College programs a key step for some students with intellectual disabilities

The number of U.S. colleges offering programs for students with cognitive disabilities has increased by 85 percent in the last decade, but access remains limited—and could worsen amid funding uncertainty, writes The Hechinger Report.

While federal law requires school districts to help students who qualify for special education to transition out of high school, many students with cognitive disabilities still struggle to make the leap from high school to the workforce. Only 19 percent of adults with cognitive disabilities are employed, and those who are earn half of that earned by adults without cognitive disabilities.

Postsecondary transition certificate programs seek to fill that gap. They typically span two years and equip students with the connections and know-how to live independently and secure meaningful work. They vary in approach: some focus on a specific profession, around half offer student housing, and three-quarters enroll participating students in mainstream courses.

Programs ‘constantly have to show their worth’

There are 275 postsecondary transition programs in the United States for students with cognitive disabilities. Twenty-five of those are federally funded under the 2008 reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, which also expanded federal financial aid for students without a high school diploma to attend transition and postsecondary programs. Signaling the programs’ impact, a recent survey found that two-thirds of students who completed federally funded transition programs found a paid job within a year.

However, there are too few programs to meet demand, and many face uncertainty, with their federal funding set to expire next year. Without that support, many programs will need to secure alternative funding, scale back, or boost fees, potentially decreasing access for low-income families.

Related: Higher Education Act: House Democrats release proposal, draw mixed reactions >

College programs for students with cognitive disabilities are in a precarious position, says Cathryn Weir, program director for the Think College National Coordinating Center at the University of Massachusetts Boston, which provides support, coordination, training, and evaluation services for transition and postsecondary education programs for students with intellectual disabilities. “The programs are still pioneers, and they constantly have to show their worth and prove themselves.”

The ‘perfect incubator’ for students to gain autonomy

Still, Weir says that college programs are a “perfect incubator” to help students with intellectual disabilities gain a “sense of self-determination and confidence.”

The two-year Aggies Elevated program at Utah State University, for instance, enables students to earn a certificate in Integrated College and Community Studies, confidence in their self-sufficiency, and skills for independent living. To qualify for Aggies Elevated, a student must have an IQ of 70 or less. Some students have autism, Down Syndrome, and/or learning disabilities. Ninety percent of Aggies Elevated graduates are employed, and three-quarters are living independently. Utah State requires applicants to interview, take a campus tour, and meet other students, in an effort to enroll students “who wan[t] to go to college that would not otherwise be able to,” says program director Sue Reeves.

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