Education Week – December 13, 2011
Postsecondary options expanding
When Andrew Van Cleave thought about what he wanted to do after high school, this son of two university graduates came up with the same answer many his age come up with: go to college.
Until the past decade, though, college wasn’t much of an option for students, including Mr. Van Cleave, who have significant intellectual impairments. This month, the 24-year-old, who has an intellectual disability and ADHD, became one of the first graduates of a two-year program at Vanderbilt University designed for students with severe cognitive disabilities. He starts a job next month.
Vanderbilt’s Next Steps program is one of many created for this group of students in the last 10 years. The programs have grown in number from about 15 in 2002 to almost 170 now, as tracked by Think College, a Boston organization that does research about this new breed of programs and offers guidance about them for professionals, families, and students.
The growth is due in part to changes in federal law that have increased the expectations of such students in elementary and secondary school.
“We’ve had now 30 years of access for students with disabilities to go to school, and they’re coming out of that system with a different expectation: Their education should continue,” said Eric Latham, the executive director of Pathway, a college program for students with intellectual disabilities at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Earlier this year, a national study found that six years after high school, students with disabilities were less likely than peers to have attended any college—55 percent compared with 62 percent, though that includes students with all types of disabilities. Among people with intellectual disabilities, the rate of employment is just 9 percent.
The push for creating college opportunities for students with disabilities has also come from parents and advocacy groups, said Stephanie Lee, a senior policy adviser for the National Down Syndrome Society, based in New York.
She is one of those parents: About 10 years ago, Ms. Lee’s daughter, Laura, who has Down syndrome, asked her mother if she would attend college at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania like her brother. When Ms. Lee researched what options her daughter had, she found “there was very little out there.”
The only real choices were for Laura to stay in high school until she was 21, which federal law allows some students with disabilities to do, or work in a sheltered environment for less than minimum wage, mostly with other people with disabilities.
Ms. Lee, who previously worked for the U.S. Department of Education’s office of special education programs, approached administrators at George Mason University, in Fairfax, Va., about creating a program for Laura and similar students. They said yes.
“I was very nervous about dropping my daughter off at this big university campus. It turned out better than I ever could have expected,” Ms. Lee said. The program, called Mason LIFE, or Learning Into Future Environments, now serves more than 40 students and has a vocational-internship option