AND find plenty of riding options as well!

In truth, the approach to the college search is really no different for a high school student with a diagnosed learning difference than it is for a student who learns in traditional form.  Depending on the severity of an individual student’s challenge (whether they have mild dyslexia or perhaps have a more pronounced sequencing disorder or other physical or mental obstacle), the majority of students with these learning differences are already emerging from their high school educational setting in possession of two things that will set them up for success in their college search and in their college careers:

  1. They have already been diagnosed with their specific learning challenge.  Often, students with learning differences face their biggest educational hurdles before they are given a firm diagnosis as to what their particular challenge is.  Once the problem has been discovered and the necessary learning accommodations are granted within their high school setting, these students move on to college with a firm idea of what specific type of support services they will need in order to take their learning to the next level.  This information can then easily be disseminated to their chosen college or university learning center.
  2. They have already acquired a set of study skills and a plan that works for them. For students who don’t face learning challenges during their primary school years, they often arrive at their first semester of college having no idea how to study for their courses.  Some have even breezed through their high school careers without doing much actual studying outside of their time in the classroom.  Students with documented learning challenges, however, don’t fall into this category – over the course of their high school years, they have formulated a solid and workable approach to their studies that sets them up perfectly to make the transition to college-level coursework.

So what colleges and universities with equestrian teams have the best support services for students with learning differences?  I will highlight several of them below, but please bear in mind that the length of a blog entry doesn’t allow me to touch on each and every single school that has strong support services.  Many will (unfortunately and unintentionally) be overlooked, so if you or a student that you know are in search of a school that will offer the appropriate learning accommodations, it may not be included in this short list:

  1. Landmark College (Putney, VT).  Landmark is a two-year college that is specifically designed to help students with severe learning challenges transition into a college setting – and they have had a riding program as part of their physical education offerings and fielded an IHSA hunt seat team since 2002.  (One day, the school may even increase the academic side of the equestrian program to include an associate’s degree in equine.  They have offered a handful of equine classes for the past three years and found them to be very popular.)  Many Landmark students attend the institution immediately after high school to use it as a steppingstone to a four-year college or university and a Bachelor degree and the opportunity to embark immediately on an intercollegiate riding experience can help to make a Landmark education appealing to many students.  (The Chronicle of the Horse did a feature on Landmark in 2011; full text of the article is available online.)
  2. The University of Arizona (Tuscon, AZ).  The University of Arizona is known and respected nationwide for its innovative SALT program for students with learning challenges.  (“SALT” stands for “Strategic Alternative Learning Techniques.”)  Each Arizona student in the SALT program has their own designated learning specialist designated to work with him or her and the center has a tremendous wealth of technological resources to aid students in their educational pursuits.  In addition, the university hosts both a hunt seat and a western IHSA team at their equine center, located four miles from the main campus at the U of A Agricultural Center.  The center is also home to the university-owned horse herd, as part of the equine segment of their animal science major.  They breed Thoroughbreds for racing, as well as a few Quarter Horses.  U of A IHSA riders compete against riders from Arizona State University, as well as southern California schools, including Cal Poly Pomona, USC, and UC San Diego.
  3. Curry College (Milton, MA).  Curry College is home to the unique PAL (Program for Advanced Learning) structure that stresses individualized learning for its students – many of whom overlap between the PAL program and Curry’s honors curriculum.  The PAL program also works well with students for whom English is a second language.  Of the equestrian teams that make up the schools on this list, Curry’s is the most club-based and is entirely student run with the oversight of a faculty advisor and the IHSA team coach, who is based at her own farm off-campus.  They ride weekly and also have opportunities to work at the barn, which many students seize the opportunity to do.  The equestrian club also meets weekly on campus.
  4. Lynchburg College (Lynchburg, VA).  Lynchburg College is nestled in the heart of Virginia’s horse country and happens to also have a very strong learning support center on campus to assist students who are in need of academic accommodations.  The college emphasizes self-advocacy for all students who believe they will need academic support during their time at Lynchburg, but the breadth and depth of services available is impressive.  From testing accommodations to individualized academic planning, the school takes the necessary strides to make sure that all Lynchburg students are able to succeed.  Furthermore, Lynchburg has a strong equestrian tradition and a varsity hunt seat team that trains off campus at neighboring Randolph College and competes against some of the nation’s most competitive IHSA teams.  One such competitor team is:
  5. Goucher College (Towson, MD).  Like it’s Virginia neighbor, Goucher doesn’t have a formalized learning support program on campus, but its Academic Center for Excellence, writing center, and available accommodations for students in need of support services – coupled with its small student body size of just under 1,500 undergraduate students and its designation as one of Loren Pope’s Colleges that Change Lives – means that any Goucher student who needs support will receive it.  In addition, their on-campus equestrian center is home to their noted IHSA hunt seat team, as well as a group of riders who regularly appear at the annual American National Riding Commission (ANRC) equitation championships.  So riders with learning challenges can easily find the best of both worlds at Goucher.

My main recommendation to students with learning challenges who seek the right fit college is that they begin their search early.  This will allow plenty of time during high school to visit campuses and thoroughly investigate the various learning support services available on their selected campuses – including meeting with the staff members who may well be in charge of assisting them during their college years.  It also affords students the opportunity to interview with admission counselors to determine how best to approach their learning challenges on paper during the application process.  (Interviews can also be helpful for demonstrating a student’s interest in a particular school and admission counselors’ interview notes are often included in students’ application files when it comes time to render an admission decision on the student.)

For every high school student embarking on the college search, whether they have a learning challenge or not, the right fit school is out there – it’s just a matter of putting in the time and effort to research until you discover it!

Students and parents who seek additional support in their search for the appropriate college (with adequate learning services), may also feel free to contact me.

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