Thinking About College for Students With Intellectual Disabilities
What are the pathways to college for students with disabilities?
In general, there are two main pathways to college that are available to students with disabilities. Students who might have challenges navigating a college environment — such as students with autism, visual impairment, or who are Deaf or hard of hearing (D/HH) who are academically able to complete a college degree with accommodations — now have more access to a great deal of support, often through a Disabled Students’ Programs and Services (DSPS) office. Many colleges also have a Neurodiversity Club to provide support and community. (Also note that, if there is a direct connection to finding employment, the Department of Rehabilitation in California can pay for college and related materials.)
Students with intellectual disabilities for whom admittance to a regular college program isn’t possible — for example, students who complete a high school diploma with curriculum modifications — now have more options, too. There are an increasing number of non-degree programs designed specifically for students with intellectual disabilities centered on a college campus. Typically, students take college courses for half their time while also learning to live independently and gain work experience in businesses that fit their career goals.
Cate Weir explains that previously, “students with more significant learning disabilities, like intellectual disabilities, were essentially shut out of college opportunities altogether. There was no option for them to continue their education after high school. So the movement that started a couple of decades ago was really about trying to create an alternative pathway to and through college so that students with intellectual disabilities could benefit from postsecondary education. And that's where Think College comes in”
The movement toward more accessible college programs really gained traction with the passage of the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 (HEOA), which created new comprehensive transition and postsecondary programs for students with intellectual disabilities and provided more students with disabilities with access to federal student aid for the first time.
What programs are available, and how can families find them?
The Think College National Coordinating Center works on developing inclusive programs on university campuses all over the country. Their primary role is to provide technical support in developing programs, but also to provide information to potential students and their families, particularly through their website. Weir explains that while Think College doesn’t oversee all the programs they list online, the Think College website highlights a group of projects known as Transition to Postsecondary Programs for Students with Intellectual Disability (TPSID). These are federally funded model demonstration projects intended to lead the way for other campuses.
Think College lists 311 programs nationally, including 18 programs in California. Most of these are Career2College programs in community colleges. There are three TPSID programs. The recently opened Redwoods SEEDS Scholars program at UC Davis near Sacramento is a 4-year residential program. Two more established programs, the Transition to Independent Living (TIL) Program at Taft College and Wayfinders — California State University, Fresno, also offer a residential experience. Families can find resources on Think College and also contact them for further information to find the right fit for their young adult.
Note that California’s College2Career programs are a little different from TPSID programs. College2Career programs are designed for students with developmental disabilities who are interested in taking community college classes. These programs are intended for neurodiverse students who still need some support with independence. The programs listed on Think College aim to have their learners in a classroom with degree-bound students at least half of the time, and for the experience to be very similar to that of any other student attending college. Having said that, Weir acknowledges that some programs listed on Think College are more suited to a student with a developmental disability with fewer academic challenges. When searching for the right program, parents need to ask questions. The Think College team has come up with seventy questions you might ask!
Although students at TPSID programs are focused on employment and independent living — and that might look very different from students pursuing a degree — the ethos of Think College is still inclusive education. Weir explains that TPSID requires that students spend 50% of their time in inclusive settings taking college classes. These students will usually audit the class with agreed-upon modifications to the assignments. Weir tells us that it may be daunting for families and students as they’re trying to figure out if there's an option that’s right fit for them. But there are options:
While many California programs are housed at community colleges serving their local area, a few programs are residential, providing students with an opportunity to develop independent living skills in a supportive environment. All three TPSID programs in California — Redwoods SEEDS, Fresno Wayfinders, and TAFT TIL — are residential. If students are not ready to live away from their families, a nonresidential program such as CSUN Explorers, Cal State Long Beach’s Think Beach, and San Francisco State’s Inclusion Project, or a College2Career program might be more suitable.
Weir says that four-year residential programs are often referred to as “the gold standard,” and that there are great advantages to this first life-away-from-home experience: “Living on a college campus, there is that protected in-between space, so I do think it's extremely valuable to have that residential option. It is going to cost more than living at home, so it's nice to have both options. But there certainly are many benefits that students gain if they do have that opportunity to live on campus.”
California has fewer programs than other states, considering our population. Other states, such as Florida, have created incentives for college programs for students with intellectual disabilities. One reason is that colleges in Florida can get a grant to start a program, and they also have state funding that pays students a scholarship of $7,000 per year. The combination of those two things has led to a huge increase in the number of options in Florida.
Although one solution is for parents to consider an out-of-state program, traveling long distances independently may be too much of a barrier for many young adults with intellectual or developmental disabilities. Parents should also bear in mind that many supports young adults rely on, such as Regional Center services and the Department of Rehabilitation (DOR), are state-specific and are arguably not the same in other states.
What are the admission requirements?
Each program’s admission requirements are listed on the Think College website. Families don’t need to worry about academic criteria such as a high school diploma. Many young adults with intellectual or developmental disabilities have participated in TPSID programs without the ability to read and write, although some programs might specify a basic reading level. The work that students are assigned in classes that they audit is modified and adapted to suit their needs by the TPSID program faculty working in collaboration with faculty.
Independence is a much greater prerequisite, Weir explains, especially when it comes to personal care and taking medication:
Weir also makes an important point about conservatorship (known as guardianship in other states), explaining that some programs specifically rule out applicants that are conserved because of the legal issues involved with working with someone unable to make their own decisions. In this situation, if the family and student feel comfortable with it, she recommends exploring alternatives to conservatorship, such as supported decision-making.
The most important prerequisite, however, is interest — the students themselves must want to continue with their learning and be interested in college, not just in campus life but also in academics. “They're really looking for students who want to go to college,” she says, “because there is a strong focus in many, if not most, of the programs, on the academic component. It is still school and I think it's important for students to know that. Of course, there's so much fun and you'll make so many good friends and have all kinds of great experiences socially, but there is an academic component. The student should know that, and want to take classes, and continue to learn.”
What will students with disabilities learn at college?
How can parents prepare young adults for college?
Preparing your young adult for a college experience can be daunting. Weir recommends focusing on self-help skills — asking for help, using a cell phone to send a text, etc — high-school participation, and most importantly: encouragement. Think College has prepared materials to support families, including a list of IEP goals to work on independence.
“So many students with intellectual disability get shut out of just learning for the joy of learning,” Weir says. “They're in high school and their whole education is around daily living skills and career skills, and they don't always get to talk about ideas or things they're interested in. But the more high school classes that students can be in it, the better they're going to be prepared. So if in high school, they already have that experience — they sit in a class, take notes, know how to raise their hand, know how to participate in discussion — even though it might be modified, that's going to be good for them. But if they haven't been able to have that experience, I still wouldn't discourage them because if that kid likes learning and you think they can sit in a classroom and participate, they're going to do okay, because there's going to be some flexibility around what they're expected to do.”
In this clip, Weir gives some tips and advice about fostering self-help skills:
How will we pay for college?
Funding can be a big issue, especially as many of us were told not to save money in our children’s name (yes, Section 529 college savings plans above the allowable limit will disqualify a young adult for Social Security benefits). There are several other sources of funding that parents can explore, however. An Able Account can be used to save for college without affecting Medi-Cal benefits. Regional Center and DOR are able to fund most programs based on a variety of criteria. Weir’s Webinar on Paying for College explains the variety of funding sources available.
There are also scholarships available, which Think College can provide information about. For example, DOR is able to pay the entire cost of attending UC Davis SEEDS for students that are DOR clients. In other states, it is possible that the Department of Vocational Rehabilitation can provide funding.
Most college students are also eligible for federal funding, such as a Pell grant or a student loan, but the standard criteria includes being matriculated (accepted to a degree program) and having a high school diploma. About 135 programs have a designation of comprehensive transition program (CTP), which means that they've been approved by the US Department of Ed for their students to receive federal student aid. When you see that designation on Think College (icon of $1 sign and a graduate cap), those two requirements are waived, although there are still financial eligibility criteria. Students could be eligible for some work study funding, but it does not open the door for federally subsidized student loans. Student loan programs are still fairly out of reach for families.
There are also scholarship programs such as Ruby’s Rainbow.
Does a non-degree college certificate lead to a real job?
The promise of these college programs is twofold: inclusion in the college experience for every young adult that wants it, and the skills needed for employment in a competitive integrated workplace (CIE). Weir told us that the data collected from TPSID programs indicated that approximately 65-70% of alumni are employed in CIE, compared to less than 20% typically for the population with intellectual disabilities.
Many former TPSID students find work in non-traditional careers as well, showing that the program is opening opportunities for different kinds of work. As Weir points out, you cannot properly measure the social and emotional impact of participating in a college program, but anecdotally, many families are seeing huge growth in their young adult’s confidence and independence. Think College — in partnership with other agencies, colleges, DOR, and Regional Center — is opening the doors to meaningful, inclusive lives.
Weir tells us that it’s all about expectations: “The stories that people tell about the impact on their sons’ and daughters’ social-emotional development is just dramatic,” she says. “They come home for Thanksgiving and they can't believe how much more confident they are, how much more self-assured. And they're sitting up straighter and making better eye contact. It comes from pride so much of the time — that they are doing it, and that they're in an environment that expects it. And I think they rise to that expectation.”
College resources for students with disabilities
For more information, visit the Think College website and contact the Think College National Coordinating Center with follow-up questions.
We've included information below on some of the programs for students with disabilities that are available here in California, Including TPSID programs, college to career programs, and programs for students with disabilities who are applying to college through regular admissions. If you feel there should be more programs like this, consider supporting the Inclusive College Alliance and talking to your elected representatives about funding incentives.
Redwood SEED Scholars, University of California, Davis. Founded two years ago, this is the only four-year program in California and hopefully serves as a model for other UC and CSU campuses. Students live on campus, engage in social activities and organizations, take college classes, and pursue an internship or job.
- Contact: Program Contact Beth Foraker at email@example.com
Transition to Independent Living (TIL) Program, TAFT College, Taft. One of the longest-running college programs for students with developmental or intellectual disabilities, TIL recently restored its TPSID status. TIL offers a two-year educational experience with instruction, training, and support on a community college campus.
- Contact: Aaron Markovits at firstname.lastname@example.org
Wayfinders, California State University, Fresno. Funded as a Comprehensive Transition Program (CTP), Wayfinders increase their independence over a two-year program by living in student apartments, participating in work experience internships, taking classes at Fresno State through their Open University program, and engaging with the community.
- Contact: Ryan Wilson at email@example.com
Other programs of interest
Did you know that California is now funding college-going programs for students with disabilities?
The California Department of Developmental Services will now fund career- and life-preparation programs at six campuses: Cal State Long Beach, San Jose State, CSU San Marcos, CSU Northridge, San Francisco State, and CSU East Bay. The money will be used to “prepare students for ‘competitive integrated employment’ by helping them define personal, academic, and professional goals, take college courses with students who don’t have disabilities, build friendships, enjoy campus life, and participate in internships and other work-based training. They will receive a certificate after completing the program.” Some programs that will receive more funding include Cal State Long Beach’s Think Beach, Cal State Northridge’s Explorers, and San Francisco State’s Inclusion Project (more on these below!).
Explorers, California State University, Northridge. This is a two-year program for individuals with intellectual/developmental disabilities who do not have a high school diploma. Explorers enroll at CSUN through Open University, taking two classes each semester and participating in clubs, other activities, and an internship on campus, supported by peer mentors and academic coaches.
- Contact: Beth Lasky at firstname.lastname@example.org
Pathway, at UCLA Extension in Los Angeles. Funded as a Comprehensive Transition Program (CTP), and located at the Extension campus, Pathway is a two- to three-year college program for students with intellectual and other developmental disabilities. Pathway students attend classes and participate in the many social, recreational, and cultural activities of a major university.
- Contact: Jessica Broutt email@example.com
Tierra Del Sol NEXUS 2.0, Los Angeles. This College-to-Career Program Model is designed around integrated, college-level, and career-oriented coursework. Tierra del Sol’s three-year program supports young adults to succeed in school at California State University, Northridge, College of the Canyons, and Los Angeles Valley, Mission, and Pierce Colleges as well as West Valley Occupational Center.
- Contact: Gabriela Sanchez at firstname.lastname@example.org
College of Adaptive Arts, Saratoga. Pursuing a mission to change perceptions of ability while providing educational opportunities through in-person and online classes is the goal of this program. Courses provide instruction targeting core areas of social cognitive ability. All levels of learners are welcome, as students learn at their individual paces and with personalized resource needs in the fields of Communications, Science and Technology, Health and Wellness, Visual Arts, TV/Film, Music, Dance, Library Arts, Theatre, and Business.
- Contact: DeAnna Pursai at email@example.com
I-CAN JOB Ventura College, Ventura. Based in a community college, this is a two-year employment preparation and workplace skills program designed for individuals with autism and/or intellectual disabilities, but it is open to anyone who can benefit. Courses in this program are designed to meet the needs of employers, specifically addressing concerns in the areas of “soft skills,” communication, basic math, and understanding of computer processes and software.
- Contact: Steve Turner at firstname.lastname@example.org
Foothill College Transition to Work (TTW), Foothill College, Los Altos Hills. A one-year intensive program for young adults with disabilities, intended for students who are independent enough to navigate the college campus. TWW provides courses in career and classroom skills, relationship development and socialization, basic life skills such as budgeting and critical thinking, emotional regulation and wellbeing, and on-campus internships.
- Contact: Ben Kauppen at email@example.com
San Francisco State Inclusion Pilot Project, San Francisco State University. The SF State Inclusion Pilot Project facilitates authentic academic and social inclusion of students with intellectual and developmental disabilities in academic courses and campus life. Inclusion students develop an individualized course plan, typically including academic coursework, social activities, and career-related activities. Undergraduate peer mentors are central to this program, supporting inclusion students in class and on campus, leveraging each other's interests and strengths.
- Contact: Mayumi Hagiwara at Inclusion@sfsu.edu
Think Beach, California State University, Long Beach. This is a pilot program that seeks to extend a college-going experience to people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. It also gives CSULB students the opportunity to work with IDD students to foster a more inclusive learning environment on campus. Think Beach aims to become a full-fledged program in which students with IDD officially enroll in the university and take classes in such areas as career preparation and nutrition.
- Contact: Dr. Kristen Powers and Dr. Kelli Sanderson, firstname.lastname@example.org
College to Career (C2C) programs
A (C2C) program is a partnership between community colleges and DOR to serve students with intellectual disabilities and autism who are both DOR and Regional Center clients. The program provides employment preparation, soft skills training, independent living skills, and campus inclusion. Students attend both specialized services and regular educational or vocational classes provided by the college. Many of these programs qualify to provide federal financial aid as a Comprehensive Transition Program (CTP).
Think College lists C2C programs at:
- San Diego Community College District
- College of Alameda
- Shasta College
- West Los Angeles College
- Fresno City College
- North Orange County Community College District
- Sacramento City College
- Santa Rosa Junior College
More resources worth noting
Undivided has found a few other programs not listed at Think College (Cathryn Weir explains that this isn’t an indication that Think College considered including these programs, but that there are still many programs they may not yet know about).
College to Career at Long Beach College In partnership with Harbor Regional Center, this program provides educational coaching for students enrolled in a course of study leading to an AA or a certificate. Daily Living skills coaching is provided by California Mentor, and a residential component is available through Hope affordable housing.
Coastline College Intellectual Disabilities Program This is a free, non-certificate program for students with intellectual disabilities at Coastline College, a community college with campuses in Fountain Valley, Garden Grove, and Westminster. They offer classes in critical thinking, math concepts, literacy, community awareness, music, art, customs, cultures and holidays, fitness, independent living, applied academics, food preparation, health concepts, social skills, and technology. Coastline also offers classes for vocational day programs, such as Westview Services and Elwyn Industries. This program does not offer inclusive classes.
Support for students going to college through regular admissions
For students with disabilities who are able to be admitted to a diploma or certificate-bound college program through regular admission, there is also a lot of support. Most universities will have a Disabled Students’ Programs and Services (DSPS).
For example, California State University at Long Beach has the Bob Murphy Access Center, where the Learning Independence for Empowerment (LIFE) Project, developed in 2009, supports regularly admitted CSULB students with autism or another social-cognitive disability. Presentations and workshops also help prepare students to become career ready.
At University of California Santa Barbara, the Koegel Autism Center offers Thrive, Encourage, Accomplish & Make Friends (TEAM). They have discussion meet-ups and monthly social events. They also offer Personal, Vocational, Social, and Adjustment (PVSA) Services funded by DOR, providing support for time management, organization, and social skills.
College Living Experience (CLE) in Costa Mesa and Monterey supports students pursuing their academic program or career of choice while also providing independent living and social skill development. Many of the students have autism, dyslexia, ADD/ADHD, and/or social-emotional developmental challenges. If a student is interested in pursuing higher education and wants to receive services from CLE, they will apply (through regular admissions) to their program of choice located near one of CLE’s locations and then apply to CLE as supplementary support.