Mental illness most often strikes individuals during their late teens and early twenties, at which time many are students whose education is then interrupted by the onset of their illness. Returning to college after an extended absence caused by mental illness can be difficult, if not impossible, without the availability of educational support services.
College of San Mateo's Transition to College program has been highly successful in supporting individuals with psychological disabilities to attend college and achieve academic, vocational and/or personal goals. The program's unique approach combines special emphasis instruction, educational accommodations and peer support to assist students to succeed in college. Traditionally, the attrition rate for individuals with psychological disabilities has been exceptionally high as a result of anxiety, low stress tolerance, lack of academic and social skills, and low self-esteem. The Transition to College program, which was established in Spring 1991, has successfully reversed this trend at College of San Mateo; the program boasts a retention rate of 83 percent.
Students Find New Hope
Students in the program are individuals who have severe mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia and major mood disorders. These students have been identified by community agencies working with the college and referred to the Transition to College counselor or case manager. The majority are unemployed and receiving disability assistance. Most have been ill for more than 10 years and have been hospitalized repeatedly, including lengthy stays at long-term hospitals for up to one year at a time. Seventy-five percent had attempted college unsuccessfully prior to enrolling in the program and had abandoned any hope of achieving educational or career goals.
Thus far the Transition to College program has served more than 1000 individuals over a period of ten years. Approximately 100 students are presently active in the program each semester.
Accommodations Offset Limitations Presented by Psychological Disabilities
As part of a larger, established program for students with disabilities at College of San Mateo, the Transition to College program provides students with psychological disabilities individualized accommodations that offset limitations presented by their disability, which might otherwise affect their ability to succeed in college. These accommodations vary according to the needs of each individual and are arranged for or provided by Transition to College staff or peer counselors.
Accommodations and services most frequently utilized by students are:
- Disability-related counseling
- Peer support groups and peer counseling
- Special emphasis instruction
- Study labs
- Liaison with faculty and other college staff
- Special college orientation
- Assistance with registration and financial aid
- Extended time and/or change of location for exams
- Special parking arrangements
- Note taking services and tape recorders
- Seating arrangement modifications
- Individualized study skills training
- Time management training
- Beverages allowed in class
- Identified place to meet on campus before or after class that is non-threatening
Special Class Sections, Counseling, and Peer Support Provide a Safe Re-Entry to College
Students in the Transition to College program experience a safe beginning, or re-entry, to college through attendance in courses on college orientation and study skills, disability management, and peer counseling; these are all specially designed with the needs of individuals with psychological disabilities in mind. The students report that the special class sections are most helpful in providing encouragement and support and in developing their self-confidence in the college environment. As a result of the classes, staff have observed student improvement in the following areas:
Higher self-esteem and increased self-confidence in the campus environment; improved study skills and increased knowledge of campus resources; improved interpersonal skills; improved classroom skills (i.e., higher personal, academic and career goals; increased number of long-term goals).
Additionally, students in the program are advised and encouraged by counselors, educational case managers and peer counselors familiar with their disability who maintain liaison with their community therapists and social workers. Weekly support groups and study labs led by peers and staff provide additional support that focuses on mastering the college environment. These support services continue as students mainstream into general college courses.
Key to Program's Success
One of the strongest points of the program, and key to its success, is the liaison and inter-referral of the Transition to College staff with San Mateo County Mental Health Services, the Mental Health Association of San Mateo County, Alliance for the Mentally Ill, Peninsula Network of Mental Health Clients, National Outreach for Mental Health, Caminar Supported Housing, County Vocational Rehabilitation Services, and the California Department of Rehabilitation Services. These community agencies and consumer groups were instrumental in the development of the program and continue to actively participate with the college by contributing staff time as co-instructors for the specialized courses, consultants to college personnel, educational case managers and supervisors for peer counselors. They also assist by providing funds for books, art supplies and peer counselors.
An Experiential Training in Providing Educational and Employment Support Through College and Community Partnership
The Laboratory is an innovative training designed for mental health and rehabilitation providers, college faculty and administrators, mental health consumers and their family members or other individuals interested in starting or improving an integrated Supported Education (SE) and employment program. The Laboratory is an exciting opportunity to understand and experience the inner workings of an exemplary Supported Education program that is producing educational, recovery and employment outcomes. During this two-day intensive tour and training, participants interact with the consumer/students, educators and providers at all levels of the process and come away with the knowledge, inspiration and principles of collaboration needed to improve educational and employment outcomes in their home community.
Background and Development
Prior to the initiation of the Transition to College program at College of San Mateo, few if any special services or accommodations were being offered to persons with psychological disabilities attending community college in California, although access to these accommodations and services was mandated by law under Section 504 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act. This was in part a result of the fact that "psychological disability" was omitted from state categorical funding for disabled students until December 1992, providing community colleges no economic incentive to serve students with mental illnesses, and in part due to the perception that this population is too sick, disruptive or academically unskilled to succeed in higher education.
In 1990, a growing mental health consumer movement in San Mateo County began to focus on the lack of supportive services for the psychologically disabled at local community colleges and a coalition of consumer groups approached the San Mateo County Community College District to request the development of services and programs.
Faced with budget reductions and lack of state categorical funding for this population, college administration could not immediately fund new programs, but offered to meet with the groups on an on-going basis to pool resources and seek outside funding to expand services and develop programs. In Spring 1991, the college, assisted by and in cooperation with this coalition, applied for and received funding from the State Chancellor's Office to develop a model service site for students with psychological disabilities at College of San Mateo. As a model service site, the college was instrumental in changing state categorical funding policies to include students with psychological disabilities. Since the completion of its responsibilities as a model service site in 1992, Transition to College has become an established part of College of San Mateo's Special Programs and Services division.
In addition to serving as a model site for the State Chancellor's Office, Transition to College has twice served as a research site for nationwide studies on supported education: 1991-1994, Boston University; 1995-1998, University of Arizona.
The program has received recognition through the following awards: Pyramid Award for Outstanding Achievement in Student Development, awarded by the Interassociation Group, a coalition of three national Student Services Student Development organization; presented at an Interassociation Conference which focused on national priorities for the 90's held in Chicago, Illinois in October 1992; Recognition Award for "Outstanding Dedication, Effort and Support to those with Mental Illness and their Families", awarded by the San Mateo chapter of the Alliance for the Mentally Ill, April 1993; A.J. Russell Kent Award, from the San Mateo County School Boards Association, April 1994; and semifinalist in the Ford Foundation's 1994 Innovations Awards