118: College Admissions for Students with Learning Challenges, with Pamela Ellis

Picture of hosted by Penny Williams

hosted by Penny Williams

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The college admissions process can be complicated and overwhelming. There’s no much for you and your teen to consider and make decisions on in order to find a good fit, especially when learning challenges also have to be considered.

In this episode, I talk with Dr. Pamela Ellis about the five areas of fit to consider and how to find schools that will support your student’s learning challenges.


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My Guest


Pamela Ellis — The Education Doctor® — helps teens find a college that feels like home and partners with parents to avoid over-paying. Her experience with the education system includes advising school districts, community organizations, and institutes of higher education.

As a result of her research into student transitions from high school to college — and evaluating the ways colleges successfully retain their student populations once admitted — she developed The Education Doctor® curriculum. She has visited more than 450 colleges and universities internationally to gain insight into their varying cultures and to explore the range of academic and social opportunities available to students on campus. Her research areas include high school to college transition, parent engagement, African-American males in education, and college completion.



Intro (00:03): The student owns their future. They own that college admissions process and it's really a whole mindset shift or the student and for the parent. Welcome to the parenting ADHD podcast, where I share insights and strategies on raising kids with ADHD straight from the trenches. I'm your host, Penny Williams. I'm a parenting coach, author ADHD, a highlight and mindset. Mama honored to guide you on the journey of raising your atypical kid. Let's get started. Welcome back to the parenting ADHD podcast. I am really looking for

Penny Williams (00:52): This conversation today with Dr. Pamela Ellis. We are talking about college admissions, which I know is so difficult for so many parents of kids with learning challenges, because not only are we looking really for the right fit for what our kid might want to study or the right environment for them, we're also looking for the rank college or university for learning challenges. And that can be another layer of what we really have to research and look into and make decisions about. So really excited to offer this to you guys today, will you start Dr. Pamela with introducing yourself who you are and what you do?

Pamela Ellis (01:31): Oh, absolutely. Penny, thank you so much. I am really excited to join you today. So I'm Dr. Pamela Ellis. And in short, what I do is I partner with busy moms to help their team find a college that feels like home without overpaying

Penny Williams (01:52): Feels like home. That is so good. Yeah.

Pamela Ellis (01:55): Yes, yes. And very important because they're going away from home in many cases for the first time, and it's a big life shift and adjustment. And so it's important that wherever they go after high school, that it does feel like home, like an old shoe and comfortable in so many ways.

Penny Williams (02:19): I love that. Yeah. Let's talk then about what parents are really looking for, how do they help to guide their kids in this decision of where they want to go, maybe even what they want to study or what they're going to start doing once they arrive.

Pamela Ellis (02:35): Yeah, that's a pretty big question. One of the things that I always share with parents in thinking about this is that the whole process really starts with their team in terms of who their teen is and what their, why he is for college. And we often times for many of us, we've probably read Sinek's book, start with why, and that book applies to college admissions as well, because when you start with why it makes all the difference in terms of everything else, that's going to happen in the process. And so if your teen wants to go to college to be more independent, maybe that's their why for college, then that's going to make a difference in terms of what you do, same way. If their, why is they want to go to prepare for a career. And so it always starts though with what's the why.

Pamela Ellis (03:40): And then it could be doing some initial interests, inventories, or assessments to get a sense for what they may want to study. What type of college could be a good fit for them. And I want to share penny something for your listening audience, because we hear a lot about finding a good fit. And there is some factors of fit that I want parents to consider that helps to really make this a little bit more practical. And that is, there are five areas of fit, and I'll just describe them briefly. So the academic fit, which is really what the curriculum is at that particular college, and that could be academic learning center accents, it's the teeny ratio. It's also particular disciplines. So that's the academic fit. The second area of fit is social. So where can they go and make friends that's the important piece for the social fit.

Pamela Ellis (04:56): And you can look at the residential experience to learn a little bit more about that fit. The third area fit is the financial fit. So it's what types of scholarships or what types of financial aid is offered at a, at a college because you want that financial fit to also be there. And then the fourth area of fit is vocational. So what is it that they want to do after college? And does that college provide them the support for doing that either through their career planning and placement office or through their alumni network. Those are the two areas to look at for that. And then the fifth area of fit, which is I didn't even mention it in my book, but certainly is become more resonant in the last year in the environment that we're in that's cultural fit.

Pamela Ellis (05:52): So however, your team may be different from the majority of students on that campus. How will that play a role in terms of that college being able to serve them well? So those are the five areas of fit. And if we go back to looking at that academic fit, especially around the learning difference there are a whole host of colleges that can be a great fit for your team, with whatever type of learning difference they have, because colleges are certainly aware that students are all different types of learners and they do make efforts to support students in that regard. I'm going to stop right next. I feel like I've said a lot. I want everyone to be able to unpack it a little bit,

Penny Williams (06:51): Right. To process. Yeah. So I was just thinking, when you talked about your five areas of fit, that balance with those is super important. My daughter is in college, she's in her fourth year and she prioritized that vocational fed and ended up going six hours from home, even though she didn't know any wedding, she's a huge introvert and has a lot of anxiety. And so that piece of it was not a great fit and she struggled some with that. And I think had we known better trying to find some balance with that would have been a little more helpful to her, but at the time she was very, very focused on vocational. That was her number one in this was the place and that was it. And it turns out she actually decided after diving into that area of study a little bit, that she did not want to do animation. And that was why she had chosen that school further away than she wanted to be. So I just cautioned that balance seems to be really important. And especially I think with kids, with learning differences who are still gonna depend on us in different ways and will need that support.

Pamela Ellis (08:07): Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. And when I am talking with families about those five areas of fit, I'm do me that balance of it. I don't mean that any one of them supersedes another. And a lot of times kids and parents alike will become super focused around one of those areas. And perhaps it's done subconsciously, but they will get honed in on a particular brand name of a college. And it's usually for one particular reason that they're home D and on net college, that pretty much probably aligns up with one of those five areas. They're focused on that. But when they look at it holistically, as far as the balance across the other four areas, they oftentimes find that, Ooh, this college really isn't a fit for me. Like I thought it would be. So, yes. So one of the things that I do with my students when we are working on developing their list is I have them complete a rubric that just goes through item by item, really how to research a college.

Pamela Ellis (09:22): And they're looking at the college, they're researching it based on those five areas. And when they do that, it usually takes them a little bit of time to do it, like a half hour, 45 minutes to do, to research one college. But when they do it that way, they find that, wow, this is a little bit different than I thought it would be. And that's really about looking at all areas of fit and not just focusing on one, because that opens up a lot so that you do get to having that balance. And it's not just one sided because kids, they change their mind they they I know for me, I was just share my story. I thought I was going to major in physics when I went to college. And all I needed to do was to take a physics class my first quarter and completely bombed out of that. And that was the end of it, you know? So yeah.

Penny Williams (10:23): I have a similar science college story myself. Yes.

Pamela Ellis (10:27): So yeah, I ended up majoring in linguistics there's something I never heard of before, but I loved it. And so you change your mind. A lot of things change the same with students who say they want to go to college to be a scholar athlete and they get there and they no longer want to do that sport. So what do you do if that was the only reason you went to that college? So you need that balance

Penny Williams (10:54): Matters. And I love that you have a rubric for the students to complete for that. So that it's something outside of parents telling them that they need to pay attention to these other factors. Because often they don't listen very much to us. They don't want to take our advice because we're the parents. So that's a really helpful thing to have some outside influence. That's helping them to research themselves and get that balance.

Pamela Ellis (11:20): Yes. I hate to say it, but there's one of the reasons that my business thrives is because teens don't listen to their parents and that's, I know that from my own kids, they don't listen to me. But if you were to tell them, they would listen to you cause you were third party. And so it works certainly that way with me in terms of the families that I work with out here, parents often remark that they'll say Dr. Pamela I've been telling them that for a hundred years and they wouldn't, they wouldn't do anything about it, but you tell them and they'd done it. Yeah. Cause I mean, I'm not their parent and it's true. And there was the same way for me growing up. I mean, my parents didn't know anything until I got to college that's the whole relationship really shifted where I listened to them. And especially now that I'm a mom, it's like, wow, my mom had some wisdom,

Penny Williams (12:17): Right? Yeah. It was when I became a parent that I was like, Oh, this is all falling into place. Now I get it. Yeah. But it's hard to really get our teens to take our advice in a lot of ways. And they want to find their own path. And I think there's a lot of power in that for them finding their own path. And, but they have to do it with the practicality and also need to understand that that path is still going to grow and change. They aren't necessarily going to end up at the end of college where they started, they might change their major. They might start not knowing what to do and find their way through that process. Or they could be like me and be 35 before they figure out, Oh, what I was doing is not what I want to do. This is what I really want to do. Right. Because life also creates that journey.

Pamela Ellis (13:07): Yeah. And you bring up a really good point around what I refer to it is, is the student owns their future. They own that college admissions process. And it's really a whole mindset shift for the student and for the parent. But when I'm talking with them initially I share with them that that's, that's the glue that holds my whole framework together. You know, I have this great framework for how you can get in and get money for college and all of the research behind that and how it works. But it's nothing, if the team doesn't own the process. And so that's Uber important. And I always share that with parents is they're getting their child ready whether they do it on their own, they still need to let their team own the process because that's the only way they're going to really be able to find that those colleges that are a great fit and for them to thrive because when they own the process, they are actually developing those life skills that they're going to use in college and beyond.

Penny Williams (14:30): Yeah. And that all kind of circles back to the why if you're going to college, just because that's what you think you're supposed to do or because your parents want you to, and you really don't have any sort of connection to it. Otherwise it's going to be really tough for that student to succeed at that time. It doesn't mean that later down the road college might not be a good fit but maybe right. Then if there's really no meaning or motivation there, you might be flushing your money. You know, you might need to just postpone, just push that off a little bit and find some other things that are motivating, especially in our community with kids with differences, that's really important that they're ready and that they're owning it because if they don't, it's just going to flop and as being full for everyone, then

Pamela Ellis (15:19): It really is. And this where I think there's a lot of value in a gap year or a bridge year program that students can do immediately after high school. So any time really, it doesn't have to be immediately, but anytime between high school and college, because I know, I sure do wish I could have done that. It would have it would have just given me a better attitude and a way of navigating through college because I just couldn't really enjoy it and take advantage of the experience because I was already so stressed out from high school and then to go into a super high stressed environment thousands of miles away from home. And so those gap year and bridge year programs really do make a difference. And for some students it's a time to really figure out what they want to do in some cases before you go and make a quarter million dollar investment in them doing so. Yeah, giving them that time,

Penny Williams (16:28): There many gap year in bridge programs that are specific to learning differences or ADHD or autism spectrum. And those can be really fantastic and, and kind of bridging that gap in skills, giving them a little more time to catch up and also to learn those life skills that they're going to need because it's going to be on them. You know, we can help them through school at home and through high school and getting graduated and even applications and taking the tests they need. But once they turn 18 and once they're in college, it's up to them, they have to ask for the help, they have to use their skills. They have to manage themselves. And sometimes kids at 18 just aren't quite ready for that yet.

Pamela Ellis (17:14): Yeah. That's so true. Very true.

Penny Williams (17:17): Let's talk about some other things for kids with learning differences. What other supports are there? I think a lot of parents worry that their kid is not going to have any support at all, especially if they go far away to college and they're used to sort of scaffolding and being a real support system for them, they're really worried that they're not going to have any help with their learning differences, but there's lots of help to be had.

Pamela Ellis (17:42): Oh, there absolutely is. And you know, each campus may do it slightly differently, but I will look at a campus like university of Arizona. I take them for example, because I think of them as like a beacon in terms of being able to support students with learning differences. And I would say, look at what they're doing and use that as a good comparison for other colleges that could be a good fit for your team. And so some of the things that they offer, so they have this center call salt. I can't think of the, the full name for this acronym, but I think it's around academic learning center. And so at the salt center, what they hold, the resources they have are just incredible. And they have all kinds of wraparound support if you will, for students with learning differences. And so it's a way of students just being, being able to be a part of this community, where they have professionals there who understand well, how to support students with learning differences.

Pamela Ellis (19:07): It's also supported in the classroom is supported around your P through your peers that are there. And so that's why I call it a complete wraparound because it's not just you have this isolated academic learning center that you kind of go in hiding if you will, and feel somewhat stigmatized to go there. But there are other students on campus who work within salt they're professionals from the community. And so whatever your learning difference may be, they have some support there with it. And so they all have for example, note takers, they have these pans that they use. I can't remember the name of the live scribe. Yes, I think that's it. But there were, there were just, so they use the integrate technology well, in terms of helping students with their learning difference. And it's really all about what can we do to help students be successful?

Pamela Ellis (20:11): You know, whatever their learning difference is. And I, I did a presentation with them a few years ago because I worked with a lot of students and I would say probably more than have actually been diagnosed that have ADHD. And I wanted to visit more colleges that offered really robust services so that I could then have a good sense for how to help them with developing their list and making sure that the colleges could meet their academic needs in that way. And so I had done this presentation there and it was just, it was awesome in terms of all that they discussed around how they support students. And this is something that they've been doing for years and continue to do. And so you knew that they knew what they were talking about and they just put this together Willy nilly.

Pamela Ellis (21:13): But there are a number of other colleges that offer that. And so actually when you look at the college, certainly looking into their academic support center and looking at the professionals that they have working there what type of services they provide learning if there's a fee for those services, because sometimes colleges do charge for that and really seeing how your team will be supported there. And I know right now the majority of campuses are doing virtual visits, but you can connect with the academic learning center, even in that process of discovery you know, developing your college list. And I would reach out to them and ask questions and really find out how they're going to support your team once they're there, because they can always let you know, just their availability, if they have tutors.

Pamela Ellis (22:15): I mean, some colleges may have a writing center or they have a math center if you have dyscalculia. And so they're just so many different support services that they offer. And then if, if the college is located in a more remote location, oftentimes they may have professionals in the community that may be available to provide support services. So like at some of your more rural smaller colleges, that may be the way it's set up, but you can certainly ask those questions in that early phase of developing your list and really learning what they have to offer.

Penny Williams (23:00): Yeah. My daughter goes to a state supported college that has 30,000 students or close to it. And I was really amazed that they have not just for kids with learning differences or mental health challenges, but for all of the students, they have free tutoring. They have the writing center. They also have free counseling, which I think has a pretty big wait list. It's not perfect, but you know, they have some of that support. So not even just for academic, but also for emotional and mental health support, which is, which is huge. You know, it's, it's a big transition for kids. When I went to college, I was really excited to be independent and I really couldn't wait to go. And from my own, it was not the same. She did not have that same drive. And so the transition was harder for her. And I saw a lot of her friends too, in the kids that she was meeting there, that it was really hard for them as well.

Penny Williams (23:58): And I, I never, I guess I took for granted that I had all this motivation that made it easier for me to just dive in and do it and not all kids have that. And so it can really knock them off their feet at first and having support just for any student is really helpful, but definitely that, that mental health and emotional support is really ideal. I was always surprised by how many emotional support animals were in the dorms and in the apartment buildings. Like they're really open to so much of that, that different people need at different times. You know,

Pamela Ellis (24:36): We really are. And that has been a strong one of the stronger trends that I've seen over the last 20, 25 years is how much support campuses have now around mental and social, emotional wellness.

Penny Williams (24:56): Yeah. And it's so important. And when they get there and they're out of their element, it's even more important they need to have somewhere to reach out to you and get that support and that help oftentimes. And so, yeah, I'm just, I was really amazed.

Pamela Ellis (25:12): And the thing that brings up for me, penny is even looking at how colleges handle freshmen orientation that speaks volumes around the kind of support that they will have for students as they transition to a new home, a new campus life. And I mean, they shouldn't understand well, how to handle homesickness and what kinds of activities do they offer to get students engaged, to meet friends, even their housing policy and freshmen year can speak volumes to how they're going to support your team with transitioning because freshman year is such a critical year and speaks everything to the remainder of their college experience. And so that's something that I would also recommend looking into to get a sense for how will my team be supported when they're there. And oftentimes they will even they'll have, like the academic learning center will be very much involved in freshmen orientation so that students know that they're there because the key thing that we have to make sure our students understand before they go is that once they go, they have to self-advocate. And if they're not learning those self-advocacy skills, while they're in high school, then it just makes it a little bit of a challenge when they get to college. And so that's why it's important that the academic learning center they're taking part in freshmen orientation so that students know that they're there and what resources they offer and get connected sooner rather than later.

Penny Williams (27:07): Yeah. My daughter's freshman orientation was actually led by the director of the academic services department and he reiterated over and over. If you need something, ask for it we're here. And this was just for a general group of students this was for all the freshmen coming in. They really, I was, again, I was surprised it's been 25 years since I was at college, things have definitely changed for the better, and there's a lot more discussion and openness around learning challenges, mental health issues. And I think that's really, really important, especially for kids like, like mine the parents who are listening, it's, it's necessary to have that support. And it's also necessary to teach your kid to use it because I can't tell you how many parents of college kids I talked to who say, well, we talked all about it, but they refuse to use it. You know, you really have to, like you were saying, start on self-advocacy early and really build that, that attitude that I have differences, but it's okay. You know, when they're ashamed of it, then they're not going to use services that can really help them succeed.

Penny Williams (28:19): The other question I had was are there colleges? And I think the answer to this is yes, but are there colleges that cater specifically to students with learning challenges who only have students with learning challenges, let's say,

Pamela Ellis (28:32): Oh, there absolutely are there absolutely are, there are a number of them, one of them that comes to mind right away, a couple of them in the new England area, Curry college, C U R R Y, and Springfield college. So those are the couple of colleges that come to mind for me right away as having very strong support and almost predominantly students with academic learning differences. So I think Mitchell is another one. So those are the ones that come to mind right away. But there, so there are really many more than that. And

Penny Williams (29:18): Landmark college landmark college comes to mind for me because they also have gap year and summer programs and a lot of things to really get kids with learning differences, engaged in knowing that they could succeed at college and being prepared for it ahead of time.

Pamela Ellis (29:36): Absolutely do. And I visited their program for high schoolers, they have a boarding school there and a lot of my work earlier on was finding the right high school because that's certainly plays a huge role in terms of then going on to college. And so I had visited with them several years back and they had a wonderful, wonderful program there at the secondary level, but one of my students they had an amazing summer program. And so one of my students, she wouldn't have been a candidate for their boarding school, but she certainly was a great candidate for their summer program. And she participated in that. And boy did that really open her eyes. And I think open her confidence as far as self-advocacy and not carrying the shame around her academic difference and really positioned her well to find those colleges that were a good fit and to flourish and thrive once she got to college. And so that experience, that summer experience at landmark was really transformational. That's amazing you brought them up.

Penny Williams (31:00): Yeah. That was the one that I knew about. I'm sure there's some of so many more too and probably more and more cropping up as we have more and more neuro-diversity it's only growing in the need. And so hopefully there's more coming on the up and down the pipeline too. Any other big advice that you want to share tidbits for parents before we wrap up?

Pamela Ellis (31:26): I would say even in high school, making sure that your teen still has the tools that support their success academically and socially. And so one of the things that come to mind for me one of my students who had a learning difference he was talking to me about some of his struggles of keeping up in class and especially around note taking. And so the tool that I shared with him was how to do Cornell notes and testing that out as a way to be able to focus a little bit better in his class without being overwhelmed with the lecturing. And so just using a simple tool like that helped him to stay on track a bit better. And so I would offer to parents different tools or different methodologies that could work for them see some success in high school that could go a long way.

Pamela Ellis (32:44): Cause it certainly goes a long way in terms of confidence. And so much of this in a lot of ways is confidence. And I was just kind of looking around in my office to find this book, call, add friendly ways to organize your life. And I bought this book actually for myself because as I have worked with students over the years and you know, my daughter had gotten a diagnosis, but she was like on the border, if you will. And I just think something I haven't been diagnosed, but I certainly have some symptoms you're looking at that chart and if you choose five of them, it's like, Oh yeah, I think I have a seven of them at least because it sounds so crazy. But you know, when I was looking at the numbers and I can't, I don't remember where I was looking, but I was looking at the numbers and it was saying how a certain percentage of kids have ADHD and there was something like 9%, but the adult population is like two or 3%, I'm thinking like, really, it's almost like, do you not have it anymore?

Pamela Ellis (34:01): I'm thinking that it's because a lot of us adults I've never been diagnosed. Right. So anyway, but just some of the strategies in that book it could be really helpful and things that they can start applying in high school, not waiting for college, to be the place where they get the support or start doing. But how do you start doing that while they're still in high school and middle school and really giving them those opportunities to own their learning, even then

Penny Williams (34:34): I think success in high school makes you more confident that you could be successful in college, where if you really struggled in high school and it was just such a horrible experience, then can you hack it in college? I mean, that's what you're going to ask yourself in that situation. And success breeds success. So the better their high school experience, the more likely they would be to feel like they were capable of doing it and succeeding at it. And I think that's so, so important.

Pamela Ellis (35:05): That's so true.

Penny Williams (35:06): Yeah. Thank you so much for being here and sharing your insights, the college admission process and choosing school and finances and all the stuff that goes with it can be so overwhelming for parents. And it's so helpful to have someone like you who can guide us through that process and really help make it the most effective decision-making for our kids going forward.

Pamela Ellis (35:30): The key thing in all of my work is I want parents to be able to support their kids with grace and ease. I just don't believe in all of those stress and hype about, Oh, you gotta do this, that you got to take all these tests. And it's like, Oh no, please stop. Who wants to do all of that? Especially if you have more than one, I mean, you'll be running around like a crazy person, but really you need to do it with grace and ease. And so the thing that I think about every day is how do I manage down with this? And so when parents are asking me questions about what they should do, my first thought is what response can I give to them? That's going to take away some of the stress or take away the overwhelm of this whole process.

Penny Williams (36:23): So needed. Yeah. Such good work for everyone listening. You can get the show notes where I'll have links to Dr. Pamela's website and social media, as well as any of the resources that we've talked about. The books that Dr. Pamela has mentioned and other things, it will all be linked up there for you to make it easy for you to connect with her and her services. And also learn more about the resources that she has also recommended outside of that though. Show notes for this episode [email protected] slash one, one eight for episode 118. And with that, we're going to end the episode. Thank you again so much Dr. Pamela for being here and I will see everyone next time. Thanks for joining me on the parenting ADHD podcast. If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe and share, and don't forget to check out my online courses, parent coaching and mama [email protected].

Thank you!

If you enjoyed this episode, please share it. Have something to say, or a question to ask? Leave a comment below. I promise to answer every single one. **Also, please leave an honest review for the Beautifully Complex Podcast on iTunes. Ratings and reviews are extremely helpful and appreciated! That's what helps me reach and help more families like yours.

I'm Penny Williams.

I help stuck and struggling parents (educators, too) make the pivots necessary to unlock success and joy for neurodivergent kids and teens, themselves, and their families. I'm honored to be part of your journey!

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1 Comment
  • Hi, Penny. Thanks for your wonderful podcasts, and for the fantastic Parenting ADHD & Autism Summit. I listened to this podcast with Pamela Ellis and thought it had some good information. But I would like to hear more about knowing if your struggling ADHD student is ready for college. You are probably familiar with Michelle Garcia Winner (SocialThinking.com). She has some really good articles about the transition to adulthood: https://www.socialthinking.com/Search%20Results#q=preparing%20for%20the%20transition%20to%20adulthood
    She would make a fantastic guest on your podcast! She writes in one of the articles, “I have seen too many ‘bright' kids with Asperger Syndrome, high functioning ASD and ADHD…march off to college programs only to fall apart and drop out.” I am concerned for my high school junior with ADHD about many of the issues that Michelle Garcia Winner raises.

    I would also love to hear some podcasts about technology overuse, which is sinking my son and many others academically this year when EVERYTHING school related is done online (even when he is in person!) in our school district this year. The inability to resist entertainment while online is causing a lot of problems, and has raised red flags about college. In fact, it has led us to believe that community college is probably going to be a good choice for him after leaving high school. Dr. Delaney Ruston from the podcast Screenagers has some great podcasts about tech overuse and would be a great guest for you to have!

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