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Inclusive Postsecondary Opportunities for Students with Intellectual Disabilities

Good news! There are exciting new college possibilities for young adults with intellectual disabilities.

In 2008, the Higher Education Opportunity Act (HEOA) defined inclusive Higher Education for the first time and provided access to financial aid to qualifying students attending college programs that meet the requirements of a “Comprehensive Transition Program” (CTP). The legislation emphasized access to inclusive college courses and internships and included a focus on integrated employment. The programs are designed for students who would not be eligible to enroll in a typical college degree program but would still benefit from a modified college experience with additional supports.

While the legislation did not mandate that colleges offer programs, it did provide grants to create or expand model Transition and Postsecondary Programs for Students with Intellectual Disability (TPSIDs), as well as funding for the national coordinating center, Think College, based out of the Institute for Community Inclusion at the University of Massachusetts.

There are now over 260 programs on college campuses across the country offering students with intellectual disabilities an opportunity to earn a certificate by taking college classes, engaging in career development and independent living activities and participating in the social life of the campus.

Learn why inclusive postsecondary education is important (and possible!) for students with intellectual disabilities, how to find the right program, how to prepare, and how to stay involved and supportive throughout their journey.

Why is inclusive postsecondary education important for students with intellectual disabilities?

Higher expectations and inclusive K-12 education has allowed students and families to see the potential of attending a college program. While there are important concerns to address and questions to answer regarding safety, access, supports, and transportation, the benefits of postsecondary education for students with intellectual disabilities almost always outweigh the challenges. The development and growth of academic, work and personal skills, independent living, friendships, and self-advocacy are a few of the many positive student outcomes. In addition, Think College outcome data shows program participants are employed post-graduation at significantly higher rates with higher average wages.


What does Inclusive Postsecondary Education (IPSE) for students with intellectual disabilities look like?

Programs can have many different characteristics. For example, they can be part of a 2-year community college campus or a 4-year college or university campus. Some, but not all, offer a residential component, either on or off campus. Some programs serve students who are still enrolled in public school after 12th grade (these are called “dual enrollment” or “concurrent enrollment” programs). Most serve students who have completed their public education.

Programs also offer varying degrees of participation in regular college classes with students without disabilities. They may be fully inclusive, meaning that academics, social events, and independent living support take place with students without disabilities. Other programs offer a more separate experience, where students may be on a college campus, but participate in most classes and activities with other students with intellectual disabilities. At this time, the most common approach is a mix of both separate and inclusive experiences. In addition to the program’s director and team of educators, many programs utilize coaches or mentors to provide support in inclusive settings. Mentors are often students at the college who receive training and may volunteer or be paid.

A great starting point for families to learn more about the ins and outs of college programs is the Frequently Asked Questions section of Think College’s Family Resources webpage.

What are the admission requirements?

Most programs require the student to have an “intellectual disability” as defined in the HEOA. The term “student with an intellectual disability” means a student with “…a cognitive impairment, characterized by significant limitations in intellectual and cognitive functioning; and adaptive behavior as expressed in conceptual, social, and practical adaptive skills; and who is currently, or was formerly, eligible for a free appropriate public education (FAPE) under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.”

Each program sets its own requirements for admission which can be found on the program’s website. Most serve a limited number of students each year and acceptance is not guaranteed. In general, programs seek students who will be a good match with the overall goals of the program and whose needs for support will not exceed what the program is able to provide.  The list below is a compilation of some examples of guidelines for admissions listed by various programs. It’s important to keep in mind that many factors are taken into consideration on an individual student and program basis.

The admission process often includes these steps:

Although website information is helpful, you will want to have a phone conversation with program staff to clarify expectations and discuss individual concerns.

How do families locate and learn about Inclusive Postsecondary Education (IPSE) opportunities?

* — While the number of programs is increasing, there are states and parts of the country without programs. The energy, commitment and passion of parents has been a key component in the passage of legislation and the development of programs. Consider how you might join forces with other families, educators and advocacy organizations in your state to create new opportunities.


What can students and families do now to prepare for an inclusive college experience?

Having college as a long-range goal can change the trajectory of a student’s K-12 education and can be a powerful factor in advocating for inclusive placements. While in high school, or earlier if possible, set the expectation of college as a “measurable postsecondary goal.”

To adopt a goal as their own, students needs to be able to picture the possibility. Plan a visit to a nearby college program or schedule a tour as part of a family vacation. Visit programs virtually by watching videos together like this one from the Think College Resource Library: I Am Thinking College (Even with My Disability) (8 min)

Include college-preparation skills in your son or daughter’s Individualized Education Program (IEP). Think about goals and objectives that will lead to skills needed for success in postsecondary education such as using electronic communication, signing up for activities, choosing courses based on career goals, managing a schedule, and learning how to access information online. College is a pathway to a career and integrated employment will be an important component of the college program. Gaining community-based work experience in high school and developing employment soft skills will contribute to success in college and beyond.

Along with thoughtful IEP development, there are many other ways that parents and families can help students prepare for a more independent life. Practicing independent living tasks such as laundry, cooking, and scheduling appointments will be beneficial for college life.


How can families pay for college?

Paying for college can be challenging for all students, and specialized programs with added supports can be expensive. Families of students with intellectual and developmental disabilities are encouraged to begin early to explore options for financial aid as well as funding sources that may be available through other agencies.  ABLE accounts are a new option that allows for saving for college while preserving public benefits such as Social Security Income and Medical Assistance, and allow for rollovers from 529 college savings accounts. Think College has put together a Paying for College webpage with resources to read, videos to watch, and a set of frequently asked questions to help parents and students understand ways to pay for college. Federal Student Aid is available for students with intellectual disabilities who meet basic aid eligibility and attend a Comprehensive Transition and Postsecondary (CTP) program. Families can also check into funding sources such as Social Security, Developmental Disabilities and Medicaid programs, and Vocational Rehabilitation Services. Scholarships like Ruby’s Rainbow for students with Down Syndrome may offer financial support to fund postsecondary opportunities.


How will parents be involved when their young adults with ID are attending college?

Parents accustomed to their active role as a member of the IEP and transition team are often surprised at the major change in expectations for parent involvement in college settings, even when the parent is the legal guardian. Throughout K-12 education, parents often plan, communicate, and advocate for their son or daughter. In college, parents will be planning, communicating, and advocating with their son or daughter. It can be helpful for parents to view themselves not as the decision-maker, but as the advisor or consultant for their young adult.

Each college will have their own policies and procedures regarding parent involvement and family engagement. It is important to have clear expectations about roles and responsibilities and communication channels prior to enrolling in a program. Many colleges make it a practice to communicate directly only with the student and expect the student to communicate information to their parent, even when the student has provided consent for the college to share information. Postsecondary institutions may explain that they cannot communicate education or health information to families due to the Family Educational Rights Privacy Act (FERPA).

The role of the parent changes, but it does not end. Parents’ high expectations and appropriate involvement can support a young adult’s self-determination, autonomy, and interdependence. Families can continue to help youth build soft skills, tap into their personal networks, provide transportation, contribute valuable student information, and reinforce college program goals and student expectations.