Trip Report: University of Southern California

I visited the University of Southern California (USC) in January of 2015 (before I started this blog).  I did not tour the campus because my focus was solely on the resources offered to students with learning disabilities.


Disabilities and the admissions process

Disability does not trigger any special review at the admissions office.  Disclosing a disability can still be helpful in providing a context for under-performance in high school.  Applicants are allowed to send in documentation, including IEPs and 504s — a useful benefit.



Although I called ahead, no arrangements were made for my visit.  This is a good thing (if somewhat bruising to the ego), as it allows for candid discussions with the actual staff, as opposed to administrators who may stick more closely to a script.  The staff I interviewed were open and friendly.  They appeared to be happy with what they were doing and well-equipped to do it.

The philosophy of “student as self-advocate” rules here.  Even after a student has registered with Disability Services, there is no follow up to determine whether he or she is using accommodations or whether those accommodations are helpful.

When I posed a hypothetical question about a parent calling in to ask Disability Services to do a “wellness check” on a student who appeared to be “lost” (i.e., not calling home, not showing up to class), the counselor took me literally, stating that she would call the campus police.  Maybe it was how I asked the question?  Perhaps, but I would hope that under such circumstances, the Disability Services office would reach out to that student, offer assistance, and encourage him or her to “check in” with the concerned parent.

The Disability Services office is also not well integrated into the rest of the university support system for students.  If a student is doing poorly in class, the tutoring and student advisory system responds but does not notify Disability Services unless the student reports the disability as a cause of the under-performance.  If parent-student ties and communication are frayed, valuable time might be lost while the student is floundering.

This is not unusual for universities across the country, even those with well equipped disability centers like USC.  My recommendation:  know your student well. If he or she is comfortable disclosing a condition and any problem encountered while at the university, the staff appears ready and willing to assist, and more than competent and equipped to do so.  If not, your student could get lost.  A certain amount of “helicopter parenting” may be necessary for students enrolled at USC.

But there is more here than just the Disability Services department.  I also visited the Kortschak Center for Learning and Creativity, down the hall – and independent from – the Office of Disability Services.  It is an ambitious and helpful attempt to assist students with learning disabilities who are having trouble with their studies.

The Center does not address students who are only having trouble in one class; those students are referred to subject-specific tutors in their respective academic disciplines.  Similarly, students who are having life struggles are directed to counseling resources.  The Center is the place for students who have systemic problems with issues such as executive functioning, language processing disorders, and dyslexia.

This last group of students visits Center coaches every week.  These students are exposed to new tablet applications (all Apple, no Android yet).  The staff demonstrated for me a “mind mapping” software package, Inspiration, which allows students to use visual outlines and flow charts in unusual ways.  This software is particularly clever because it also stores the underlying data in a Microsoft Word outline.

All of this activity is separate from Disability Services.  The Kortschak Center is looking to reach all students and identify those who are frustrated by their particular form of cognition — if some of those students have a learning disability (and many will be), so much the better.

So we are left with this:  a Disability Services department which is properly equipped and staffed but does not appear to offer outreach to parents or proactive intervention for students in distress.  This is in line with many other large universities. However, a student who can “self-advocate” is rewarded with access to a state-of-the-art, perhaps even breakthrough, learning lab that teaches them skills they can use for the rest of their lives.

Intriguing, yes?



This is only one data point, representing a single visit to a busy campus with many people, including supervisors, with whom I did not meet.  It is just my opinion, which no doubt reflects certain biases and preconceptions.

Further, there is always the possibility that I misheard, or was misinformed, about the information presented here.  I will be happy to correct any errors brought to my attention.

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