Villa Maria College, a private Catholic college, is known for having the highest percentage of students with a learning disability among all Buffalo-area colleges. But the college has seen these students struggle to succeed academically. The retention rate for students with learning disabilities was only 59%. While colleges are required by law to provide supports to students with disabilities, Villa Maria decided that it needed to do more. In 2015, the Tower Foundation awarded a three-year grant to help establish the ACHIEVE Program, modeled after a successful student support program at Notre Dame College in Ohio.
The ACHIEVE Program for Students with Learning Differences offers both a range of services and a place to go for tutoring and advisement, quiet study, test-taking, assistive technology, and social supports. Assistive technology includes text-to-speech software, speech recognition software, and smart pens and notebooks for better note-taking. Counseling sessions provide help with study habits, time management skills, and how to talk to instructors. All first-year students at Villa Maria are assigned a mentor, a college staff member available to ease the transition from high school by connecting students to social and academic supports, checking on student progress, and celebrating personal success. ACHIEVE Program students attend an orientation in the summer before classes begin to help them make the most of what the program has to offer. The ACHIEVE Program is a fee-based program, but many students are eligible for funding from New York State to cover the cost.
The ACHIEVE Program benefits from another Tower-supported initiative, a campus chapter of Eye to Eye. Eye to Eye brings together college students with learning disabilities like dyslexia and ADHD to work with younger students with similar challenges. Participation in Eye to Eye helps develop friendships, leadership skills, and self-advocacy know-how. Student leaders of the Villa Maria chapter of Eye to Eye are often drawn from the ACHIEVE Program.
Few grants are as well aligned with the Foundation’s learning disabilities result statements as this one. Students gain access to an array of tools to help them learn, enjoy a welcoming on-campus community, connect with peers to boost confidence, and get a leg up on academic and career goals.
The ACHIEVE Program is making a pronounced difference for students with learning disabilities. By 2018, the college’s retention rate for students with learning disabilities had improved to 92%. Ninety-five percent had a grade point average of at least 2.0, 55% had grade point averages of at least 3.0. Every ACHIEVE student now completes an internship before graduation to help develop workplace skills.