Obama's Budget Leaves Funding Unclear for Disabled College Students

Federal funding for a five-year program for students with intellectual disabilities is not guaranteed.

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President Obama's budget proposal for fiscal year 2013 may signal a murky future for a fledgling program that helps students with intellectual disabilities go to college and succeed while enrolled. 

The Transition and Postsecondary Programs for Students with Intellectual Disabilities (TPSID) grant, a five-year plan started in fiscal year 2010, was intended to be the first widespread program to track and analyze best practices for getting students with intellectual disabilities to and through college. With federal funding of about $11 million a year, 27 institutions—including the University of Kentucky and the University of Delaware—created model programs with a particular focus on vocational training students need to succeed in the job market. 

By the end of the five-year plan, an estimated 6,000 students would have gone through higher education programs, earning certificates, completing internships, joining clubs and organizations, and more, program directors say. The five-year period would also be enough time to provide key data to school officials and policy analysts alike about what constitutes success for students with intellectual disabilities, including mental retardation and autism spectrum disorder. 

"With these modeled programs, it's the first time we're showing the effectiveness of allowing students with intellectual disabilities to go on to college and four-year universities, and how effective they are in helping them to become more employable," says Kim Musheno, director of legislative affairs at the Association of University Centers on Disabilities (AUCD). "Already, just into the second year, the evaluation program part of this is showing that young adults in these college programs are much more likely to find jobs afterward. That's a very positive development." 

But funding for the five-year plan became nebulous after its first year and remains uncertain. After Congressional back and forth regarding funding for the program's second year, TPSID models were ultimately sustained with about $10.9 million in federal funds to continue through fiscal year 2012, which ends in September. 

[Learn about other financial aid changes in the 2012 legislation.] 

Funds for fiscal year 2013 look less clear in the early planning stages. In the budget proposal released Monday by President Obama, no funding was specifically recommended for the model programs. "Instead of continuing support for small categorical, narrowly-focused programs like TPSID, the Administration proposes to increase funding for the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE) and strategically direct FIPSE funding toward the building of knowledge of what works in higher education," the proposal says. 

The consolidation proposal has even well-versed advocates wondering what's next. "[It's] hard to tell—but it makes the whole program very vulnerable," writes Debra Hart, director of the Education and Transition Team for the Institute for Community Inclusion at the University of Massachusetts—Boston, in an E-mail. "I can almost guarantee that students [with intellectual disabilities] won't be seen as a priority." 

In the face of widespread cuts to stymie the looming deficit, TPSID is far from the only program facing potential threats to its budget, autonomy, and longevity. And federal funding has been secured for other programs that assist those with intellectual disabilities; in particular, the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA) grants, which support public school students ages 3 to 21, received a $105 million bump for fiscal year 2012. On Monday, the IDEA grants were highlighted in the president's budget proposal as a program worth maintaining. 

But TPSID advocates argue that, while vital for students young enough to qualify, the IDEA program falls short of the lifelong academic needs of students with intellectual disabilities after they complete high school. 

"The problem is, when the bus stops coming, what happens to these kids?" Musheno of the AUCD asks. "They don't have opportunities for higher education, and they get stuck in these dead-end jobs at minimum wage, or they go onto Social Security or Medicaid for the rest of their lives. That's not the vision we have for these kids."