Options for College Success: Helping Students with Special Needs

For many high school seniors there’s little question that college is the next step.

But for special needs students the transition from high school to college, or to getting a job, is a daunting and sometimes impossible task.

Learning-challenged students now have an invaluable resource to help them achieve their goals of getting a post-secondary education and living independently.

Options for College Success in Evanston was founded four years ago by Christine Anderson and Soshana Axler as part of the women’s vision to provide personalized support for young adults with special needs who otherwise would have difficulty attending college or finding a job. Their program helps students with learning disabilities, Autism, Fragile X, Cerebral Palsy, hearing or visual impairments, and a variety of other conditions that affect their chances of success after high school.

In just a few years, Options for College Success has perfected a method to help students achieve their goals, whether it be attaining a college degree, finding a job or being able to live on their own. Anderson, the executive director, finds that often after one to three years in the program her students are more prepared than typical college students to succeed and live independently. “Options for College Success teaches the way the student learns and that’s what makes our students successful,” she explains. “We focus on what they can do instead of what they can’t do.”

Twenty students currently live in either the residential program and reside at Options for College Success’ facilities; or in the extension program, where they attend a two- or four-year college while receiving support to be successful. While these programs offer some general structure, each student receives personalized support and one-on-one attention from members of the Options for College Success team.

But, inspiration is not a one way road at Option for College Success. Director of Admissions and Development Axler says that she is inspired daily by her students. Though it was difficult for her to pinpoint just one student whose accomplishments really moved her, she told me the story of one particularly inspiring young man.

This student started in the residential program because he was incapable of living on his own and had major difficulties with school. Through continued learning and support, he was able to transition into the extension program where he earned a two-year degree from Oakton Community College and is now at Northeastern University studying English. Axler says they are working with him now on finding jobs in publishing, a point no one ever thought this young man would get to. “As much as we impact them, they impact us because every day they accomplish things that no one ever expected them to be able to do,” she says.

So many young people with disabilities are never given the proper support they need to have the success they want. Options for College Success is doing just that for Chicago-area students and students from around the country who are finally able to reach their goals.