Feature Issue on Inclusive Higher Education for People with Intellectual, Developmental, and Other Disabilities
Expanding Pathways in Minnesota
The aspirations of young adults with an intellectual disability (ID), positive outcome data, and successful inclusive pathways to college in other states compelled us to bring together stakeholders and establish the Minnesota Inclusive Higher Education Consortium (MIHEC).
Currently, there are four Minnesota college options for students with an ID, with capacity for up to 100 students. This compares with about 5,000 Minnesotans with an ID who are college age. Fewer than 3% of Minnesotans with an ID have access to attend college in the state.
Our vision is to build, enhance, and sustain initiatives that deliver inclusive higher education for students with an ID across Minnesota. This includes students with ID attending college classes, gaining work experience, earning meaningful credentials, and becoming a genuine member of the campus community.
Mary (left) and Jean Hauff have advocated together for inclusive higher education in Minnesota.
As a parent of a child with ID, I stepped into the role of parent advocate as the inequities and barriers faced by individuals with a disability came into focus. I centered my life and family around finding ways for my daughter Jean to have the same opportunities as anyone else to live, play, learn and work in an inclusive community of her choice. I had the same vision for all four of my children to become independent, life-long learners and to pursue their strengths and interests through postsecondary education and careers of their choice. I just did not know how that would look for Jean. In 2008, when she was in third grade, I first learned about college options for students with an ID. I thought surely Minnesota colleges and universities would embrace inclusive higher education and there would be ample postsecondary options to select from by the time Jean completed high school.
Over the next ten years, I networked and made connections through my appointments to the Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities and the Institute on Community Integration’s Community Advisory Council, along with advocacy work with The Arc of Minnesota and the Down Syndrome Association of Minnesota. In 2018, there were limited Minnesota college options for learners like Jean. This motivated me to shift into a proactive, leadership role, bringing together stakeholders to expand higher education options for students with ID.
How will she reach her full potential? What does she need to be successful? These are the questions I asked when my daughter, Brynn, shared her aspirations to go to college. Being both a reflective teacher and parent, these were common questions to consider when planning for student support and success. But my daughter, like many in Minnesota, has an ID, and when I skimmed the options and pathways for students like her to achieve their goals, it wasn’t just the lack of options that shocked me, but the complexity of navigating the transition years for students with disabilities. The highly referenced “transition cliff” was ahead and I was asking, “Does it really have to be this way?”
My first step in answering this question was taking a leave from my teaching position to participate in Partners in Policymaking (www.mn.gov/mnddc/pipm). A year later, I was a MNLEND fellow (www.lend.umn.edu) at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on Community Integration (ICI) and learning with an interdisciplinary group of students, faculty, and community fellows, like myself, who had “lived experience.” Outside of these formal trainings, I joined other parents with different skills and experiences who were on similar journeys with their own children.
Sally Sexton (left), with her daughter Brynn.
Our goal is expanding Minnesota postsecondary education options, so that all students with an ID have access to higher education, with the same rights, privileges, experiences, benefits, and outcomes as any matriculating student. To achieve this goal, we are working to broaden the definition and expectation of who college is for, including students with an ID. In addition, any successful inclusive higher education initiative has to be self-sustaining by leveraging existing university systems and services.
Success requires collaboration. In order to gain and sustain positive momentum, it is essential we develop long-term working relationships. We are bringing together Minnesota institutions of higher education, state agencies, legislators, school districts and families, with the common goal to expand Minnesota postsecondary education options. Through these relationships, we are making additional connections, meeting allies, and fostering champions. MIHEC’s Learning Community events have bolstered our efforts, raised awareness, and provided professional development. We plan to facilitate community-of-practice gatherings to promote networking and share resources in the near future.
We are keenly aware that institutions of higher education have varying experience and expertise with inclusive higher education and ID. MIHEC is bridging this gap and providing technical assistance in order for faculty and staff to shorten their learning curve and avoid duplication of effort. A component of our technical assistance is our innovative relationship with the Think College National Coordinating Center . We are connecting faculty and staff to information, resources, and expertise locally and nationally. MIHEC is informing legislators and making recommendations for public policy that supports inclusive higher education.
The main obstacles we encounter are low expectations, lack of awareness and funding. Low expectations have paved a well-trodden path from secondary education to day programs or stereotypical jobs. This barrier becomes even more daunting because of the embedded ableism within the structure of institutions of higher education. Many Minnesota students, their families, and educators, do not even know that college is an option, so lack of awareness is a critical issue. Another significant challenge is the persistent resource and funding barriers at institutions of higher education.
MIHEC has made significant progress in a short amount of time, but there is much work ahead. The organization, in concert with the ICI as a University Center of Excellence in Developmental Disabilities, is poised to lead the inclusive higher education movement in Minnesota. We are optimistic as we build collaborative relationships and positive momentum. We are determined to widen the path for students with an ID to have access to postsecondary education; a gateway to opportunity that has been narrow and impassable for far too long.