Feature Issue on Inclusive Higher Education for People with Intellectual, Developmental, and Other Disabilities

The Collective Impact of State and Regional Alliances to Support Inclusive Higher Education


Susanna Miller-Raines is the regional alliances manager for the Think College Inclusive Higher Education Network at the Institute for Community Inclusion at the University of Massachusetts Boston. She may be reached at susanna.millerraines@umb.edu.

Beginning with this issue, Overview articles will include a clear-language summary for readers who prefer a concise description of the article's main points. We value your feedback and welcome any questions at stew0390@umn.edu

When groups of people work together to make colleges more accessible to people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD), they can get a lot more done than if they work alone. These groups, called alliances, include organizations that serve people with disabilities, families, students, state government agencies, and others.

Alliances can help colleges and universities get the money they need to create college programs for students with IDD. They can also bring a lot of people together who want to create college opportunities for students. This creates a lot of enthusiasm. In Georgia, a group called the Georgia Inclusive Postsecondary Education Consortium (GAIPSEC) supports the eight programs in that state. In Pennsylvania, organizations take turns leading their alliance. In Florida, state lawmakers created and pay for the Florida Center for Students with Unique Abilities, which offers programs around the state. Beyond state efforts, regional alliances allow state groups to learn from each other and help each other increase higher education where they are.

A group called Think College will soon be working with some regional alliances to develop five new alliances across the country. The new alliances will be made up of people from colleges and universities, businesses, disability agencies, vocational rehabilitation agencies, and community organizations, among others. Working together in this way is not easy. Sometimes groups within an alliance have very different goals. But by working together, they can do much more for students.

Opportunities for collaboration, peer-to-peer learning, and coalition building proliferated as the number of inclusive higher education programs more than doubled in the last decade. Alliances among states and several regions of the country are providing excellent mechanisms for moving the field forward in new and unified ways, as well as supporting sustainability in the field.

State alliances consist of stakeholders in the inclusive higher education landscape with a state. At a minimum, an alliance can be a group of representatives from inclusive higher education programs. They can also include representatives from key state agencies, organizations, parents, alumni, and students.

A group of leaders for a regional higher education alliance stand together in front of a sign for Albany Technical College. They are all wearing dark suits.

The author, left, a former coordinator for GAIPSEC, with members of GAIPSEC’s leadership team in 2016.

These alliances are good avenues for communities of practice and building momentum among inclusive higher education programs. Alliances benefit inclusive higher education programs because they create a learning community, offer more accessible professional development opportunities, and enable shared funding opportunities. Programs can also work together on joint research and evaluation projects in order to have larger numbers for evaluation and pool resources and strategies. They can also share the responsibility for educating students, families, and educators about inclusive higher education. When multiple programs are working together within a state, messaging and awareness efforts can be streamlined and shared at the state level. In Georgia, there are eight programs, and those programs are in high demand for transition fairs across the state. To support the programs and their limited staff, there are two individuals who represent the Georgia Inclusive Postsecondary Education Consortium (GAIPSEC) and all eight programs at transition fairs, parent events, and other public awareness activities.

Alliances are also a great way to connect state agencies and state-level stakeholders to support inclusive higher education in an integrated way. Alliances can also assist in breaking down silos and assisting everyone with being on the same page when it comes to supporting college students with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD). Through working together, a collective voice arises and makes change happen.

To accomplish these goals, it is important to find the places where partners’ missions align and where organizations’ varying roles in the state can leverage connections. Alliances can build cross-agency collaboration, offering state-level stakeholders the opportunity to problem-solve together. They can provide a collective voice when dealing with messaging to various groups, creating consistency and enabling rapid information dissemination to state legislators and agencies and others. Another benefit of building strong partnerships, especially with state agencies and the legislature, is the possibility for creative funding models that could lead to braided funding for inclusive higher education program expansions and increased opportunities for more students to participate.

Examples of State Alliances

Many states across the country have inclusive higher education state alliances, with some alliances being more formal than others. The GAIPSEC is based upon a Collective Impact Model. Collective Impact is a structured, five-tiered approach to creating societal and systems change. This approach starts with a team creating a common vision, establishing shared measurement allowing for continuous improvement, participating in mutually reinforcing activities, maintaining continuous communication, and having a backbone organization providing support to the overall group. There are several leadership approaches to state alliances. For example, the Pennsylvania Inclusive Higher Education Consortium (PIHEC) has moved to a shared leadership model. Unlike the GAIPSEC, which has a backbone organization that is the consistent convener or lead, the shared leadership model rotates the convener every year or couple of years. The Tennessee Inclusive Higher Education Alliance (Tennessee Alliance) is made up of elected and standing members. In Florida, the state legislature funded and established the Florida Center for Students with Unique Abilities, which convenes inclusive higher education programs across the state at least biannually and employs a staff of six.

Composition of State Alliances

There are key partners who should be considered when creating a state alliance. Representation from all of the inclusive higher education programs in one's state is critical to creating statewide support and systems change.

Other suggested key stakeholders to consider:

  • University Centers of Excellence in Developmental Disabilities (UCEDDs), whose mission is to convene stakeholders, be the bridge between research and the community, and improve the lives of individuals with IDD and their families
  • Developmental Disability Councils/Governor’s Councils, charged with bringing together groups, organizations, and agencies to address the needs of people with IDD and their families. They can also lobby the legislature
  • State protection & advocacy organizations
  • Departments of education
  • Vocational rehabilitation agencies
  • State developmental disability agencies
  • State parent groups
  • Current students or alumni
  • Family members

Successful alliances tend to have the following components in play:

  • Designated coordinator or backbone organization that is respected by all stakeholders
  • Common vision for your state
  • Quarterly or semi-annual meetings of the core members
  • At least an annual statewide meeting with all stakeholders
  • Process to provide technical assistance to stakeholders
  • Information dissemination plan, including a listserv, social media, and a website

There can be many rewards from the work of state alliances, including state funding in the form of program support and/or student scholarships, or a policy for supporting inclusive higher education programs by vocational rehabilitation. State alliances also lead to more opportunities for peer-to-peer learning and an infrastructure to support development of new inclusive higher education programs. It is helpful for program staff to have connections with other programs and be willing to work together. It can be challenging and confusing when laws and regulations change. Having a team of individuals to work through challenges is easier than having multiple systems all working separately with the same stakeholders.

Development of Regional Alliances

Cross-state peer learning activities helped to launch the first inclusive higher education regional alliance. Members from GAIPSEC traveled to a Tennessee Alliance meeting in 2013 to learn about additional inclusive higher education program models, and a couple of months later travelled to the University of North Carolina Greensboro (UNCG) after learning about their program model at a North Carolina Alliance meeting. While in Tennessee and at UNCG, various colleagues mentioned how much they enjoyed the collaboration and would love to do more professional development with colleagues. In 2015, the first Southeast Postsecondary Education Alliance (SEPSEA) Capacity Building Institute was held in Atlanta, Georgia. It was a time for professionals from the southeast inclusive higher education programs to come together and learn from each other through a series of breakout sessions, small group conversations, and keynote presentations by the Think College National Coordinating Center and inclusive higher education alum Clare Bible. The 2022 SEPSEA Conference will be held June 23-25 at Auburn University in Auburn, Alabama.

The networking and professional development opportunities available at the regional level are more economical and sustainable, which is essential for inclusive higher education programs, which often have limited fiscal and human resources. Regional opportunities are aligned with the local needs, including the unique politics and culture achieved within a geographical or type-alike region. There are currently two formally established regional alliances, SEPSEA and the Midwest Inclusive Post Secondary Alliance (MIPSA).

SEPSEA continues to hold annual conferences each spring or summer and is in the process of becoming a 501c6 nonprofit professional development organization. They have a board of directors with representatives from southeastern states, both with and without formal state alliances. SEPSEA holds professional development activities, including webinars and trainings. It is a membership organization relying on annual dues from both member programs and individuals.

MIPSA is supported by the University of Missouri-Kansas City Institute for Human Development. They provide professional development activities and convene an annual meeting.

The Network

Under the Think College Inclusive Higher Education Network initiative, staff from Think College will be working with SEPSEA and MIPSA to develop five new regional alliances to sustain partnerships between institutes of higher education, businesses, local education agencies, vocational rehabilitation, state developmental disability agencies, and community-based organizations.


Working together is not always easy and often involves competing priorities, changes in focus, or limited resources. With the right mission, leaders, and stakeholders, however, alliances can leverage diverse expertise and share resources.

A group of state partners in Georgia started with a single program in 2009. Two years later, Daniel Crimmins and others started GAIPSEC with $15,000. Today, Georgia’s eight inclusive higher education programs receive $500,000 annually from the state budget to support program development and scholarships for students. None of this would be possible without an alliance of individuals and agencies dedicated to the further development of inclusive higher education. 

Powerful Strategies for Inclusive College Preparation | This webinar , sponsored by GAIPSEC, shares best practices for preparing a young adult with IDD for college life.