Marshall University, College Program for Students Who Have Autism

Editorial Board Member Susan Woods recently spoke with Dr. Rebecca Hansen, Director of Campus-Based Services for The West Virginia Autism Training Center at Marshall University to learn more about the programs offered at the center. Dr. Hansen holds an undergraduate degree in Biology, a master’s degree in Student Affairs Counseling, and a doctorate in Education. Her research has focused on understanding employment preparedness needs for college students with Asperger’s Disorder, with specific interest on issues related to access and comprehensive supports for students with Autism Spectrum Disorder. She has provided individualized and person-centered supports for students with ASD at Marshall University for 15 years, following her own enrollment as a graduate student at Marshall. Below is a summary of their exchange. Thanks to Dr. Hansen for speaking with us!

Q: For those unfamiliar with Marshall University, what are some things to know about it?

Marshall University is a selective four-year university in Huntington, West Virginia. The student population is approximately 14,000. As the community of Huntington, WV borders the states of Kentucky and Ohio, Dr. Hansen describes the institution as a “suitcase” university, with the majority of students traveling home on weekends. The area is considered both a blue- and white-collar community, with technology, retail, finance, education, and medical care the economic base in recent years.

Q: What is the cost to students using the program?

This link lists basic services and fees: https://www.marshall.edu/collegeprogram/services-fees/

Q: To what do you attribute the institution’s support for this model? Was there an approach or strategy to get “buy in” from the university administration in the program’s development and sustainability?

The College Program for Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder has existed at Marshall University since 2002, and it is one of the first autism support programs developed and sustained nationally. The program serves more than 60 undergraduate students each year. The model utilizes a three-tiered approach, focusing on academic organization, social communication development, and life skills. Another focus of the program is to support the successful transition of Marshall graduates to careers and employment.

Institutional commitment was achieved early on through program development that was supported by university leadership. The program is financially sustainable through fee-based participation. Two key features of the program’s success are the strong connections and experience brought by coordinators and support staff, who are members of the Huntington community as well. In fact, the program was replicated and expanded to nearby Concord University in 2016 and Shepherd University in 2019.

Q: What are the key elements to the acceptance of students on the autism spectrum at Marshall University? What makes your model unique within the college support programs provided at other institutions?

Our program works to support acceptance, social connections, and future planning through a team based model. The futures-planning initiative focuses on executive functioning, academic support, financial literacy, college and employment connections and readiness, and social/emotional health and well-being. The “Futures Planning” model is unique because of its person-centered planning approach. Additionally, because the majority of program staff members have come through the Marshall University system, their relationships and collaborative approach help establish a climate of trust, acceptance, and cooperation within the university community.

Q: Are there tiered levels of support? If so, what are they?

There are not tiered levels of supports, only the full-time support for enrolled students. However, students who only want to participate in the social skills building group (Discovery Group) may do so for a $500 semester fee.

Q: How much time do students spend using the support – with peer mentors, with other support services?

On average, students receive eight to 10 face-to-face hours of support per week. Participating students have access to a supervised study hall every day (Sun – Sat) for two hours per day. They also have access to a mental health counselor. Every weekend there is a social activity that varies based on student interest. Examples include athletic events, dinners, movies, game nights, holiday celebrations, and talent shows. Discovery Group is also included in the list of offered services. They have also established a “Health and Wellness” group that focuses on healthy lifestyle choices to promote positive physical and mental health.

Q: How long is the typical road to graduation? And, as a follow-up, what degrees are students pursuing?

The majority of students take five years to complete their degrees. However, this is highly dependent upon whether or not they changed majors, transferred from another institution, or enrolled in summer coursework. The College Program has supported students from every one of the 11 colleges that Marshall University has to offer. The program is proud to have supported graduates from various degree programs, with the majority graduating from the department of computer and information technology.

Q: What criteria do you use to measure success, is it just graduation rate or are assessments/satisfaction surveys being given periodically throughout the program?

The program currently maintains a 94% graduation rate and is working to evaluate quality of life measures from alumni (such as employment/housing/relationships).

Q: What are your approaches to collaborating with admissions, financial services, disability services, academic support, and university faculty? Have you encountered any resistance or challenges? If so, what have been the approaches that have supported acceptance of the program and the students within the college community?

The team approach is the primary element that has contributed to the program’s success. Through this approach, they see significant student acceptance and growth in the college and employment communities. They also have strong partnerships and collaboration with families, as well as university colleagues in student affairs, residential life, admissions, financial services, disability services, academic support, and among faculty. Another valued and important feature is the training and support provided to peer mentors, residential life staff, and support coordinators.

Q: Can you talk a bit about the very important and valuable training provided to res life staff, how that is done and what approaches have been most successful?

Utilizing the Allies Supporting Autism Spectrum Diversity Training, the program successfully achieves the goal of informing and educating individuals or groups to provide a safe and accepting environment for individuals living with autism through the mission of advocating for diversity and promoting understanding to support and develop awareness.

Q: Are students that have graduated surveyed one, two, or three years out to fully understand outcomes?

This is evolving. They are not yet collecting follow up data, but are working to create a database of alumni to find out this information. The vast majority of students are from out of state and once they graduate they do not have access to continuing supports. However, they are working to develop an Employment Coordinator position for transition to work services. Their employment workshop is currently being offered for the fourth year.

Q: If you were giving advice to a college or university considering developing a support model like the one at Marshall, what would you suggest? And, for our prospective students and families, what should they look for when considering college and universities that have support programs like yours?

Build a team that has robust and meaningful partnerships with the institution’s disability services, student affairs, and academics. Utilize existing tools like centers for teaching and learning to work together to assess needs, challenges, and the best approach for the particular college or university.

Prospective students and families should visit the colleges and universities. Talk to the people who provide support, assess the culture and “feel” of the community, and find the best fit for the individual.

Thanks again to Dr. Hansen for her generous and insightful replies.

Questions for Susan?
Let us know in the comments.

If you’re a family beginning the search for a college program to support your student, check out our core issues pages for parents: Interdependence and the College Experience and The Academic World: An Introduction for Parents. They give a great overview with tons of links to related STS materials.

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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.

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