Beacon College (visited 11/29-30/18)
Beacon is one of the few colleges in the country (and the first to offer 4-year degrees) dedicated specifically to students with learning differences, ADD/ADHD, and ASD. Relatively new (it opened in 1989), campus is integrated into the town of Leesburg, about an hour north of Orlando. They’ve made huge strides in the last several years in terms of enrollment growing from 97 students five years ago to 400 today.
The physical growth has also been dramatic. “What we did inside – the academics – showed that we were serious. The outside … not so much.” They repurposed several local buildings such as using the old train depot as the fitness center and turning an old store into the library. “It’s the center of campus that spoke to academic quality.” They’ve already put $10m into buildings with another $18.5m planned for the next couple years.
Regarding academic standards, “our mission hasn’t changed. We are not allowed to modify the curriculum: it has to be academic, not functional – BUT we can modify the methods.” This is a rigorous undergraduate institution devoted to the success with learning and attention issues, including students on the spectrum.”
“We’re small and personal. We don’t have a lot of large gathering spaces, but we’re hoping to change that,” said one of the admissions reps. During the admission process, they do ask for students’ Ed Psych or other testing. “We want the whole picture to see if the students will benefit from what they’re being offered at the college. We want them to be successful. Many of them come here having failed already, and we don’t want that to continue.”
Students are extraordinarily successful here; this place is changing their lives. The student panelists got up to introduce themselves, and they were more articulate than students on most other panels I’ve heard:
- “I never thought I’d be standing here saying ‘I’m a senior’ or that I did it.”
- “I finally got an A in math.”
- “There are systems in place to help you excel. I’m glad to be working alongside amazing people.”
- “I was getting As in HS so flunking out of community college was a shock. Beacon has made a world of difference. I made my first semester of straight As. I left the country for the first time. It put the world in perspective.”
- “I’m one of the most social introverts you’ll ever meet.”
- “A lot of people around here bother with me.”
They boast an 83% graduation rate with a Bachelor’s degree; about 12% of the students will graduate with their Associate’s degree, even though far more start off by saying that was their goal. Once they get going, many of them continue on for the 4-year degree. One of the students we talked to was transferring to a larger state school after his AS degree; he’s going into engineering and wants to work for NASA or Lockheed Martin.
There are only 7 majors to choose from here: Human Services, Psych, Humanities, Studio Arts, Business Management (hospitality or management tracks), Computer Info Systems (Web & Digital Media or Info Systems tracks), and Anthrozoology! Students in this major often go on to work in wildlife management, park rangers, do a certificate in vet tech, etc. “It’s not the hard sciences.” Students would like to see more options for majors like culinary arts or education.
They offer a Study-Abroad program called “Beacon in Tuscany,” held in Prato, an 18-minute train ride from Florence. Students live in a family-run hostel and use the breakfast room as their classroom. There are also 10-day travel trips in June to places like Alaska, the Galapagos, and Japan.
Support services make sure students have the skills to be successful with the motto that “We support but we don’t rescue – we don’t do it for them.” They offer 1-on-1 mentoring sessions with the learning specialist (1 hour per week) and peer tutoring (3 sessions per week). Open mentoring hours are lead by learning specialists 4 hours a day, 6 days/wee. “The reality is that a boss is not going to sit there while they write reports or help them organize. Parents aren’t, either.” There are different programs such as Transitions from HS to College and an Intro to Navigator PREP program which includes weekly check-in during a student’s senior year in high school after acceptance to Beacon! This requires an earlier deposit to the college in order to participate. They focus on maximizing the pre-college and transition experience. If they’re accepted by the end of October, they get access to the 10-month coaching from Nov-Aug
What differentiates them? The Dean of Admissions says it’s the faculty. They’re not isolated into separate offices; students work with them to acknowledge the struggles they have in the classroom. They come here to work with students because they want to. Strategies are reinforced in the classroom. It’s a community – “You need this to guide them on their own paths.”
Almost all students (92%) live on campus to help with executive functioning and socialization, and they recently opened a new Res Hall with 74 single rooms in suites to make sure this could happen. This houses mostly freshman (traditional, 18 year old/just graduated from High School) to help ease transition into college. Transfers are housed in another building. This is a support-animal friendly campus. All students are on the 19 meals/week plan. Food got mixed reviews (although an alumni from the admissions office said that it has gotten better recently), but the dining hall is fairly small. It’s in a cool building; part of it feels very much like a ski lodge, but it’s a bit cramped.
There’s a fair amount to do on and around campus. There are organized weekend trips and social activities. “Even 30 people is a good turnout given our population.” The student center feels like a large, sort of basic community rec center – basically a large room with some couches and ping pong/pool tables. There are informal Greek organizations on campus because they’re too small for the PHA to agree to formal chapters. They do some competitions with athletics, but there are no formal varsity teams right now. Shuttles are offered around town and to the Orlando airport. Students are also taught how to navigate bus systems since some people will not drive.