There are over 300 programs in the United States that offer a non-degree program for students with intellectual disability, located at public and private, 4 year and 2 year colleges and universities, as well as a few located at technical colleges. Program length ranges from one year to four year and some include a ‘fifth’ year opportunity. Some programs are small, with only 5 or 6 students and some have as many as 30 or 40 students with intellectual disability. Some programs are focused on a general certificate of completion and others have a more specific career focus certificate. Some provide residential living for students with intellectual disability in the campus dorms, though many offer only commuter opportunities. Check the College Search page for program specific information.
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.
What areas of study, majors, or certifications are available for students with intellectual disability?
Many of these non-degree programs offer an individualized approach by supporting each student to select courses most closely related to their specific career goals. There are a growing number of programs that offer workforce credentials, but the majority are offering a general certificate that can be tailored to the student's goals. Check in with the program director and ask for a handbook, program curriculum, or program of study to see the details for programs you are interested in.
Start by reviewing program details in Think College Search. You can save a list of favorites that are the type of campus you like, in the parts of the country you are interested in and use a downloadable list to compare them to one another.
Once you have a list of solid possibilities, visit the programs' websites for more details. You may want to contact the program to ask questions or to schedule a campus visit. Many programs offer online and in-person Open Houses that can be a great way to learn more.
You can use our How To Guide on Conducting a College Search and/or the Self-Advocates Guide to Selecting a College to help decide what questions to ask when you talk to the program staff and review information on their websites.
This can all be a little (or a lot!) overwheliming. Feel free to contact us at ThinkCollegeTA@gmail.com if you need more information or help deciding on the best fit.
The admission process for these non-degree programs will be different than that of degree-seeking students.
Students DON’T NEED 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. Also, standardlzed test scores such as from ACT or SAT will not be required.
What the student WILL need is documentation of intellectual disability, and information that describes their strengths and their support needs. 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.
Other than these important considerations, there will be a variety of other requirements that can differ from program to program. Some 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, manage their own medication, and use a cell phone. Also common is to see an age range of 18-26, but not all programs have an upper age limit.
The expectation of inclusive postsecondary education for students with intellectual disability was clearly identified in the Higher Education Opportunity Act (HEOA) of 2008 when it stated that students with intellectual disability must enroll in and/or participate in regular college courses with their non-disabled peers. 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.
The level of participation in the assignments and readings will depend upon whether the student is taking courses for credit or audit. Students taking the course for credit, are responsible for all required assignments and tests with only accommodations (no change to the course content or learning expectations), to pass the course. Those students who audit the course may receive modifications to the amount of content they are expected to learn and may have reductions in the amount and types of assignments and tests for which they are responsible.
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.
When exploring colleges, a good question to ask the program directors is, “Will my son or daughter take their college courses for credit or audit and how will they be graded?
A student’s reading level isn’t the most important concern as they prepare for college, but rather their knowledge of and ability to use their compensatory strategies and electronic devices. Though any student’s compensatory strategies would include digital and internet accessible devices, they would also include decision-and choice-making skills, and the ability to schedule activities, homework, and events; follow their schedule; and advocate for their support needs.
- Device savvy: Students should be using their phones, tablets, and computers in school to read their text aloud, summarize sections, find their assignments, record homework, take notes, create homework schedules, keep track of schedules and connect with teachers and other students for homework or study help. Students should also be able to create Word and PowerPoint documents, file them in their computer, and find the documents when needed to study from or turn in.
- Decision-making: The most noticeable difference is that college students are expected to manage their own learning and make choices and decisions more independently than in high school. Students should be developing these skills in high school: organizational skills for homework and studying, personal routines and schedules to carve out homework and study times, and strategies for keeping track of time and being on time.
- Scheduling and keeping to a schedule are crucial skills for college students. No one else is going to wake them in the morning to get to class or turn in their homework on time. They will have to make choices when there are conflicting activities on the schedule and be able to modify their choices.
- Self-advocacy is another skill students can and should be utilizing in high school. Students need to be able to recognize when they need help and who to ask. It is up to the student to email their professor and schedule office hours if they don’t understand something or know when an assignment is due.
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.
Many more programs for students with intellectual disability are attended by those students who live at home and commute to school than those who live on or near campus. About 1/3 of the programs across the country have a residential option for students with intellectual disability. Some programs require students to live on campus and some allow students to choose to be a commuter or residential student.
What if the student has never lived away from home before, how are they supported to live at college?
Residential programs vary in terms of the levels and types of supports provided in campus housing. Some have a resident assistant (RA), the same support available to any residential student. Some programs provide an additional support person through the program, though often for limited hours. Few programs provide support to wake the student up in the morning to go to class or tell them when to turn the game or show off and go to bed. Those responsibilities generally belong to the student.
This is another area of questioning you will want to direct to the program director at each college you are exploring. “What type of ‘housing’ support is available to the students? How will they know who is supporting them? How will they contact them? Is there after-hours support?”
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 support 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?
Every program puts in place supports and strategies in the event a student needs help. Many programs begin each semester orienting students to the location of their new courses, the clinic, and ‘help phone’ boxes on campus. Some begin the semester with peers who walk the students with intellectual disability to class for the first week or two. Many programs use a social media app like ‘group me’ to stay in touch with their students.
It is a good idea to plan ahead and check out the campus when you visit, prior to enrolling in the program, and look for strategically placed emergency phones on campus and ask about whether the institution has campus police.
Ultimately, it is up to the student to identify when they are in a situation that they need help and then how to access that help.
As with many students who find themselves going away to college and now “free” from their parents, there are lessons to be learned about their structured and unstructured time, about staying up too late when a required early event or class is scheduled the next day.
Program staff will support students with ID to identify their interests and find an organization, club, or event that, if joined, would begin to structure some free time. Some programs require students to join a club and attend a certain number of activities as well as attend required tutoring, career services workshops, and volunteer or work a specified number of hours. However, there is always some unstructured free time when attending college and learning how to explore and engage in activities of interest is a crucial skill to learn.
Essentially, each student is responsible to explore opportunities on the campus and to make choices in how to spend his or her own time when not in class. There are generally a few popular places students gather to do homework, like the student union or library. They may hang out with friends at the campus cafe, play video games, visit the campus gym or recreation center and join an exercise or nutrition class, go to a convenience store, or go to their room and take a nap.
Once a student attends college, the parent no longer has an automatic right to see educational data, such as grades. Permission for that access needs to be granted in writing by the student and still may not be honored by the college or university.
Students have a right to know about the purpose, content, and location of information kept as a part of their education records. They also have a right to expect that information in their educational records will be kept confidential unless they give permission to the college or university to disclose such information.
Explore the following resources to find out more.
- Communicating with Your Student’s College under Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), 2017. This document explains the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act and describes how it affects family communication related to college students.
- Know Your Rights (written in Plain Language) https://thinkcollege.net/sites/default/files/files/resources/PL1_FERPA_f... a 2020 publication that publication explains what is important about the FERPA Act, or the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act.
- You Don’t Say: Parent Involvement Expectations, Communication, FERPA.https://thinkcollege.net/resource/federal-legislation/you-don%E2%80%99t-... A 2018 webinar, where parents and program staff explore strategies for effective family engagement practices in light of Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) requirements,
Support for college varies tremendously by state, but there are state, local, and federal options to be explored. The Paying for College section on the Think College website includes a number of resources and links to explore.
A TPSID is a federally funded model demonstration grant project. These college programs have received a 5 year federal grant to create and/or further develop their program. TPSID stands for Transition and Postsecondary Education Program for Students with Intellectual Disability.
A CTP refers to a college program that has been approved through a process created by the US Department of Education. The CTP, or Comprehensive Transition Program approval means that students with intellectual disability attending those programs are eligible for federal student aid.
IPSE program refers to inclusive college programs for students with intellectual disability that may or may not have achieved a CTP designation. IPSE stands for Inclusive Postsecondary Education.