I visited the University of the Ozarks in March of 2015. Full disclosure: I was one of ten consultants invited to participate in an all expenses paid trip to tour the University and its disability services facility.
The University is in Clarksville, Arkansas, about 1 hour and 45 minutes from Little Rock. The route is via freeway all the way, and access to the campus is straightforward.
Clarksville is a dot in the middle of a large rural area with a population of less than 10,000 people. What there is of downtown is miniscule; social life appears to be centered on campus. There is no getting around it: this is a very small campus basically in the middle of nowhere. If students and families can get past that (and many will not), there is much to be had here for the right student.
Clarksville is affiliated with the Presbyterian Church, and some religious influence can be seen on campus. Participation appears voluntary, with the exception of a single required religion class.
The campus itself looks like it could accommodate many more than 600 students, and the facilities look much nicer than you might expect from the description above. Think Sam Walton’s (and friends) donations, spent tastefully and effectively, and you will not be far off.
A standout is the media program, which appears to be what you might find in the heart of a much larger campus. You can – and the students do – produce TV broadcasts and run a low power FM station there. One very busy faculty member with a professional resume runs a very impressive operation that seems outsized for a campus of 600 students. I believed her claim that many of her students move seamlessly into television production jobs.
As you might expect, the outdoors is another huge part of the student experience. Arkansas is chock full of lakes and rolling hills, and the campus claims them for its own. There are bike trails, canoeing, hiking, rock climbing – if you can do it outside, Ozarks students are doing it. Students run a large outdoors operation, complete with opportunities to earn wilderness and fast water certifications. Ample equipment is available for rentals. If you live in the outdoors, or want to learn how to do so, this is a good place to do it.
The University offers a major in environmental studies, whose students work with government agencies and local environmental NGOs. Some of those students take jobs with those organizations after graduation.
I came away impressed with the sheer effort and enthusiasm behind it all. Having met a half-dozen of the faculty, I can report that they are, to use those hoary buzzwords, qualified (often sporting Ph.Ds from recognized schools), committed, and engaged. Most important, they are particularly committed to their Jones Center students.
The Jones Center
The Jones Center is the latest innovation from a progressive institution. Consider that the University of the Ozarks is:
- One of the first co-educational schools west of the Mississippi River.
- The first college in Arkansas to admit women (1875).
- The first historically white college in Arkansas to graduate an African-American (1959).
- The first historically white college in the state to have an African-American compete in intercollegiate sports (1963).
And, of most immediate relevance here . . .
- The first college in the nation to establish a program for college students with learning disabilities (1971).
That mission – to accommodate special needs students and keep them as part of the mainstream community – has informed the University’s activities ever since.
The Jones Center opened in 1994 for students with learning differences, including ADHD; two years later, the Center created a program for ASD (autism spectrum) students, as well.
The philosophy is inclusive – Jones Students are treated like the other students. They take the same classes, and the same tests. Yes, Jones Students may spend time at the Jones Center, and their exams may be proctored there instead of in class. But the idea that learning disabled students need to stay engaged with the wider world is firmly in place here.
The only concession appears to be additional assistance to ASD students, who are peer mentored in nice apartments next to the student dorms until they are acclimated enough to join their fellow students in the dorms.
Our group of consultants was invited to the University by the Jones Center. We started off, not in Clarksville, but in Little Rock at a luncheon provided by the school. We heard from an impassioned parent who explained the hugely positive impact the Jones Center had on her son. I was moved and impressed. There is clearly a lot of caring here. But is it backed by resources and technique? What does roughly $20,000 per year buy a student at the Jones Center?
Those questions were addressed at the Jones Center itself. The low-slung building occupies about 3,000 square feet, subdivided into offices, cubicles, and a conference room. Fancy is it not, and it must be crowded when in full swing.
But “full swing” is probably an understatement. The Jones Center cohort of 58 students are served by 14 permanent staff and an army of over 100 carefully screened and trained tutors, readers, and transcribers. Ponder that for a moment; each student is basically equipped with a village of helpers.
The heart of the system is the dozen or so coordinators. These coordinators have daily meetings with each student concerning academic and social subjects. A lot of attention is paid to developing executive function skills. Reading and math labs with appropriate technology are available. Advisors specific to the Jones Center help students schedule classes to accommodate their disabilities.
The Jones Center surrounds the student with a “circle of support”. As the student matures, that circle is loosened accordingly, until the student can function independently.
The Jones Center offers a separate admissions pathway to the school. The University has forgiving thresholds for admission: an 18 ACT or 2.0 GPA will suffice. But it gets more interesting for students who, for whatever reason, do not meet this threshold. The Jones Center will independently review psycho-educational tests (or even perform its own) to determine whether the student has potential. Such students may be admitted outright or provisionally.
When asked about the low cut-offs for admissions, the University staff (not Jones Center staff) emphasized that the mission of the University was to take students who may not have lived up to their potential for a variety of reasons (including disability), help them decide on their future path, and then help them begin to walk that path as they leave campus. The University is not looking for scholars so much as potential actors in the world.
I’ve painted an admiring picture of the University and the Center, but is the picture bright for every potential applicant? Who are the right students for this environment?
It is easier to define who would not fit in here:
- Students who reject a rural environment.
- Students who desire a lively social life outside campus.
- High achieving students. The school simply does not have enough high-caliber students to push each other to perform; this is not a school which confers prestige.
- Students whose needs include psychotherapy and medication management. At the time of my visit, The University was having trouble attracting therapists and doctors to the Clarksville area because of its size and remoteness. There is no campus mental health center.
If the University can attract enough therapists and doctors on a contract basis to drive from Little Rock to Clarksville a couple of times a week to see students, it will resolve this issue for the majority of prospective students. This is a work in progress, and students and families potentially requiring those services should ask tough questions before proceeding.
- Students who do not accept that they have a disability which is interfering with their ambitions. This is perhaps the most important criterion. Students are going to be cosseted with attention. Unless they “buy in” to the fact that they need all of this support, they are likely to resent it and fail to thrive.
Students who are best suited to this campus are likely to be those who:
- Are aware of, if not frustrated, by their differences, and seek a supportive community which allows them to mainstream themselves socially and academically. This may range from the burly hunter at our meeting rocking in his chair with severe AD/HD, to the woman who matter-of-factly stated that Ozarks was her fourth college, but that she was confident that the Jones Center would help her graduate from this one.
- Will benefit from very close contact with faculty.
- Are less status conscious, have ties to the region, but would like to develop a wider vision of that big world out there and help to thrive in it.
For this smaller group, the Jones Center promises to be a wonderful option.
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 misunderstood, or was misinformed, about the information presented here. I will be happy to correct any errors brought to my attention.