Impact Feature Issue on Postsecondary Education and Students with Intellectual, Developmental and Other Disabilities

Federal Legislation Increasing Higher Education Access for Students with Intellectual Disabilities


Judy Shanley is a former Education Program Specialist in the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Postsecondary Education, Washington, D.C.

In 2008, the Federal legislation that regulates higher education policy was reauthorized. The legislation, known as the Higher Education Opportunity Act (HEOA) (PL 110-315), includes two major provisions that have the potential to facilitate entry into higher education for more students with intellectual disabilities. First, through Title VII of the legislation, the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Postsecondary Education (OPE), awarded five-year grants to two- and four-year institutions of higher education and consortia to implement model demonstration projects. These projects will provide the infrastructure for 27 institutions or consortia to establish or extend programs for students with intellectual disabilities in postsecondary education settings. Second, the Title IV regulations of the HEOA enable eligible students to receive Federal financial aid if they are enrolled in an approved comprehensive transition and postsecondary program. These two pieces, made possible through the HEOA, are expected to create increased opportunities for students with intellectual disabilities to attend higher education.

New Projects Using Diverse Strategies

The Transition Program for Students with Intellectual Disabilities (TPSID) Model Demonstration Projects are required to support students through a focus on academic, social, employment, and independent living strategies. Twenty-seven five-year grants started on October 1, 2010 and offer heterogeneous strategies and supports. The range of strategies implemented by these grantees suggests that there is not a one-size-fits-all model for program implementation. Grant outcomes are expected to result in improved understanding of varying strategies used across programs, enhanced learning regarding the resources required to use these strategies, and, to the extent possible, extended understanding of how particular strategies may affect student performance and success in higher education, and student outcomes. The following illustrates the broad range of strategies used by transition programs for students with intellectual disabilities:

  • Academic/Instructional Strategies: Using peer tutoring and mentoring by students without disabilities, and educational coaching; implementing Universal Design for Learning; enhancing faculty skill to provide supports through their involvement in advisory functions for the project; engaging disability student service professionals; and sharing information with higher education faculty and staff at professional development forums.
  • Employment/Career Strategies: Providing inclusive practicum and internships; inviting participation of vocational rehabilitation professionals; raising awareness of campus career center events and ensuring that students with intellectual disabilities are included; staffing projects with career center staff; and creating roles for employers, business leaders, and Department of Labor agencies and workforce development systems in the delivery of instruction and development of courses related to careers and employment.
  • Independent Living/Residential Strategies: Creating inclusive residential options for students; offering life and independent living skill coursework; and addressing content related to community activities such as transportation, money management and budgeting, consumerism, and community participation.
  • Social Strategies: Ensuring that information about campus clubs and social activities reaches students with intellectual disabilities; providing access to institutional processes such as obtaining a college identification card, and ensuring that students with intellectual disabilities have access to recreation events such as purchasing athletic event tickets; inviting students with intellectual disabilities to serve in leadership positions within clubs or organizations; and educating student campus leaders about students with intellectual disabilities attending the college and encouraging outreach and communication strategies that invite a diverse range of students to participate in social activities.

These transition programs for students with intellectual disabilities require students to be socially and academically integrated with students without disabilities to the maximum extent possible, evidenced by providing students with choices to enroll in regular college classes, live in inclusive residences, develop employment and career skills through integrated work experiences, and participate in social activities, clubs, and recreation with college peers without disabilities. Programs incorporate educational supports and instructional delivery methods, such as educational coaching, peer tutoring, academic and social mentors, universal course design (Hart & Grigal, 2010; Zeff, 2007), and Universal Design for Learning (Rose & Meyer, 2002; Shaw, 2010) to facilitate student retention, advancement, and success (Thoma, Bartholomew, & Scott, 2009). Programs also use varying methods of person-centered planning, including individualized career plans, to ensure that students have a voice and a choice in planning their coursework, selecting social opportunities, and deciding upon career and employment goals. Educators suggest that understanding individualized academic, social, and career-related needs of students with disabilities and encouraging equal opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency are important to raising expectations for student outcomes (Turnbull, Turnbull, Wehmeyer, & Park, 2003).

Another key feature of the transition programs for students with intellectual disabilities is the expectation for cross-setting collaboration and linkages across K-12 settings, and across employment and community settings. Characteristics related to collaborating across secondary and postsecondary education settings and transition planning are linked to improved post-school outcomes for students with intellectual disabilities (Neubert & Redd, 2008). In some projects, transition personnel may sit on advisory committees at the higher education institution and may plan and co-teach classes. In other projects, business leaders, employers, and vocational rehabilitation professionals are part of the planning, implementation, and advisory functions of the program. As the evidence supports, when students have access to a range of community-based instruction, work-based learning, and a focus on career-development (Izzo & Lamb, 2003) improved post-school outcomes are realized.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004 (IDEA) (PL 108-446) requires transition planning for students with disabilities that includes a coordinated set of activities in a results-oriented process focused on improving the academic and functional achievement of the student with a disability to facilitate their movement from high school to post-school activities, including postsecondary education, vocational preparation, and integrated employment (U.S. Department of Education, 2007). Students with intellectual disabilities may receive these services, if they are identified in the individualized educational program (IEP), in higher education settings. The differences across secondary and postsecondary settings such as campus size, variety of classes, and the increased opportunities that students have to plan their own learning and social experiences, require early transition planning (Getzel & Wehman, 2005). Educators in K-12 settings can invite higher education program staff and students with intellectual disabilities to visit schools to help raise awareness regarding the possibilities of attending higher education; offer summer programs in which middle and high school students with intellectual disabilities attend the college program; and offer family events at which parents of students with intellectual disabilities can receive information about postsecondary education programs. These strategies are often linked to improved post-school outcomes for students with disabilities (Halpern, Yovanoff, Doren, & Benz, 1995).

New Regulations Open Up Federal Student Financial Aid

Students with intellectual disabilities and their families cite the high cost of higher education as a barrier to participation in postsecondary education (Grigal & Hart, 2010). Prior to the HEOA, students with intellectual disabilities were unable to participate in Federal aid programs because of requirements for students to have attained a high school diploma or its equivalent, and to pass an ability-to-benefit test. One use of this test is to assist higher education professionals to determine the instructional needs of incoming students. The HEOA includes waivers to these two provisions, thus, if an institution chooses, and they participate in Federal student aid programs, the institution can apply to Federal Student Aid to have its comprehensive transition and postsecondary program approved. With the approval, students with intellectual disabilities who are eligible to participate in Federal student aid, based on financial need, may be eligible to receive Federal Pell Grants, Federal Work-Study (FWS), and Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants (FSEOG).

Making Use of the HEOA Provisions

The HEOA has not only provided opportunities for students with intellectual disabilities to access higher education, the legislation has provided an impetus for transition planning and building transition infrastructures across K-12 and postsecondary education. Transition personnel can learn about the programs that may be available in their area, and can offer to provide information and resources regarding program development to students and their transition planning teams. Vocational rehabilitation professionals can offer similar kinds of support and can work with program leaders in higher education to determine vocational rehabilitation supports, or address topics related to the effects of varying funding supports, such as Social Security for students who may be eligible for Federal student aid. Parents and families can encourage the development of opportunities for students with intellectual disabilities at institutions by offering to share information, serve in advisory capacities, and bring resources from other networks, such as those available through the National and Regional Parent Network funded by the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP).

Families, educators, students, and others desiring more information about the provisions in the HEOA are encouraged to consult the resources below:

Note: No official endorsement by the U.S. Department of Education of any product, commodity, service or enterprise referred to in this article is intended or should be inferred. Opinions expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the U.S. Department of Education.


  • Getzel, E. E., & Wehman, P. (2005). Going to college. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.

  • Grigal, M., & Hart, D. (2010). Think college: Postsecondary education options for students with intellectual disabilities. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.

  • Halpern, A. S., Yavonoff, P., Doren, B., & Benz, M. R. (1995). Predicting participation in postsecondary education for school leavers with disabilities. Exceptional Children, 62, 151–164.

  • Hart, M., & Grigal, M. (2010). The spectrum of options: Current practice. In Think college: Postsecondary education options for students with intellectual disabilities (pp. 49–86). Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.

  • Izzo, M., & Lamb, P. (2003). Developing self-determination through career development activities: Implications for vocational rehabilitation counselors. Journal of Vocational Rehabilitation, 19, 71–78.

  • Neubert, D., & Redd, V. A. (2008). Transition services for students with intellectual disabilities: A case study of a public school program on a community college campus. Exceptionality, 16, 220–234.

  • Rose, D., & Meyer, A. (1993). Teaching every student in the digital age. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

  • Shaw, S. F. (2010). Preparing students with disabilities for college success. (S. F. Shaw, J. W. Madaus, & L. L. Dukes, Eds.). Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.

  • Thoma, C., Bartholomew, C. C., & Scott, L. A. (2009). Universal design for transition. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Publishing.

  • Turnbull, H. R., Turnbull, A. P., Wehmeyer, M. L., & Park, J. (2003). A quality of life framework for special education outcomes. Remedial and Special Education, 24, 67–54.

  • U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs. (2007). Topical Brief. Retrieved from

  • Zeff, R. (2007). Universal design across the curriculum. Higher Education, 137.