There are over 260 programs in the United States that offer some kind of college experience for students with intellectual disability. Programs can have many different characteristics. For example, they can be part of a 2-year community college campus or a 4-year college or university campus. Some, but not all, offer residential services, either on or off campus.
Some serve students who are over 18 but still in high school for the ages of 18 to 21 (these are called “dual enrollment” or “concurrent enrollment” programs). Others may serve students who have left high school.
Programs also offer varying degrees of participation in regular college classes with students without disabilities. They may be fully inclusive, meaning that all academics, social events, and independent living support happens with students without disabilities. Other programs offer a more separate experience, where students may be on a college campus, but participate in most classes and experiences only with other students with intellectual disability.
At this time, the most common approach is a mix of both separate and inclusive experiences. In our College Search listing, we ask programs to estimate how much time is spent only with students with disabilities so that you can get some idea of type of experience that program is offering.
Each student may have different goals for their college experience, and the best program for them is going to be the one that aligns the best with their particular goals. That being said, an understanding of what makes up a quality program can be very useful.
Think College has developed a set of standards, quality indicators, and benchmarks [PDF]. These can help you to look at several aspects of a college program, and to ask questions about how a program you’re interested in meets these standards.
Eight standards are addressed: inclusive academic access, career development, campus membership, self-determination, alignment with college systems and practices, coordination and collaboration, sustainability, and program evaluation.
What academic, behavioral, and independent living skills are required for students to be successful in one of these programs?
Programs differ in their admission criteria. Many programs ask the question, “Does the student want to go to college?” This is often seen as the most important criteria for success. Another common theme is that students must adhere to the code of student conduct that applies to all students at the college.
Most programs offer supports to students that are designed around the unique needs of the individual, so there really isn’t one set of skills students must have. That being said, individual programs will have specific entrance criteria. That information can usually be found on the program’s website, and in many cases is included in Think College Search.
The most inclusive programs offer students opportunities to take college courses from the course catalog, and they offer support to the students to participate in those classes. Students may participate in these classes as an audit student, or they may take them for credit.
At many programs, students have a wide array of courses they can select, guided by their personal goals and interests. Other programs offer courses that are only for students with intellectual disability. At other schools, students with intellectual disability may only choose from a select group of college courses.
This is a really important question to ask when you’re looking at a program: How many of the college courses are actually available for the students to take?
When students participate in college courses, they often do that through an audit status. This means that college credits are not awarded. Students who are auditing a class can participate in all class activities, including taking tests or writing papers, to the best of their ability and with supports. Typically, the audited course has a procedure for grading and counts towards earning the credential that the program offers.
If the student does take the course for college credit, then they must meet the same standards as everyone else in the class. This includes papers, tests, and all other course requirements. All students are eligible for what is known as “reasonable accommodations” that do not modify course assignments. For example, a student with intellectual disability might ask for extended time to take a test, or to use assistive technology to help them write a paper.
Students with intellectual disability who are taking courses for credit are not allowed to modify the course requirements.
Many programs offer residential opportunities. You can find them in Think College Search using the search term “Housing.” Sometimes those residential options are in dormitories and on-campus apartments. Some programs offer off-campus housing. It’s not directly affiliated with the college, but it’s very close to campus.
This is something that’s so important in the life of any college student, and where much of our learning and growing takes place. Most, if not all, college programs will offer many opportunities for students with intellectual disability to participate in those kinds of activities. There is a focus on supporting students to join clubs, use the gym, hang out in the student union, attend athletic events, and so on.
What steps are taken in these programs to ensure the safety of students with intellectual disability on college campuses?
College campuses have built in a number of strategies to keep all students safe, such as a buddy system for walking around campus, campus police or campus security, and red safety phones around campus.
In many ways, students with intellectual disability have the same or similar experiences as all other students – but the admission process is different than that of typically matriculating students.
What you DON’T NEED that other college students typically are required to have:
• A standard high school diploma. An IEP diploma, certificate of attendance or other alternative diplomas are accepted for admission into college programs for students with intellectual disability. There are also some programs that support students while they are still in high school.
• ACT or SAT scores
• College admission essays
What you WILL need:
Documentation of intellectual disability, and information on the support needs of the student. Some sort of documentation is required because there is a different admission process for students with intellectual disability, as well as special access to federal financial aid.
Programs will have different admission requirements, but typical requirements include a desire to go to college and to work after college, as well as some basic skills like ability to spend some time alone, and use a cell phone.