The Growth of Inclusive Higher Education: Sometimes a Question Can be Powerful

"Do they have a postsecondary program [for students with intellectual disability]?" Mention any college, anywhere, and that is the first question my son Will asks. Others may ask about majors, academics, athletics, or even rankings. But not Will. Will wants to know if the college offers the same opportunity for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities as for other students. He is a proud graduate of Next Steps at Vanderbilt in Nashville, Tennessee.

His interest in these programs began almost 20 years ago and came just a few years after I had made a career move from journalism and law to Vanderbilt University and work in community engagement and policy with our center on disabilities.

About that time, Will and his best friend were at a meeting of the National Down Syndrome Congress and visited an exhibit by a college program in New Mexico for people with disabilities. He has been a fan and supporter ever since. He and his friend wanted to go to college just like his brother and sister. His interest led me to become part of the movement in Tennessee to develop inclusive higher education programs. Our Center, the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center, had just become a University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities at the time, and we quickly joined forces with the The Arc, the Tennessee Council on Developmental Disabilities, the National Down Syndrome Congress, the National Down Syndrome Society, and the Association for University Centers on Disabilities to build programs. The technical assistance provided by Think College was invaluable.

Building inclusive higher education programs remains one of the highlights of my career as Director of the Vanderbilt Kennedy University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities. Sharing news about the possibility of college with families with young children with disabilities helps reframe expectations. It has been a pleasure to join with others in our state to build a strong alliance and to partner with Tennessee’s nine programs for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities. (Visit the Tennessee Inclusive Higher Education Alliance website for more information.)

This movement has always been led by students, families, and graduates of our Tennessee programs. When we wanted to pass legislation to create the STEPUP Scholarship, offering a similar same lottery-funded scholarship to students with disabilities as is available to other Tennessee students, the most compelling advocates were the students themselves. Will was proud to address a session of the Tennessee Legislature on the importance of this legislation and received a standing ovation. The legislation passed and has also been successful when we have had to amend it two times since.

As I step down from leadership of our UCEDD, creating and growing programs that support people with disabilities and their families has been the part of my career that I have most enjoyed. Through training, research, and service, we have been part of growth in supports and services impacting education, health, and employment in Tennessee. Nothing is more satisfying than seeing a Next Steps graduate in the community and hearing their updates about their new job, or their new apartment, or how well they are doing.

In Tennessee and other states around the country, data and research have shown the impact that these programs can have on people’s lives. We know that more than 80 percent of our Tennessee graduates are employed. We also know through research that that impact reaches much further than just the students and their families. The entire campus community is impacted (1), as is the community at large.

I am very honored to be a board member of the new agency, the Inclusive Higher Education Council. The IHEAC is an independent accrediting agency for college and university programs that serve students with intellectual disability. We aim to promote standards-based quality programming for students with intellectual disability who attend colleges and universities.

There is still so much work to be done. According to Think College, there are more than 300 postsecondary programs for students with intellectual disability. And according to the National Center for Education Statistics, there are approximately 4,700 degree granting postsecondary institutions in the United States. So I encourage you, whether or not you are associated with a college or university, to ask if they have a postsecondary program. You never know where that question will lead.


(1) McCabe, L., Carter, E. W., Lee, E.B. & Bethune-Dix, L.K. (2022) Faculty perspectives on the appeal and impact of including college students with intellectual disability. Inclusion, 10(1), 71-86. and Schroeder, E.T., Carter, E. W., & Simplican, S. C. (2021). First-year orientation programs involving undergraduates with intellectual disability: Exploring barriers and belonging. Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability. 34(3), 239-252.

About the blog post author: Elise McMillan, JD, an attorney, and former journalist, is the former Director of the Vanderbilt Kennedy University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities (UCEDD). Her faculty appointment was in the VUMC Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. She has more than 30 years' experience in leading programs and projects that support individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities, their families, and their communities. She has held leadership roles in numerous national, state, and community disabilities organizations, including The Arc US. She was the founding faculty director of Next Steps at Vanderbilt and one of the founders of the Tennessee Inclusive Higher Education Alliance.