Learning Is for Everyone: Higher Education Programs for Students with Intellectual Disabilities

Allison Conway, University of South Carolina

According to a study conducted by the College Transition Connection, students with intellectual disabilities who have postsecondary experience are much more likely to attain competitive employment, require less on–the–job support, and have higher self–esteem (College Transition Connection [CTC], 2010). However, little is being done to encourage the thousands of intellectually disabled students who finish high school every year to move on to programs at the university level. Intellectual disability can be defined as “a mental retardation or a cognitive impairment, characterized by significant limitations in intellectual and cognitive functioning and adaptive behavior as expressed in conceptual, social, and practical adaptive skills” (Eaddy, Grigal, & Lewis, 2009). For students who are used to receiving one–on–one attention in a high school setting, moving on to institutions of higher education has not always been possible, often due to lack of financial support and/or academic assistance. Complicating matters further, students with intellectual disabilities only recently became eligible to access financial aid resources.

Educators and parents, the two groups most likely to initiate change for intellectually disabled students (Eaddy et al., 2009), saw a need to improve and create an outline for Comprehensive Transition and Postsecondary Programs (CTPP). These programs are:

A degree, certificate, or non-degree program that is offered by an institution of higher education, designed to support students with intellectual disabilities who are seeking to continue academic, career, and independent living instruction at an institution of higher education in order to prepare for gainful employment. [These programs will] include an advising and curriculum structure. (Eaddy et al., 2009, p. 8)

The CTPP outline also required that while students with intellectual disabilities are on campus, they must be either enrolled in traditional, credit–bearing courses with non–disabled students or auditing courses with non–disabled students. CTPP also requires students to participate in an internship or volunteer at a business with non–disabled individuals (Eaddy et al., 2009).

Given the fact that students with intellectual disabilities are now part of the campus community, it is important for academic advisers to be aware of the types of programs that are available to support students with intellectual disabilities. The purpose of this article is to inform academic advisers about the types of post-secondary education programs currently available for students with intellectual disabilities and to provide concrete suggestions on how advisers and students can become involved with programs for these students.

Overview of College Programs for Students with Intellectual Disabilities

Twenty–eight states offer a total of 110 officially registered college programs for students with intellectual disabilities (CTC, 2010). One reason these kinds of programs became more feasible is the Higher Education Opportunity Act (HEOA), enacted in August 2008. Under the HEOA, for the first time, students with intellectual disabilities became eligible for “Pell Grants, Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants, and the Federal Work-Study Program” (Lee, 2009, ¶ 2). Originally, intellectually disabled students were not eligible for financial aid because they often lacked a regular high school diploma and they frequently did not meet an “ability to benefit” from postsecondary education test (Lee, 2009). HEOA provides broad authority to the Secretary of Education to waive certain sections of the law that would normally prevent students with intellectual disabilities from attending institutions of higher education (Lee, 2009). It also requires the secretary to enact regulations that allow students with intellectual disabilities to be eligible for work study jobs and grants as long as they are enrolled in one of the aforementioned post-secondary programs (Lee, 2009).

Model Program for Students with Intellectual Disabilities

Mainly in response to the HEOA legislation, the state of South Carolina saw three Learning Is For Everyone (LIFE) Programs emerge at the following public institutions: University of South Carolina and Clemson and Coastal Carolina universities. These programs support the general idea that “individuals with intellectual disabilities have the right to experience collegiate life in a way that is appropriate to meet their needs and advance their long–term goals” (Eaddy et al., 2009). Students enrolled in these programs work specifically on accomplishing a variety of goals, including but not limited to social, independent living, career, and academic goals.

History of the LIFE Programs

The LIFE programs began with Donald Bailey’s vision for his autistic son to have post-secondary opportunities at the University of South Carolina, a real job, and an independent life in the community (Eaddy et al., 2009). To make his vision a reality, Bailey began the College Transition Connection (CTC) in 2005, which works specifically with the above universities to “design, create, and fund transition and post–secondary opportunities for young adults with intellectual disabilities” (CTC, 2010, p. 1). The board is made up of six parents and community volunteers who also saw the need to resolve the lack of available programs. Together, they raised funds and joined forces with the National Down Syndrome Society to develop the program (CTC, 2010).

University of South Carolina

The program at University of South Carolina (USC), called CarolinaLIFE, provides a more detailed glimpse at the LIFE program. The mission of the CarolinaLIFE program is “to facilitate high achievement of diverse learners in the areas of personal independence, self–sufficiency, and empowerment through inclusive teaching, research, creative activity, and services” (USC, n.d., ¶ 2). CarolinaLIFE is a two–year program in which students participate in a variety of classes and activities to acclimate them to campus life and assist them with their transition into what is for many a first experience away from home. The students live in campus housing with a resident mentor on their floor in case of emergencies and to assist with study skills and time management.

During their first semester, students are enrolled in three classes comprised of only CarolinaLIFE students. These classes introduce the students to resources available to them on campus, electronic systems they will be asked to use throughout their time at USC (VIP, Blackboard), and to begin dialogues on career exploration (USC, n.d.). Also during their first semester, the CarolinaLIFE students are enrolled in University 101, a class that is required of most traditional freshmen students at the USC.

In their second semester, CarolinaLIFE students begin a more independent role on campus as they pair up with peer mentors and enroll in two classes outside of the CarolinaLIFE curriculum (USC, n.d.). The primary role of peer mentors is to provide social and academic support to students as they begin to independently explore employment options and social activities. Peer mentors make significant contributions to students’ personal success by facilitating positive experiences in the collegiate environment. Students are encouraged to seek opportunities to get involved in the campus community through student organizations and volunteer opportunities.

Students’ second year in CarolinaLIFE is spent in standard USC classes and only one individual class session–used mainly as a check-in and study hall–with other CarolinaLIFE students (USC, n.d.). Staff members are continually evaluating students’ performances to ensure students are being challenged but also receiving necessary support in the way of homework help and assistance with independent living skills.

How Can Advisers Get Involved?

Since students with intellectual disabilities are part of the campus community, advisers are well positioned to either directly help them or encourage their advisees to assist these students:

  • Advisers can learn about programs on their own campuses for students with intellectual disabilities by searching their institutions’ websites or contacting the campus disability services office.
  • Advisers interested in programs for students with intellectual disabilities can find additional information at http://transitiontocollege.net and http://www.thinkcollege.net. In addition, Going to College, edited by Elizabeth Getzel and Paul Wehman, is an excellent resource.
  • Promote the benefits of SI to skeptical students. Students who participate in SI tend to earn higher grades on exams and higher final grades than students who do not attend. Students who participate are also less likely to earn Ds or Fs or withdraw from the course (Stone & Jacobs, 2008).
  • Academic advisers can encourage their advisees to become peer mentors for students with intellectual disabilities. A recent study measuring attitudes toward this population showed that younger people have more positive attitudes about community inclusion for people with intellectual disabilities (Yazbeck, Mcvilly, & Parmenter, 2004). These authors also reported younger age groups demonstrate “greater support for integration and rights, deemphasized the need for social distance, and held significantly fewer derogatory beliefs about people with intellectual disabilities” (Yazbeck et al., 2004, p. 1). This study shows that college students are already on their way to wanting a more inclusive society. Advisers can encourage students to offer support, friendship, and mentorship to students with intellectual disabilities.
  • Academic advisers have knowledge and information that students with intellectual disabilities might find helpful. Therefore advisers can offer to give presentations on academic and career topics. Disability service offices on college campuses can give suggestions to advisers about reaching out to these “non-traditional” students, including volunteering to help them adjust to campus. All members of any campus community have the potential to become a “friendly face” and ally to students with intellectual disabilities.


For students with intellectual disabilities to be successful, campus–wide collaborations should encourage these students to come to college and should provide the necessary support and freedom these students deserve while on campus. Everyone deserves a chance to learn and to accomplish social, community–living, vocational, and academic goals. Initiatives such as the LIFE programs in South Carolina provide a giant step in the right direction. It is incredibly important for academic advisers to reach out to new populations on campus. With continued support from faculty, staff, and administrators campus–wide, LIFE programs will flourish and offer opportunities to an important sub–population of students on campus.


College Transition Connection (CTC). (2010). Retrieved from http://collegetransitionconnection.org

Eaddy, M., Grigal, M, & Lewis, S. (2009, January). How higher education is possible for students with intellectual disabilities. Presented at the meeting of Office of Special Education Programs Parent Center Conference, Virginia.

Lee, S. S. (2009). Overview of the Federal Higher Education Opportunities Act Reauthorization (pdf document). Retrieved from Think College: Policy Brief website: http://www.ahead.org/uploads/2009/Concurrent%20Block%204/4.4% 20Handout%201.pdf

University of South Carolina (USC). (n.d.). CarolinaLIFE: Learning is for everyone. Retrieved from http://www.sa.sc.edu/sds/carolinalife

Yazbeck, M., Mcvilly, K., & Parmenter, T. (2004). Attitudes toward people with intellectual disabilities. Journal of Disability Policy Studies, 15(2), 97–111. doi: 10.1177/10442073040150020401

About the Author(s)

Allison Conway, University of South Carolina

Allison Conway is a graduate student in the University of South Carolina's Higher Education and Student Affairs program. She is also a graduate assistant for the university's CarolinaLife program. She can be reached at conwayab@mailbox.sc.edu.

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