Autism and Community College: Why It’s a Good Fit

You are ready to embark on your higher education journey, your sights are set on a career in STEM, and you have autism—why should you consider starting your post-secondary education at a community college?

You feel well prepared to enter the world of higher education and succeed academically. However, you also recognize that the support, services, and structure of high school have been integral parts of your success. Yet, the accommodations and level of support in higher education will be different from the services that you received in high school. In college, YOU ARE DRIVING THE “SERVICES and SUPPORT” BUS. In other words, you will be at the center of the accommodations and support services you request and receive.

Now comes the “decision tree.” What types of paths to higher education do you want to consider? For example, it may be worth starting your higher education at a community college, earning an associate’s degree, and then transferring to a university to complete your bachelor’s degree.

Evidence shows that scaffolding is an effective approach to learning and mastery for autistic individuals. I was an administrator at a community college in Massachusetts for 27 years. My vantage point is that the scaffolded experience from a community college to a four-year institution often fosters a smooth transition. It provides a safe and supportive learning environment and leads to students achieving their academic and career goals.

Many autistic students have found that beginning their college career at a community college enables them to be more successful. Why? Because this approach allows students to achieve initial goals before proceeding to the next, more difficult, level of learning.

In Making This Decision, You Should Consider the Following:

At community colleges, students can earn transferrable credits and an associate’s degree. Articulation agreements can make the transfer to partner colleges and universities seamless. In some respects, this is an “open door” to a bachelor’s degree.

Community colleges are typically “open admission” institutions. With the exception of some selective programs, students with a HS diploma are automatically admitted and take a college placement test to determine their starting point in coursework.

As a transfer student, your academic record at the community college is considered in your admission to a college or university. For students who may have had challenges in high school or whose record and history does not truly reflect their capability as a student, this is an opportunity for a “fresh start.”

Typically, community colleges are non-residential colleges. Students commute from home via public transportation, their own car, or are transported by a family member or ride share services. Students don’t have to navigate the challenges of residential life (dormitories, noise, roommates, etc.). This means that students can focus on the newness of college level courses.

Many students who have autism opt for a reduced course load, and at community colleges this is common. A reduced course load can provide the flexibility to focus on course content and the time to access student accommodations and support services. A student can reduce their load even to one class per semester. Although the timeframe to graduation or transfer may be slower, a slower pace can make all the difference for academic success.

Tuition is typically one third to one half of the cost of a public university and 10 to 15 percent of the cost of many private colleges.

Classes are small, usually with no more than 32 students. The main roles of community college faculty are teaching and advising, rather than conducting research and publishing (as occurs in larger universities to varying degrees).

Most importantly: support services are often robust and comprehensive. Therefore, first-time students will likely not get lost in the institution. Many community colleges’ Office of Disabilities Services, along with providing the ADA/504 required accommodations, also provide support. This support might be in the form of  case management, specialized 1:1 tutoring, specialized advising, specialized orientations, and specialized interest clubs and organizations. Support services will focus on “navigating” the institution, developing self-advocacy skills and metacognition, and connecting the student to professionals and peers who will be part of their journey.

Both community colleges and four-year institutions have appealing draws, but the pace at which you can begin and move through community college is unique. Plus, community colleges offer a lower-cost option for learning to what extent higher education is a good fit for you. Transfer agreements can make transitioning to a four-year college easier for successful students, reducing some of the stress and anxiety about furthering your education.

What are your thoughts on starting your college career at a community college? Have you tried this approach? What are you discovering? Let us know in the comments!

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Susan Woods, M. Ed, recently retired as Associate Dean of Student Support Services at Middlesex Community College after 27 years. Susan managed the college’s Disability Support Services, supporting 1000 students with documented disabilities, as well as alternative and grant funded support programs. Susan has regularly provided training and workshops to faculty and staff on creating welcoming and inclusive environments and universal design for instruction. Her work now focuses on professional development and training to high school personnel and families to help support the successful transition to college for students with disabilities. Her professional development website is www.susanbwoods.com.

1 Comment

  1. This article offers a great overview of the often-overlooked advantages of community colleges. Moving away to college is a big social, emotional, and financial challenge; commuting to a community college can be a less risky next step. Thank you for this contribution!

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