Colorado's Path to College Options for Students with Intellectual Disability

Hi, I’m Shelby. I started working for Think College in February of this year. I grew up and live in Colorado. Today I am sharing how my state made college possible for students with intellectual disability. In Colorado, the key was to pass state legislation.   

Something important to know: Colorado’s movement for inclusive higher education is made up of individuals with disabilities, families, teachers, disability advocates, and organizations, and many others. We are not experts in legislation, but we share a dream for change. Since 2016, Colorado has passed two bills that help fund college options in our state.

Creating a Non-Profit to Advocate for Inclusive Higher Education Options

In 2014, a group of students, families, and advocates started talking about colleges in other states. They wondered why Colorado did not have any colleges that were open to students with intellectual disability (46 states already had college options for students with ID). They created a group called IN!. IN! raises awareness about college as an option and raises money to help colleges start programs for students with ID.

The First Schools Open Their Doors to Students with Intellectual Disability 

In 2016, I got a call from my sister. She was so excited to tell me about one of her friends with intellectual disability who was going to college in Colorado. This was possible because of Senate Bill 16-196, The Inclusive Higher Education Pilot Program. IN! helped write the bill. Three colleges received $75,000 per year for five years. Those funds, plus additional fundraised money from IN!, allowed them to start programs for students with intellectual disability. (Did you know Think College has an area on our website where you can view legislation from other states? It’s super helpful when working with state representatives to write legislation).

As these programs started, it was clear that many people still did not know about them. In 2018, I started to work at IN!. My job was to talk to high school students, teachers, and disability advocates about inclusive higher education. In 2020, some of the first students with intellectual disability graduated from college in Colorado. Something many people thought was not possible was now possible!

Looking at Needs in Colorado

While that first graduation was so exciting, our work was not done. The three colleges in Colorado did not have enough spots for everyone who wanted to go to college. Every year they had to turn some students away. In addition, some students wanted to go to college closer to their house. Some students wanted to go to colleges that did not have a program for students with ID. Many students needed more help paying for college. We needed more choices in Colorado.

Several colleges said they wanted to start programs for students with ID. But their main need was getting money to start new programs. We tried to get money from what is called a TPSID (Transition and Postsecondary Programs for Students with Intellectual Disabilities) grant. It was the second time we had tried to apply for a TPSID. The first time we did not successfully submit the application. The second time we submitted it but did not receive the grant.

In 2021, IN! sent out a needs assessment across the state. We asked students who wanted to go to college questions about where they wanted to go to school and what help they needed. Once we had all of that information, we talked to people across the state. Students, families, The Arc of Colorado, disability groups, the Department of Higher Education, colleges, legislators and so many more people. The result was a group who came together once again to pass legislation in Colorado.

More Schools Coming Soon

This month Colorado House Bill 1107, Inclusive Higher Education Opportunities, was passed. The state agreed to give $450,000 annually to support inclusive college options at colleges across the state. Colleges interested in using these funds will have to apply for the money and say how they will use it. They must have a plan for how students with ID will be included in classes, housing, activities on campus, and jobs.

In the coming years, Colorado will have more college options for students with ID. That means students in high school will have more choices about where they can go to college.

Special Thanks to Everyone Who Helped Colorado

If you are reading this and your state did not get a TPSID, I want you to know there are other ways to increase college options in your state. I believe part of Colorado’s success is having a non-profit dedicated to working on the expansion of college options in our state. In particular, IN! engages students to tell their stories about wanting to go to college. They also include stories from parents of students. Personal stories are what make the movement so powerful. I am forever in awe of the first families that started this movement in Colorado. Thank you!

Finally, a big thank you goes to all the other states who helped us along the way. Think College runs Affinity Groups, where people get together to talk about problems they share. One of those group is the State Alliance group, run by my co-worker Susanna Miller-Raines. She knows so much about what is going on in other states and who to talk to. If you want help creating more college options in your state, I encourage you to talk to Susanna.


Colorado SB 196: Inclusive Higher Education Pilot Program (2016)

Colorado HB 1107: Inclusive Higher Education Opportunities (2022)

Colorado Needs Assessment Results

What’s Happening in Your State

Summary of State Legislation Related to IPSE

IN! (Colorado’s non-profit advocating for inclusive higher education) 

About the post author: Shelby Bates is a Program Assistant for Think College. She joined Think College from Colorado, where she worked to raise awareness of college options for students with ID across the state. Shelby is a social worker with a passion for civic engagement and community organizing. In her free time, Shelby enjoys visiting family, bike riding, reading books, and playing board games.

National Coordinating Center