College Is Possible for Students With Intellectual Disabilities

New support programs and federal funds can help students with intellectual disabilities.

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Lee's daughter also has Down syndrome, and, like Apostolides, she expressed interest in attending a "regular college, just like the one her older brother (who is not disabled) attended," Lee says. But 10 years ago, when her daughter would have been enrolling, no programs existed in the Washington metro area that would support students with intellectual disabilities interested in an inclusive college experience, so Lee helped create such a program at George Mason University. Her daughter attended George Mason through this program for four years, and the program is now nationally recognized as one of the country's best.

"I can't stress how exciting it is to see so many doors open, to see so many opportunities for young people with intellectual disabilities to be as independent as possible, and to see so many of these young people become part of a college campus like everyone else," Lee says.

To help colleges and universities develop programs based on best practices, the University of Massachusetts Boston's Institute for Community Inclusion will use nearly $5 million from two federal grants to help create the first national center and the first research consortium for the postsecondary education of students with intellectual disabilities. Though the Higher Education Opportunity Act's grant money cannot be distributed until Congress appropriates its funds in March, ICI researcher Debra Hart says her organization's work is already underway.

"In just the last week, we found 54 new programs, and we expect to discover about two to three times that many more programs we have not heard of already," says Hart, a woman who others in this field have dubbed a guru of postsecondary education for students with intellectual disabilities. Hart began her research 10 years ago when she received a grant to determine how these students could participate in college. Since the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act provides federal funding for intellectually disabled students to attend elementary, middle, and high school with ordinary students, why could there not also be a way to help these students experience college? Hart says she asked herself back then. "Everyone deserves to go to college," she says, "students with intellectual disabilities included."

One model program whose work Hart and others applaud is the Inclusive Concurrent Enrollment Program at Massachusetts Bay Community College. As Program Coordinator Molly Boyle likes to say, students enrolled in her program hardly recognize that they are enrolled in anything more than community college classes. Program participants' education is completely inclusive, and the support they receive from the program is provided on an individualized basis, Boyle says. She added that most of the ICE program's students come to "MassBay" two to three days per week and take one to two classes per semester that they choose based on personal or vocational interests.

Because IDEA funds disabled students' education through age 21 or 22, depending on their state of residence, Boyle's main job is to coordinate the program's partnership with the public schools where prospective students are enrolled. Without programs like ICE, intellectually disabled students often continue attending high school, where they take life skills classes or are given jobs most frequently in the food service or landscaping industries until they age out of the federally funded program. Considering these outcomes, Boyle says the benefits of a student auditing even a single college class is huge. "These students have been closely monitored and supported their entire lives," Boyle says. "Programs like ICE help them gain independence, and for so many of our students, this is their first, well-deserved taste."