Public Comment

Has UC Berkeley become an Academic AirB'n'B?

Gar Smith
Friday July 29, 2016 - 03:16:00 PM

I admit it: I derive a perverse pleasure from listening to the radio ads on KCBS. 

They are generally so odd and déclassé—i.e., plugs for money management, investment assistance, tips on how to become wealthy by flipping houses, special exercise packages that will turn your fat to muscle in just two 20-minute workouts a week. 

One of my favorites began with an exasperated woman proclaiming, "I'm a professional behavioral psychiatrist!" and then proceeding to admit that she hasn't a clue about how to control her abusive, door-slamming teenage son. That's why she turned to a patented lifestyle intervention program guaranteed to completely change her son's behavior "within minutes." 

While the promised transformation was miraculous, the mechanism remained unexplained. (The only theory I could come up with involved a hulking thug named "Vinny" who shows up on the doorstep when called, and threatens to punch the kid senseless if he doesn't obey his parents.) 

Recently, a new KCBS promotion caught my attention. It highlighted an intensive summer education session hosted by Landmark College and focused on the needs of students with learning disabilities—or, as the current politically correct phraseology would have it, "students who learn differently." 

The radio spot announced that the intensive summer session would be held on the UC Berkeley campus from August 1-5. 

A "Workshop for Success" college-prep immersion that lasts only five days? I thought I had misheard the broadcast. However, a check of the website confirmed that the session (open to students from across the country) was, in fact, designed last less than a week. 

For students with the money and means to rent their own apartments (or hotel rooms), the cost would be $1,900. For students who wished to live on the UCB campus, Landmark was offering a $2,500 package that included single-room housing in UCB residence halls and two meals a day (10 meals in all for the entire five-day workshop). Now you might assume that these two meals would be breakfast and dinner but, with a bit of searching, a single mention on Landmark's website reveals that the two meals are breakfast and lunch. You want a good dinner? You're on your own. 

For on-campus participants, enrollment amounts to $500 per day. As tuition goes, that's pretty steep. 

What is Landmark College?  

Landmark is a small liberal arts college located in Putney, Vermont. Established in 1985 and accredited by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, Landmark describes itself as "the first institution of higher learning to pioneer college-level studies for students with dyslexia." Landmark has since expanded its services to include students with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and autism spectrum disorders. Landmark boasts an academic staff of 80 serving a student body of 500. Landmark awards associate and bachelor level degrees. 

Landmark College claims a student-faculty ratio of 6:1 and offers a range of instructional tools including: "integrated assistive technology elements, individualized attention, and multi-modal teaching strategies." 

The enrollment process is a bit conflicted. Landmark's online introduction states that the college is looking for students who share two "essential criteria: Average to superior intellectual potential, and Diagnosis of dyslexia, ADHD, ASD or other specific learning disability." But on page 4 of the online application, one reads: "Please note: A diagnosed learning disability is not required for admission into the Intensive Workshop." Apparently, the rules for attending academic workshops differ from those for students seeking regular admission to Landmark. 

Applicants must sign an agreement requiring that, in exchange for "an intensive, rigorous academic program," students must pledge to attend all meetings with teachers, complete all written assignments, participate in required workshops and must agree with the statement that "students not prepared to work intensively, or who have other issues that require their attention, may have difficulty in achieving the program's learning outcomes." 

A Range of Reviews 

Naturally, there is a range of opinion about the success of Landmark's educational services. A quick scan of comments on YELP provides reviews that are both glowing and scathing. 

"Landmark College provided a truly transformative experience for our son. . . . The work was challenging at times, but made manageable by the extraordinary teachers, who genuinely cared about our son's educational success. . . . Also highly impressed with the college counseling services." 

"We were blessed to find Landmark. . . . My twin sons, both with Asperger's, ADHD and NVLD . . . . took 5 semesters but they both grew so much, gained such confidence, loved their professors, tried new things. Landmark had the necessary balance between support and freedom. . . . Worth every penny." 

"Many LMC students have tried to swim at other colleges and ended up being pulled from the water and redirected to LMC. . . .very accepting of all sorts of emotional and intellectual diversity." 

"VERY expensive alternative for kids who learn differently. Expense increased exponentially each semester. . . . [My son] left with barely a freshman year's worth of transferrable classes after 3 $$$ semesters." 

"Landmark helped me somewhat academically . . . there are some really good teachers and counselors." 

"Some teachers were awesome; yet a few were lacking on communication and organizational skills." 

"My daughter attended the summer transition to college program . . . . It was poorly run and poorly organized—not the best thing for LD [Learning Disabled] kids. . . . [T]hey were taught one way of doing things. When [my daughter] told them that this way didn't work and asked for other suggestions . . . they told her just to do things this way and then she could do her own thing when she went to college. That's not why we sent her there." 

"This place is a professional con-job. It convinces families that this is their only option for their children with LD to get a college degree. . . . [T]he school milks them for tuition." 

"Serious shortage of girls—that and the severe winters were too much for this California kid." 

This last complaint is not surprising. As Landmark's webpage notes, "The male-to-female student ratio is about 3:1, which reflects the higher number of males who are diagnosed with conditions that affect learning." 

For those students who "meet conventional behavior expectations in a college setting," the five-day course at UC Berkeley promises to be rewarding but an unanswered question lingers: how rewarding is this "educational airbnb" for UC Berkeley? Does the University profit from making its taxpayer-funded facilities available for un-enrolled out-of-state students? 

Is Landmark College an isolated experimental case or is there an established program that has hung a virtual banner across Berkeley's historic Sather Gate: one reading, "Campus for Rent"?