Meg Grigal, Ph.D., Senior Research Fellow, Institute for Community Inclusion, University of Massachusetts, Boston where she Co-Directs Think College and serves as the Co-Principal Investigator for two national grants: the Administration on Developmental Disabilities funded Consortium for Postsecondary Education for Individuals with Developmental Disabilities and the Office of Postsecondary Education National Coordinating Center for the Transition Programs for Students with Intellectual Disabilities (TPSID) Model Demonstration Programs. Dr. Grigal currently conducts research and provides evaluation and technical assistance on exemplary practices for supporting students with disabilities in the community, employment, and postsecondary settings. She has co-authored two books on college options for students with intellectual disabilities and has conducted and published research in the areas of postsecondary education options, transition planning, families, self-determination, inclusion, and the use of person-centered planning techniques.
Debra Hart is the Director of Education and Transition at the Institute for Community Inclusion at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. She has over 30 years of experience working with youth with disabilities, their families, faculty, and professionals that support youth in becoming valued members of their community via participation in inclusive secondary and postsecondary education and integrated competitive employment. Currently, she is the Principal Investigator for two national postsecondary education grants. The National Coordinating Center is conducting an evaluation of 27 model postsecondary education initiatives to better understand their policies and practices in different postsecondary education options and their impact on student outcomes. The National Consortium on Postsecondary Education provides training and technical assistance to enhance existing postsecondary education initiatives and to grow the choice of a higher education for youth with intellectual disability nationwide.
Recently, my mother mentioned that my grandmother and my great-grandmother never drove a car. “Really? Why not?” I asked. She replied, “Well it just wasn’t done.” In those days, no one expected a woman to drive a car.
This got me thinking about the reactions we received from people when we first started working on creating college options for people with intellectual disabilities (ID). The most common response was confusion and disbelief: “People with intellectual disabilities do not go to college. It just isn’t done.”
Why is this?
Too often, it is because of pervasive low expectations, which have translated into the poorest of outcomes for youth and young adults with ID. Special education has become a feeder system into segregated adult options like adult day habilitation centers and sheltered workshops. Systematized low expectations restrict the options for people with ID exiting high school. In fact, these restrictive and undesirable choices have become the only path for many youth with ID.
Proof of Benefit
Over the 15 years I’ve spent working on inclusive higher education, I have found that those who question the value of college for youth with ID have a prevalent theme: a need for justification, or a desire for “proof” that college has anything to offer to these individuals. Many view investing in the betterment of the minds and lives of people labeled “intellectually disabled” as a risky prospect, with limited return on investment. They assume that learning is not possible for people with such disability labels. Similar (and equally misguided) assumptions have been made about people with other labels for years.
Like women and other minority groups who were deemed incapable of benefitting from higher education, people with ID must prove they are worth investing in. This “prove it” mindset only seems to rear its head when we are suggesting that people with intellectual disabilities are “worthy” of being included in socially valued integrated outcomes, such as paid employment, integrated community living, or in this case integrated adult learning experiences in higher education.
Those who voice objections to marginalized groups accessing perceived “privileges” such as voting or higher education often belittle those seeking change. Henry Adams objected to women accessing higher education by noting “…the pathetic impossibility of improving those poor little, hard, thin, wiry, one-stringed instruments which they call their minds.” Critics of inclusive higher education often share similar sentiments, perhaps in more politically correct terms. Often what people really want to ask is, Why waste your time educating such students? Why waste valuable resources that could be better spent on worthier students?
What’s the Point?
We began our book, Think College, with a preface entitled What’s the Point? as this was, and often still is, the first question we get from people being confronted with this proposition for the first time. From our perspective, college can offer as much or as little to a person with ID as it can to anyone else.
The learning goals of individuals with ID range just as widely as those of other college students. These goals may encompass a traditional college experience that results in earning a degree or credential. More often students with ID may seek the less traditional but equally valid and legitimate goal of fulfilling a personal or career-related learning need. The less traditional pathway has led to success for many people with and without disabilities. The economic benefits of attending any amount of college have been documented, and recent studies are beginning to uncover similar benefits for people with intellectual disabilities.
If we truly believe that access to college is the key to economic security and adult fulfillment for most adults, why would we systematically deny access to and support of college goals for a group of individuals who are in dire need of both of these positive outcomes?
The Power of Expectations
Consider this scenario. What would happen if, from kindergarten through 12th grade, we expected that students with ID would be provided the option of going to college? Not a guarantee, as no student has that, but the option of accessing future desired learning as an adult.
Many critics point out that college would prove challenging for youth and adults with ID. And in some cases, there have been students for whom these challenges could not be overcome. But isn’t college challenging for many—if not most—youth without disabilities? Aren’t there great numbers of people who have attempted to go to college, only to choose another path?
The truth is, we have little understanding of how a college education can help people with ID, because we have never truly attempted to make college access a reality on a broad scale. Only when we have applied the highest expectations and provided our best professional resources toward achieving that goal will we be able to determine the feasibility, sustainability, and outcomes of college for this group of students.
Progress and Desire
Today, over two hundred colleges and universities across the country enroll students with ID. The latest reauthorization of the Higher Education Opportunity Act included provisions to increase and expand programs for students with ID, and allows unprecedented access to certain forms of federal student aid. Access to Title IV aid is critical to ensure access to higher education isn’t available to only to those students with ID who come from wealthy backgrounds. While all of this progress demonstrates that access to higher education for people with ID is an idea whose time has come, many people remain doubtful.
Sometimes seeing is believing. Those who are curious (or dubious) about this idea might want to learn a bit more about what is happening in colleges throughout the country. There are a variety of resources, including videos that illustrate the experiences of college students with ID, their peers and their professors. Read their stories and listen to their accounts and then decide if the questions you still have will start with “how” instead of “why.”
Some may view going to college as a privilege to be earned, but the currency that should be most valued to earn access to higher education is the desire for learning. People with ID who are highly motivated to access college should be afforded the same opportunities to try, to succeed, and sometimes to fail and try again that the rest of us have had.
 O’Toole, P. (1990). The Five of Hearts: An Intimate Portrait of Henry Adams and His Friends, 1880-1918 (pg 138). New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
 Smith, F. A., Grigal, M., & Sulewski, J. (2012). The impact of postsecondary education on employment outcomes for transition-age youth with and without disabilities: A secondary analysis of American Community Survey data. Think College Insight Brief, Issue No. 15. Boston, MA: University of Massachusetts Boston, Institute for Community Inclusion.
**The opinions of our guest bloggers don’t necessarily reflect the views of the Equity Alliance at ASU, but they do raise important questions about educational equity. We invite participation and the exchange of ideas with these blogs.