College: A Choice for Everyone
We do many things related to postsecondary education for students with intellectual disability (ID) – we conduct research into best practices, provide technical assistance for program development and improvement, create and disseminate resources to inform educators, families and students, and maintain the only website in the country dedicated to the topic of college options for students with ID. A fundamental goal informs and shapes all these activities: assuring that all students with ID and their families know that these college options exist.
For too long, a general (mis)understanding has been that for some students, including those with intellectual disability, a college education is unattainable. But it IS attainable! Since the early 2000’s there has been a steady growth in the postsecondary education options available to students with intellectual disability. As of July 2022, there are over 300 college programs to choose from, and new programs open regularly. There are options at 2-year community colleges, 4-year colleges and universities, options for commuter students and for residential students, programs of study from 1 – 4 years long, and at least one in every state in the nation.
In our experience, general awareness of the existence of college opportunities and excitement about the possibilities are quickly followed by a lot of questions. How do students get admitted to college if they don’t have a regular high school diploma, SAT or ACT scores, or college prep courses in high school? What are the expectations for students? What do students in these programs study? What are the outcomes for students going to these programs? How can we learn about the different options, and figure out the best one for the student? How can they prepare for college? Let’s dig into these common questions.
Alternative Pathway to College
The college programs listed in Think College Search vary in important ways. But one thing they have in common is that entrance exams such as ACT or SAT are not required, and students who have a non-standard high school diploma are eligible to apply. These programs represent an alternate pathway to college. Programs are associated with an accredited institution of higher education, and award a credential, but they are certificate programs rather than degree programs.
While the program for students with ID will have a different admission process than the process undertaken by degree-seeking students, they are officially students of the college in which they enroll. In addition to understanding that SAT scores and a regular high school diploma are NOT required, it is important to know what IS required. While specific admission requirements vary among programs, a few requirements are typical for most programs. Students must be able to document that they have an intellectual disability, and they must have received special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) or have been eligible for them. Students should have a strong desire to continue their education after high school and be interested in becoming more independent and employed, for regular pay, when they graduate. Additional common requirements include an ability to manage one’s own medication, and ability to manage themselves without supervision for a period of time. Few, if any college programs offer 24-7 supervision.
Person-Centered Course of Study
One hallmark of these college programs is that they offer a course of study (the courses and other required activities that must be completed in order to earn the program credential) based on a person-centered plan. That means that the student’s personal goals for career, living arrangements, and social life are paramount when selecting courses, activities, internships and learning experiences while in the program. While there will be general requirements for the number of courses, internships and other learning experiences that every student must complete, personal choice will inform what courses they take, where their internships take place, and what social activities they engage in.
Supports in College
Students in these programs are first and foremost college students. They are expected to actively participate in their college courses, internships, and other work experiences, learn to be more independent and engage with campus life in meaningful ways. In each of these areas, supports are needed and provided. College courses may be audited or taken as Pass/Fail, allowing for more personalized modifications than students can get when they take a course for college credit. Tutoring and academic support is provided, and these audited courses count towards the program certificate. Students in residential programs get support and coaching from fellow students as well as residential life staff and program staff. All students are supported to increase their independence in areas such as getting themselves to class, completing assignments, using the library, making purchases at the bookstore or student union, socializing with other students and engaging with campus clubs and activities.
This is a huge question – what do students get out of this college education? In so many ways, it is the same things that all young adults get – continued learning in areas that interest them, increased agency over themselves and their choices, a stronger sense of self-determination, and more independence in managing their own needs. In other words, growing up! There is also a strong focus on career development and work skills, so that students in these programs leave ready to work and with real work experience on their resume. In the data that Think College collects on student employment outcomes, we find that on average, 60-65% of graduates are working in real jobs for real pay in the community one year after graduation, making at least minimum wage for 20 hours a week or more. Compared to the employment rate of all adults with ID in the community, around 19%, this represents a solid return on investment.
Exploring the options
Okay, so now you know college options exist for students with ID, what is expected of students who apply, what students do when they get to college, and what outcomes can be expected. If you are still reading, then you probably are excited about the possibilities and want to dive in and find out more. For that, you want to visit Think College Search, the only directory of college programs for students with ID in the United States. There you will find a searchable listing of programs that can be filtered by state, length of program, type of campus, residential or not, and more. You can save and compare favorites with a downloadable spreadsheet. You can read more details about the programs and find links to their websites. Think College also provides a “Guide to Conducting a College Search” to help you identify good questions to ask to learn if the programs that look promising really do offer what you and your student are looking for.
Preparing for College
All in? Then the next step is to get ready! One thing we all know – college is different than high school! It is one of the main reasons that students and their families want education to continue – to take advantage of the opportunities for higher learning, a more independent environment, high expectations and appropriate challenges. There are planful and purposeful things that students can do while they are in high school to get ready for all this. Put college as an expected next step on the IEP team’s radar. Assure that students are focusing on college-ready skills in their IEP. This can mean continuing to work hard on academics, but also on the “soft skills’’ that will make such a huge difference to success in college. Students should spend time alone at home and attend sleep-away events where they can experience being in charge of themselves for periods of time. They can learn to use a personal cell or other digital calendar and alarm to keep themselves on schedule, work a part-time job to gain employment skills, begin to manage their own money and make purchases, and so on. Think College has several resources that families and students say are very helpful to think through how to prepare. The highlighted resources below, and many more are featured on Think College’s webpage:
Preparing for College Expectations
Suggested IEP Goals for College Readiness
To learn more
Hopefully this article raised your awareness and answered some questions you have about college options for students with ID. Maybe just enough to raise more questions and leave you feeling excited, hopeful… and a bit overwhelmed! Visit thinkcollege.net and check out all the resources there, especially the places where we speak directly to families.
Introductory For Families webpage
For Families Resources by Topic page
Think College provides free, on-demand technical assistance as well. Our team of technical assistance providers is available to answer questions by email or phone. Don’t hesitate to reach out directly with your additional questions. Start with an email to thinkcollegeTA@gmail.com and we will take it from there.
A college education is an investment in a young person’s future. For too long, that opportunity to continue to learn and grow after high school was denied to students with more significant disabilities. At Think College, we are excited to support these initiatives and to assure that students and families know what is possible.
About the Author
Cate Weir is the coordinator of the Think College National Coordinating Center, a federally funded research, training and technical assistance center, a position she has held since the Center’s inception in 2010. She has worked in the field of postsecondary education for students with intellectual disability for over 20 years, and is the proud recipient of the 2021 George Jesien National Leadership Award recognizing her national leadership in the field of inclusive postsecondary education. Cate’s expertise includes development and improvement of college programs for students with intellectual disability, program standards and accreditation, person-centered planning and supporting families and students to explore college options.