College Admissions for Students at "Therapeutic" School?

Question: How do colleges view students who graduate from a therapeutic school?

"Therapeutic schools" are for students with a range of special needs. These include behavioral problems, ADD, ADHD, bipolar disorder, substance abuse, eating disorders, etc. So, for starters, all grads of such institutions are not lumped together. For instance, a student with ADD who has responded well to medication and who has performed successfully academically after treatment will not be viewed the same way as another student whose behavior problems or drug addiction seem to come and go. Thus, above all, admission officials will be looking for evidence that whatever problems led an applicant to the therapeutic environment are sufficiently under check that he or she can handle the more independent, more stressful academic and social demands of college life. And this isn't always easy to discern. Moreover, in this post-Virginia-Tech-tragedy era, colleges are increasingly careful about trying to screen out students who might pose a danger to others, not just those who may struggle themselves.

This past year, one of my college counseling clients attended a therapeutic boarding school. She was a bright, engaging girl who was doing well there, but her track record before then was a disaster: she'd flunked out of three other private schools.

As we went through the college process, she would identify colleges that interested her and where her SATs and current GPA seemed to make her admissible. "I can get in there, can't I?" she would often ask me. And, like a broken record, I would have to tell her over and over that admission officials would evaluate students like her in a special light. Some would surely be impressed by her excellent writing skills, her charm in an interview situation, and the vast distance she'd come since 9th grade. Others, however, would question whether her "success" at the therapeutic school would continue once she left the highly structured, supervised environment. In the past, she'd clearly demonstrated that she couldn't handle any sort of freedom. So college admission committees might be wary of letting her loose in their community. I told her that she needed to provided references not only from her teachers and school administrator but also from her therapist, who was willing to attest to this young woman's progress and to the likelihood that she was ready for the independence of college.

As my advisee submitted her applications, I warned her that she would also have to get a bit lucky. If her folder landed on the desk of someone who was sympathetic to her story and to the obstacles she'd overcome, then her admission odds would increase. But if it ended up on the desk of someone more jaded and cynical, who said, "Let her go elsewhere first and show us that she won't fall on her face when she's not being watched every minute," then her news would not be good.

Ultimately she was admitted to more than half of the 9 or 10 colleges to which she applied. Two that rejected her are schools that are known for attracting motivated students who can work independently. Clearly my advisee had not yet proved herself in this way.

So, overall, students in therapeutic schools have to understand that, if they have made great strides and can garner support from school officials to attest to college readiness, then they will surely have options. But they also need to understand that these options can be hard to predict and that typical admitted-student profiles (SATs, GPA, etc.) are not designed for them