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[1]. 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.”[2] 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[3].

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.

  • How would that change what was said at each IEP conference?
  • How would that change teachers’ conversations with parents and colleagues about the student’s future prospects?
  • How would that change how we engage and partner with colleges and other adult learning providers in our communities?

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.

[1] Newman, L., Wagner, M., Knokey, A.-M., Marder, C., Nagle, K., Shaver, D., Wei, X., with Cameto, R., Contreras, E., Ferguson, K., Greene, S., and Schwarting, M. (2011). The Post-High School Outcomes of Young Adults With Disabilities up to 8 Years After High School. A Report From the National Longitudinal Transition Study-2 (NLTS2) (NCSER 2011-3005). Menlo Park, CA: SRI International. Available at

[2] 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.

[3] 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.

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15 Responses to “Inclusive Higher Education: Its Time Has Come by Meg Grigal and Debra Hart”

  1. Tammy Day on 3/28/13 10:54 AM US/Eastern

    Deb and Meg,
    Thank you for the masterful way you answered the question “What’s the point?” about college for people with I/DD. The 360 degree view is so helpful!!

  2. Sarath Wijesooriya on 4/3/13 8:04 AM US/Eastern

    Please let me know about the pamous charactor with down syndrom and their highest education level they acheived. Because my younger boy is down boy eged 10years studing in local language,But he can pronunse english better than local language. His IQ is close to normal. I want to give him to good education. I want to which stream he should continue the education. Whether it is from Dancing, Painting or other paper qualification. We both are Proffesionals & Have a Higher education. Please help. We are from Sri- Lanka. If required we can Migrate also. Best Regards. Sarath.

  3. Aly Elfreich on 4/15/13 3:11 PM US/Eastern

    I agree that higher education should be an attainable goal for all students. Because college is specialized and should be refined to the interests and strengths of the students who attend, it is reasonable to have the same expectations of curriculum and learning for students with ID. In fact, higher education goals and aspirations should be tailored to fit the needs of all students, with or without disabilities.

    College is a time that gives young adults the opportunity to explore their interests and their independence. There is no reason for us to assume that young adults with ID do not have the same expectations for themselves. However, it is unfortunate that many students have not been given the same opportunities, due to the fact that K-12 schools set very low expectations for transition into higher education.

  4. Christine Peak on 4/16/13 11:50 AM US/Eastern

    “Seeing is believing” seems to be the theme this post emulates. It is absurd because someone has an ID, they cannot, made to believe they are unable, or should not transition into college. I agree, each IEP conference would change, I believe if the focus was always the future. That doesn’t mean we wouldn’t’ deal with the reality of what each student was facing, but yet continuously providing the essentials students will need to be productive and successful college students in our society.

  5. Julie Chambers on 4/16/13 6:10 PM US/Eastern

    I love the title for your section, “The Power of Expectations”. If we set the standards high for all students, regardless of dis/ability, I believe that we would see a huge increase in student self-worth and achievement. On a personal level, I observed over the course of one year a teacher that allowed two students with intellectual disabilities to spend most of their day (when they weren’t pulled out to work with the special education teacher) on the computer. It was my role to help direct one of those students to stay focused and on task, but I was often met with his response of “Why? I don’t have to do that…” because that was the expectation when I was not in the classroom to work with him one-on-one.
    When we make our expectations of others known to them, the power it holds is immense. Unfortunately, that power can be used in a negative way.

  6. Sarah Livengood on 4/16/13 7:54 PM US/Eastern

    Everyone has a right to access education. I thought the quote from Henry Adams “…the pathetic impossibility of improving those poor little, hard, thin, wiry, one-stringed instruments which they call their minds” articulates the struggle of current public perceptions of individuals with disabilities attending postsecondary education. How will they ever accomplish their best if they are never given the chance? How wrong the previous perception was of women. Imagine what has been denied of individuals with disabilities all these years! Most importantly, understanding the biased and discrimination against these individuals is the first step in correcting it.

  7. Benedict Adams on 4/17/13 11:54 AM US/Eastern

    I absolutely agree that higher education should be the goal for all students. In so many ways, it is the society, it is the popular culture, and it is the environment which is disabling. One of these aspects conspicuous in this blog is low expectations. Yes, when the society has very low expectations toward the people with disabilities and even thinks that reaching 12th grade is miraculous, let alone higher education is a huge toll to climb or even to say close to putting a square peg in a round hole. Furthermore, it is these systematic low expectations which lead to false consciousness and restrict them to community integration. It is these low expectations which restrict initiatives in their lives and reduce them to objects of charity. And it is these low expectations which further alienate them, exclude them and widen the stereotypes.
    As educators and professionals, we ought to understand these disability related-equity issues and be able to advocate for removal of these social and environmental barriers that restrict them from community integration and full citizenship. Really do people with disabilities need to prove that they are worth investing in? Certainly not!!! Thus why disability is an issue of social justice. The principle of social justice embodies the vision of the society that is equitable and safe which demands that all people have a right to basic human dignity and have their basic socioeconomic needs met. With a social justice view, people with disabilities must be fully included as they are equal to all of us. They are part of being a citizen which demands that they contribute to the community to the full. Social justice principles do not count on how much resources to spend on education or any accommodation, social justice counts on the rights they have as everybody else. They therefore count on their rights to higher education, rights to liberty, happiness, choice, socioeconomic independence, their ultimate fulfillment etc. Therefore, it is high time for inclusive higher education to the people labeled with intellectual disabilities.

  8. April Schoffstall on 4/17/13 6:32 PM US/Eastern

    200 colleges is a small number. While we teachers work in education to make the student more independent and strive to meet the demands of the federal regulations (standards), colleges need to open their doors so students have a reason to work hard in high school and middle school.

    The student needs to feel motivated. The program in the video of Iona looks like a model program that many colleges should follow. Unfortunately, as stated in the blog post, they are more concerned with their bottom lines, returns on their investments into students. I agree it should be more about the desire to learn and to “gain skills to become productive members of society.” People with ID can become productive members of society. In fact, that is the goal of high school as well. If we all have the same goal, then there should not exist a gap in services.

  9. Lisa Oeth on 4/17/13 10:24 PM US/Eastern

    Options for all students is extremely important. I specifically appreciated the statement concerning what would happen if students with ID would be provided the option of going to college. This topic has recently been discussed in my school district. To make this change for individuals with ID to have this option we need to encourage our students and families to reach for their goals beginning in elementary school. We can provide this information at every case conference. This information can guide the forming of goals for students to achieve their desired career and lifestyle.

  10. Wilfredo Portillo on 4/18/13 1:42 PM US/Eastern

    I believe that higher education should be available for people with intellectual disability across the nation. These are individual that they have their own learning style like everyone else and that shouldn’t be a reason for not allow them to be part of higher education. They are not different from any one else. They are different learners like any student trying to learn new information. I believe that all humans have the abilities to learn but in different ways. Everyone we learn different, for some people is easy process but for others it is a more challenging process. The problem at the higher education is that for many colleges educator and other decision makers is that they don’t have patience and the time to work with people with ID and it is easier to create policies to deny them the opportunity to be part of a higher education program. I also believe that if people with ID earn a higher education, they will empower more people with disabilities to attend colleges and create a more respectful social acceptance in the communities and society.

  11. Joanna Miller on 4/18/13 9:11 PM US/Eastern

    I had a discussion with my sister-in-law (who is an high school art teacher) this past weekend about a student she works with. The student has an IEP, with a learning disability in reading. My sister-in-law helped her apply to college, fill out her FAFSA, and schedule her SAT so that she can receive extended time. My first thought was how great she was for helping her, but really, where was her other teachers? Why wasn’t this addressed in her IEP meeting? This student is considered homeless and has zero outside support. Fortunately for her, she was able to find a support net in her art teacher who believed in her. The student has been able to develop the self determination needed to push her in the right direction. My concern is for all the students out there who do not have this drive and need the extra push. The student told my sister in law once that she is able to learn everything other students are learning, it just takes her 3 or 4 times longer. It would be amazing to see the changes that could be made if this was the expectation of all students with ID.

  12. Stacy McWethy Knoop on 4/18/13 10:46 PM US/Eastern

    Thank you so much for the positive view, yet strong examples of why individuals with intellectual disabilities should have access to higher education. Your historical references to previously denied groups really brings perspective to the battle that those with disabilities still face. I really appreciate your platform that higher education can offer individuals more options and help them not become pigeonholed into tradition paths like group living arrangements or sheltered work environments. The video links you provide are very informative and inspirational, too. Seeing that individuals with disabilities earn approximately 25% more when they have some college experience offers a very concrete reason to expand opportunities.

  13. Phill Combs on 4/18/13 11:41 PM US/Eastern

    Sharon Lewis pointed out in the video that all students in post secondary schooling have to learn the same life lessons. I think part of the hesitation that a lot of people might have in supporting individuals with ID attending higher education is that these individuals need to be protected. I agree with Ms. Lewis, these students need to learn and experience the same growing pains as all college age students.

  14. Maggie Steensma on 4/20/13 12:59 AM US/Eastern

    What an interesting and thought-provoking blog. I’m glad that there are professional people in the world who are charged with the task of making colleges more accessible. Who are we or rather who are ‘they’ to say that people with ID should not be allowed into college. It’s exactly as the article states, college is difficult for everyone. If it wasn’t it wouldn’t be so respected and sought after. Many people try and fail and try again. Let’s not prevent someone from challenging themselves. If we give up on them before they even try then we are giving them no reason to try. Expectations are huge and in my experience more often than not students with ID exceed them. Especially when someone who believes in them and supports them is in their corner.

  15. Mercedes Cannon on 4/22/13 11:31 AM US/Eastern

    The question of “what’s the point”, spending additional time to educate students with LD’s after high school, is not only asked by people who think it is a waste of time for educators to invest, motivate, teach and instruct students with ID’s, but is also asked by individuals with ID’s. Perspectives about how ID students perceive, learn and make sense of ther learning has been defined by several disability (medical, social, cultural) models. Students with learning differences struggle to gain a sense of belonging and acceptance in education from both external and internal spaces. As it has already been stated, every student should have the opportunity to attain knowledge of how they best learn, receive the necessary resources to assist them and in return, join in on conversations surrounding their ability, using voices that validates their learning experiences. This enhances and inform the wider community on how ,n their lived-experiences made sense of their ID.

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