Program Development

When getting started with the establishment of an inclusive postsecondary education option for students with ID, there are many things to consider. You need to articulate the overall vision for the new endeavor. Administrative issues such as gaining support at your college/university, developing an operating budget and staffing needs will need to be addressed. Equally important are details of the program operations, such as the course of study your students will follow, the credential students will earn, career development and the connection with the college or university’s career services and how students will be supported throughout all campus activities of their choosing.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What are some of the most important first steps?

It is important to have individual conversations about developing a PSE initiative at the host college or university that include administration (e.g., president or chancellor, provost, registrar, student affairs), faculty senate, administrative staff (e.g., business managers, academic coordinator, financial aid, support staff) and direct service personnel (e.g., disability services, student center, athletic center, student clubs).

Simultaneously, form a PSE Leadership Committee to guide the development of the initiative including addressing all of the logistics that will need to be addressed as the initiative evolves (e.g, entrance criteria, person centered planning, advising and course of study, registration, grading). During these initial conversations, it is important to invite individuals to this Leadership Committee that will be key stakeholders in guiding the development of the program.

Additionally, students, parents, employers, and adult service agencies representatives need to be included in the design of your program. Including representatives from these groups on the Leadership Committee will assure their voices are heard and their ideas are incorporated into your program design.

What entrance criteria should our program use?

Entrance criteria should not be restrictive in nature but rather be constructed to determine the student’s desire to go to college. Admission should not be dependent on prerequisite non-academic skills, academic prerequisites or IQ. We would also not recommend using GPA from high school, or minimum reading levels as part of entrance criteria. These postsecondary education options are designed to offer a college education to those that have been routinely excluded – making your entrance criteria as welcoming and individualized as you can assures that you are offering this opportunity to a wide array of students who desire to continue their education.

What interview process should the program use to learn more about applicants?

Applicants may be interviewed as part of your admission process to determine what they want to do, motivation, and goals, to determine if there is a good match between the program and the student. All who are interested should be interviewed. A scoring rubric can be helpful to give feedback to the student and family. It is important that your interview is set up to determine whether the student wants to go to college. Many programs also find it useful to interview the parents separately, to determine that the parents are aware of operations and expectations for students, and to assure they will be supportive of those goals.

Should we create a separate curriculum just for the students in our program?

There should not be a separate curriculum —please do not set up separate classes with special curriculum just for students with ID! Special classes, program-based groups and program offices are not natural environments where typical college students learn. Regardless of how hard a PSE program tries, by setting up separate learning opportunities outside of the natural setting, they are providing decontextualized learning, which is not supported by the research on how individuals learn. People, particularly those with learning challenges, learn best when they learn in context and have multiple opportunities to practice the skills and abilities throughout their day. The research on students’ ability to generalize skills indicates that it is much easier to generalize newly learned skills when they are learned within the context of meaningful, functional activities as they happen naturally versus within contrived situations in a special classroom, program or office.

The education experience should strive to be as similar as possible to the experience of the typical college student. The college campus is a school, after all, with many, many classes on a wide variety of subjects. The first place to look is the college catalog, for credit classes, non-credit offerings, options to audit classes, learning labs and other naturally occurring learning opportunities on the college campus that are for all students. With the appropriate supports, these can be rich, learning experiences.

Many PSE program planners are considering the development of a special math or reading class, or a class on self-advocacy or independent living for students with ID. While this instinct may be based on good intentions, by setting up separate classes you are only reinforcing the negative image and stereotypes of people with ID as incapable of participating in typical learning experiences. Also, these types of separate options are based on the assumption that others know what is “best” for a particular student and what they “should” be learning in college. If a PSE initiative is truly based on what people want for themselves, there should be no expectation that every student does the same thing or takes the same classes. Because a key tenet of inclusive postsecondary education options is a focus on person-centered planning for each student, each student will have a different schedule, based on their own unique dreams for themselves. So rather than setting up a functional math class that all participants attend, if a student indicates that they want to focus some of their learning on improving their math skills, then seek out a math class and arrange for extra support for the assignments, perhaps have an educational coach attend the class with the student for a time.

In summary, college initiatives for students with intellectual disabilities should utilize the naturally occurring learning opportunities at the college to create an inclusive course of study for each student based on their person-centered plan, one that does not depend on separate classes or learning activities. These separate options reinforce negative assumptions about individuals with ID, are based on preconceived ideas of what the student “should” learn rather than focusing on what they want to learn, and do not use what we know from the generalization research on where learning happens best.

What is a typical course of study?

Colleges can use the existing course catalog to create a course of study leading to a credential that aligns with the areas of study offered to all students. Some colleges have career-specific courses of study that may lead to an industry recognized credential. Other colleges may have an independent study leading to a liberal arts credential. Most credentials also include internships and other campus activities. When you are starting a program, you will want to think about the number of college classes, credits and internships that will comprise a student’s college experience. This may change as the program grows, and should be approved by the governing board of the college.

What is the liability a program assumes when they create access to higher education for students with ID?

The liability is the same as the college or university assumes for any other student.

What is the appropriate role for mentors and/or educational coaches?

Mentors and educational coaches can be a valuable support for college students with ID. These support services may be provided by the college program, or be arranged through a school district or adult services agency. They may be paid or volunteer positions. It is important that the relationship between the student and the coach is one where the student is in charge of determining what type of supports will be provided and how they are delivered. A helpful resource is the Education Coach Agreement .

What program staff are necessary?

At minimum, programs typically need a program coordinator. Typical duties may include: ensuring consistent communication channels are used; scheduling staff and mentors; implementing person centered plans; maintaining relationships with both internal and external key stakeholders; and communicating with college and community partners. The coordinator will handle all administrator aspects of the program from application to course registration to graduation.

Additionally, programs will need someone skilled in job development and supported employment. This person can be hired by the college or may be provided through a contract with an employment agency. Assure that any agency you contract with has a record of positive employment outcomes for students with ID. Typical duties will include: attending person centered planning meetings; collaborating with existing college career services; identifying job opportunities both on campus and in the community, preparing students for competitive integrated employment; ongoing job support based on student needs; coordinating with adult agencies (e.g. Vocational Rehabilitation).

It is important to note that the most appropriate role for any program staff is to facilitate the inclusion of students into classes, work opportunities and campus activities, not to instruct. It is best to have students being instructed by college faculty, like other college students.

How are students graded?

It is important to have some organized and clear process for determining how students are progressing through their college education. There is a wide range of different options that can be used for grading and determining individual progress. A portfolio-based grading system where the student chronicles samples of their work by subject area in a portfolio is one option, with a scoring rubric to determine the quality of the work.

A pass/fail system for grading and use of a scale of attainment to measure individual student success in foundational skills is another strategy that is being used. It is best to find a system that works best with the IHE, the student and the faculty. Assure that there are ways to track learning in college classes, at internships, and the individual learning goals that students have set for themselves in their person-centered plan.

What is the difference between taking a course for audit vs. credit?

Taking a class for credit is the traditional pathway for college students. However, many students with ID may choose to take a course for audit. The decision of audit vs. credit should be a conversation with the student, faculty member, & the program coordinator. Some students may take some classes for credit and other for audit. It truly depends on the course, student and faculty. Courses for credit tend to have greater transferability, recognition, and can fit into a specific degree program. Another option is for students to first audit the course and then take it for credit in a different semester. Audit status is usually coordinated by the office of the registrar.

How are college programs funded?

Start-up funding for college initiatives has taken many forms. Some have started with time-limited grants from state funds or charitable organizations. Others have started with some investment by the college itself, perhaps in the form of release time for a faculty member to develop the program. Partnerships with adult agencies or school districts have also been instrumental in the initial funding. It does not need to cost a great deal of money to plan and implement a program, but most programs do start with at least some seed money from one or more of these sources.

As you develop the operational budget for program operations, try, as much as possible, to utilize existing resources on campus that your students can access and do not “over-staff” your program. Many programs rely on volunteer or work-study students to provide at least some of the supports that students may need. It may however be necessary to also have some level of paid support for students who may need that. Once you determine the minimum staffing required and other required expenses, you can create a budget. Eventually, as students pay tuition and/or program fees to attend the program, these funds should be available to cover ongoing program expenses.

To assure a wide variety of students from different socio-economic backgrounds have access to your program, you should work to establish a variety of funding sources for students. Programs have relationships with Vocational Rehabilitation, School Districts, Community Agencies and others that may have funds to support college attendance. Parents and students are typically a big part of the equation as to who is paying for college, but these other partnerships allow for students without significant resources saved for college to still participate.

What should I do if I have more questions?