Expert Update: Inclusive Post-secondary Education for Individuals with Developmental Disabilities

By Gregory Blalock

Over the last 40 years, we have seen tremendous gains in opportunities for individuals with disabilities. In the K-12 education system, federal and state laws mandate schools provide an appropriate education to students in the least restrictive environment. Although a lot of work remains to assure social justice for those with developmental disabilities, it's important to note how past progress continues to open new doors for such individuals.

Access to Higher Education

We are seeing a new generation of young adults with disabilities who have the skills and motivation to benefit from higher education. Although it may have been unthinkable just a couple of decades ago, today there are many students with disabilities who are succeeding on major college campuses throughout the country. This is due, in no small part, to the recognition that those students have the potential to become working, tax-paying and civically engaged citizens if given the opportunity to further develop their academic and personal selves through education.

As a result of this recognition, over the last decade there has been a great expansion of opportunities in higher education for persons with developmental disabilities, particularly those with intellectual disabilities. The first of these programs emerged in the 1970s, yet there were relatively few and exclusive of typical college programs. Today, there are over 200 programs at major college and universities throughout the country that actively support the engagement of students with disabilities on campus. 

Many of these target inclusive opportunities for coursework, student life and career development. Although multiple reasons exist for the relatively  recent increase in the existence of such programs, among the more salient are the following three:
1) Post-secondary education provides a valuable educational avenue for many individuals with intellectual disabilities who traditionally have had no educational options beyond high school. University campuses provide fertile ground for those seeking to develop a broader understanding of what it means to be an independent, actively engaged adult within the community.
2) Just as the inclusion of students with developmental disabilities into the K-12 general education classroom provides important social and academic benefits to all students, such inclusion on college campuses provides the opportunity to extend diversity to all college students. Because many of today's college students will be tomorrow's employers, those who graduate from universities that ground them in a better understanding of diversity in the real world will be in a much better position to compete in a global market.
3) The Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 explicitly provides support for individuals with disabilties who are seeking post-secondary education opportunities at qualifying institutions of higher education. This means, among other things, that such students are now eligible for federal financial aid including Pell Grants and student loans to cover the cost of higher education. Given that individuals with disabilities come from disproportionately lower income backgrounds, this is an important support.

This last point represents the federal government's overt recognition that higher education should be an option for a greater diversity of citizens as we continue to focus on assuring a globally competitive workforce within our nation. It is, after all, higher education that continues to have a profound effect on the innovation and employability of our communities. Statistics show the unemployment rate for college graduates with a bachelor's degree or higher is half that of their peers with no post-secondary education. In June 2012, unemployment rate of those with only a high school education was 8.4%; it was only 7.5% for those who had completed at least two years of college (United States Department of Labor, 2012). Thus, a college education has an important effect on the employability of an individual today.

The unemployment rate for people with intellectual disabilities is particularly problematic. One need not look far to realize how much more difficult it is for individuals with intellectual disabilities to find stable, competitive employment within their community. Although this challenge requires a multi-dimensional solution, one important solution is to expand access to college for people with intellectual disabilities. Just as with typical adults, college access for adults with intellectual disabilities not only provides valuable career-related knowledge and skills, but it also provides authentic, multi-dimensional social relationships crucial to widening one's circle of support and connections within the community. In this way, college attendance can make a profound difference in the employment outcomes for youth with intellectual disabilities.

Unfortunately, in many states there are few colleges that offer the opportunity for attendance to people with intellectual disability. For example, to date, out of the University System of Georgia's 31 four-year institutions, only one, Kennesaw State University, provides an avenue for people with intellectual disabilities to meaningfully participate as a student. KSU's innovative two-year program, has matriculated talented students who have travelled back and forth from home to school, up to two-to-three hours each way, to attend classes. Just as their students have dedicated themselves to overcoming great obstacles to obtaining a higher education, KSU has dedicated itself to seeing that such students can sit in their classrooms and learn alongside other university students.

Higher Education Expands in Georgia

The expansion of inclusive post-secondary educational opportunities for Georgians with developmental disability is growing. Through the tireless efforts of many people at the national, state and local levels, the foundation exists on which other public and private universities are able to develop their own programs to meet the needs of thousands of motivated and talented Georgians who are currently unable to access post-secondary education.  The Georgia Inclusive Post-secondary Education Consortium, (GAIPSEC), supported by Georgia State University's Center for Leadership in Disability, is instrumental in working with stakeholders throughout the state to collaboratively address the dearth of post-secondary options for people with developmental disability.

The impact of GAIPSEC's work is evidenced by the fact that within the last few years, inclusive higher education programs for individuals with developmental disabilities are being developed on several campuses throughout Georgia. At the university level, developing such programs is a daunting task. Developing a new program at an Institution of Higher Education (IHE) is so much more than recognizing the need. Every IHE has a multilevel process for developing and gaining approval for new programs that ensures such programs are both rigorous and founded upon sound academic principles. University program development requires the adherence to standards set by a university's governing board (i.e., a Board of Regents), the state legislature, and accrediting agencies--all of which are in place to assure that every program provides an effective education and operates efficiently in a manner that is conducive to sustainability in the long-term.

This process requires the commitment of university administration, and that of the faculty and staff who are instrumental in supporting each student's university experience from application to college life to graduation to career life. This way, students are assured that university programs provide a high level of academic and personal enrichment to support their educational and career goals.

As such, the development of higher education programs for individuals with disabilities can be particularly challenging. There still exists little experience on campuses with establishing the relatively few, but key, supports that must be in place in order to make such programs successful. For example, most four-year institutions' general admission standards require a regular high school diploma. The fact that most potential students with disabilities have earned an alternate high school diploma means that a university's admissions system must be slightly altered to allow otherwise qualified applicants who earned an alternate high school diploma to matriculate as regular college students within the inclusive post-secondary program. For many universities, such changes are difficult to make without clear precedent.
Fortunately, there are a growing number of universities who are doing just that. That is building flexibility into their systems to allow a greater diversity of students on campus.

Building Diversity

Because of outdated stereotypes and unfamiliarity with the social construction known as intellectual disability, few university personnel understand how successful many individuals with disabilities can be with university coursework. Yet, over the last decade there is an emerging literature that shows how students who have disabilities can benefit from, as well as contribute to, both college classes and the university campus. An increasing number of university faculty members are vocal proponents of students with disabilities being on college campuses and how such students positively affect the level of discourse both inside and outside the classroom.

The GAIPSEC has been instrumental in pulling universities and community agencies together to increase the higher education opportunities for all people.

At Columbus State University (CSU), faculty and administration are working to establish an inclusive post-secondary program for individuals with intellectual disabilities. Dubbed the COUGARS program (Comprehensive Opportunities to Provide University Guidance, Academics and Relationships), it seeks to provide qualified adults with intellectual disabilities the opportunity to attend college and complete a rigorous university program alongside typical university students. The development of a post-secondary program for those with intellectual disabilities directly addresses CSU's mission to prepare students though academics and community engagement. Although this program is still in development, it's important to note that it is one of several around the State working to open its doors in
the near future.

While we continue working to expand educational opportunities to children within our K-12 buildings, we are seeing a new generation of high school graduates with developmental disabilities push open the doors of opportunity to the hallowed halls of higher education.

Tags: GCDD, Making a Difference, Expert Update