You hear a lot about the President, Congress, and the Supreme Court. These are the three parts of the federal government that govern our country. The federal government has played an important role in supporting inclusive college programs for students with intellectual disabilities, especially through the Higher Education Opportunity Act, a federal law passed in 2008 that defined Comprehensive Transition and Postsecondary (CTP) Programs and funded the Transition and Postsecondary Programs for Students with Intellectual Disability (TPSID). Thirteen years later, the federal government continues to provide grant funding for them and support their national growth.
But what about state governments? Where do they come into the picture? How can we influence them? Are there things that my state government can do? The answer is Yes!
There are many things that state government can do to promote inclusive college programs and help existing programs grow and mature. They can provide funding to start or expand inclusive college programs:
- Provide scholarships for students to attend inclusive college programs in their states, or even in others;
- Study what other states have done to see what is possible for your state, and create a Task Force or Report with recommendations for change; and
- Include inclusive college programs in Medicaid waivers.
Several states have implemented policies like these already. For instance, Pennsylvania’s state government approved a measure that allows Medicaid waivers to cover college expenses, which has made college more affordable for students with disabilities. In 2020, North Carolina’s state government expanded funding for students at inclusive college programs across public universities, which will help increase the number of individuals with intellectual disabilities who can go to college, and will help state universities create new inclusive programs for them.
State legislatures have control over many public scholarships and also have the power to fund research into public needs, and you can advocate for them to make these more inclusive and responsive to the needs of students with intellectual disabilities. In 2021, state legislators in Arkansas are considering a bill that would expand the state’s flagship college scholarship to include students with intellectual disabilities who attend comprehensive transition and postsecondary (CTP) programs in Arkansas. This would break down a major financial barrier to attending college for many students in a lasting way. The state government’s power to make popular state scholarships inclusive is unique, since the federal government doesn’t have jurisdiction over them.
State legislatures can also make an impact without funding programs or changing scholarships. In Texas, although lawmakers have not created inclusive college programs, they have directed the state’s higher education officials to investigate and report on the higher education needs of students with disabilities. State governments have the unique power to do this at their level, and the information they can collect can inform decision-making and change in the future.
You can see a full list of all current and past state legislation related to postsecondary education for students with intellectual disability on the Think College website. Visit What’s Happening in Your State to learn more.
What Can I Do?
Even if your state’s legislature hasn’t supported inclusive college programs yet, your advocacy can make a big difference. Students and colleagues can testify before legislative committees, meet with state legislators, and work statewide with coalitions to promote inclusive higher education. You can also talk to your Governor’s office about supportive budgeting and work with your state’s Developmental Disabilities Council to promote inclusive college programs.
Most state legislatures are in session for only part of the year, beginning sometime in January and ending before June 30, and most state budgets must be completed before the new fiscal year starts on July 1. That means that many state legislatures are still in session and working on legislation right now. Since many state legislators don’t actively do this work year-round, you may even know them from your business or community relationships. They may be your local lawyer or banker or real estate broker. This can be useful, since sometimes it is easier to build relationships and influence state legislators since they are more likely to be your neighbors and friends.
Start by finding out which state legislators represent you and the area where your program is located. Ask for meetings with them or their staff and invite them to visit your programs. Ask if they would be interested in having an intern from your program in their local office, or even the state capitol. Many students and graduates of inclusive college programs have had terrific experiences. Above all, share the impact your program has and how it changes lives. Many state legislators don’t have access to the same information about higher education as members of Congress, so your advocacy is especially valuable.
Remember – you are not only their constituents. You are the experts, and your stories matter.
About the Post Author: Siddarth Nagaraj is a Senior Program Specialist at the Association of University Centers on Disabilities (AUCD). He contributes to AUCD’s legislative research and advocacy for statewide postsecondary education, and directs its global programming.