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

Inclusive Higher Education
Assessing Progress Toward Better Futures for College Students with Intellectual Disabilities


Meg Grigal is co-director of Think College and a senior research fellow at the Institute for Community Inclusion at the University of Massachusetts Boston. She may be reached at meg.grigal@umb.edu.

Clare Papay is senior research associate with Think College at the Institute for Community Inclusion at the University of Massachusetts Boston. She may be reached at clare.papay@umb.edu.

David R. Johnson is the Birkmaier Professor of Educational Leadership, Department of Organizational Leadership, Policy, and Development, in the College of Education and Human Development at the University of Minnesota. He may be reached at johns006@umn.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

More students with intellectual disability (ID) are attending college than ever before. More than 300 U.S. colleges and universities now enroll these students. Some programs are doing a good job in helping students with ID attend regular classes. Others offer separate classes for people with ID, apart from their peers without disabilities. That means they are not able to take other classes or meet the professors and other students. In 2020, 62% of students with ID took regular classes, but just 28% of them earned college credit.

A 2008 federal education law created some of these programs, giving money to colleges that wanted to start or expand services. They are called TPSID programs, which stands for Transition and Postsecondary Education Programs for Students with Intellectual Disability. Most students with ID who take classes through these programs finish them. Almost 80% of students in a recent study of TPSID programs earned a credential. A credential is a certificate proving that someone has gained a skill. Employers are starting to pay attention to these credentials, and people who earn them have higher rates of employment than those who do not.

There are still many challenges, including the complex process of setting standards for quality that students and families can trust when they choose a college. The college programs for students with ID need more funding from the government. Students need better access to classes in subjects that lead to good jobs, such as science, technology, engineering, and math. And schools must build pathways for students with ID from different racial, ethnic, cultural, social, and economic backgrounds, including first-generation college students.

A group of about a dozen college students and friends stand around Otto, the mascot of Syracuse University. They are students and friends of the Inclusive U program at Syracuse.

Students and friends of Syracuse University’s InclusiveU program.

The field of inclusive higher education has made substantial progress in the past decade, building a strong foundation of practice, and influencing federal and state policies to support greater access to higher education for students with intellectual disability (ID). Much of this progress has resulted from the passage of the Higher Education Opportunity Act (2008). Between 2009 and 2019, program availability increased by 84% (Grigal et al., 2022) and currently there are 312 colleges and universities enrolling students with ID in the United States (Think College, 2022). In 2010, using funds appropriated under the HEOA, the Office of Postsecondary Education launched the first of three funding cycles to support a group of model demonstration programs called Transition and Postsecondary Education Programs for Students with Intellectual Disability (TPSID). During each cycle, a cohort of colleges and universities was funded to develop, enhance, or expand postsecondary education programs for students with ID. The TPSID model demonstration program has enhanced development and expansion efforts for programs in 34 states and spurred interest in program development by other colleges and universities in those states and regions (Grigal et al., 2022). Between 2010-2020, more than 4,000 students with ID have taken over 50,000 courses while enrolled in colleges and universities hosting TPSID (Think College National Coordinating Center, 2021). A survey of postsecondary programs enrolling students with ID in the United States, including but not limited to those receiving TPSID funds, found current enrollment nationwide is closer to 6,000 students with ID (Grigal, et al., 2022).

Inclusive Academic Access

A hallmark of the TPSID programs is the emphasis on supporting students to enroll in typical college courses with peers without ID. Access to typical college courses exposes students to a wider range of academic offerings and provides opportunities to learn and make social connections with college peers. It also provides students with ID with the potential, in some cases, to earn college credits. In TPSID programs in the 2019-2020 academic year, 62% of course enrollments were in inclusive courses, and in 28% of enrollments, students were able to earn college credit (Grigal, Hart et al., 2021).Specialized courses, designed for and attended only by students with ID, mimic the structures often seen in K-12 education, and precludes interaction with faculty and peers without disabilities. It also reinforces some perceptions that students with ID are not able to succeed in typical college offerings.

Retention, Completion, and Credential Attainment

Retention and completion rates are high for students in TPSID. The first-year retention rate for the 2019–2020 academic year was 84%, similar to the 81% retention rate for first-time, full-time, degree-seeking undergraduate students who enrolled in 4-year degree granting institutions (US DOE, National Center for Education Statistics, 2020).

In 2019-2020, 342 students exited a TPSID program, with 79% completing their program and earning a credential. Credential attainment allows students to demonstrate the knowledge and skills gained to potential employers or when pursuing future education. In the past, most students attained a certificate developed by the program that held little recognition by the host college or university. Increasingly, the certificates attained by students have been developed, approved, and awarded by the college or university, thus lending the credential more legitimacy. This may aid students’ future employment, as a credential awarded by an institution of higher education (IHE) significantly increases the odds of having a paid job within 90 days of exit (Grigal, et al., 2019). Employment rates of students who have attended a TPSID program are also improving. The 1-, 2-, and 3-year outcome data reflect employment rates higher than the national average. (See Figure 1).

Figure 1. Percentage of students who completed a TPSID Program who had a paid job after exit as of September 30, 2020.

Three graphs, the first showing 59% of students completed a TPSID program had a paid job 1 year after exit. The second graph showing 66% of students completed a TPSID program had a paid job 2 years after exit. The third graph showing 67% of students completed a TPSID program had a paid job 3 years after exit.

Program Development and Support

While heartening, the TPSID data tell only part of the story. There are 312 IHEs in 49 states enrolling students with ID, and only about one third of those have received or are receiving TPSID funding. The remainder have been developed with other funding sources, including private foundations, Medicaid waiver funds, vocational rehabilitation (VR) and pre-employment transition services (pre-ETS) funds, and funds from state Developmental Disabilities (DD) Agencies. The complex process of program development and quality assurance have also become more clearly documented. Those seeking to develop new programs can access guidance from experienced program developers who have documented their process and resources (Kelley & Westling, 2019; O’Brien, et al., 2018). Ongoing training and technical assistance are also available via the Think College National Coordinating Center at University of Massachusetts Boston which was funded as part of the federal TPSID program and has served as in this capacity since 2010.

How do we continue to grow this field, engaging more students and more college and universities? How do we ensure students receive a quality education leading to desired outcomes?

Accessing CTE, STEM & Apprenticeship Programs

Continued funding for the TPSID program has provided strong impetus for program development. As options broaden, however, it becomes clearer where gaps exist related to specific kinds of postsecondary programs. A survey in 2019 determined only 1.9% of programs for students with ID were in career and technical education (CTE) colleges. While some states, including Florida, have dedicated resources to support the development of such programs, few are accessible in other states. Continued efforts are needed to support access to CTE programs and research is needed to identify effective instructional strategies and outcomes of students.

Finances often affect students’ access to higher education, and this is no different for students with ID

Similar challenges are evident in access for college students with ID to Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) pathways. Researchers from Advancement and Transition Services at the University Cincinnati recently conducted a survey to investigate the postsecondary opportunities in STEM for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) available at colleges and universities. They found STEM opportunities were available at only nine programs. Their survey findings identified 69 students enrolled in and seeking STEM careers pathways across the nine programs, and 21 graduates from these programs who are employed in STEM related fields (Carnahan, 2021).

Access to apprenticeship programs is also lacking, and there is inadequate understanding of how to support students in these programs (Kuehn, et al., 2021). Federal fiscal support could expand access to CTE, STEM, and apprenticeship programs. Although the Office of Postsecondary Education has dedicated significant funding to support inclusive postsecondary program development, other federal offices such as National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research (NIDILRR), Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP), Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA), and Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) have not addressed access to higher education as a pathway to employment for students with ID in their recent priorities. Future funding initiatives should focus on building sustainable and replicable postsecondary pathways to employment.


Quality assurance in higher education is traditionally addressed through an accreditation process. This involves both non-governmental and federal and state government entities and includes self and peer assessment activities related to established standards. Accreditation standards provide guidance on minimum acceptable practices and provide an accountability mechanism to guide future development. Currently, there are no federal accountability mechanisms in place to ensure high quality services in higher education for students with ID. Some funding entities have stipulations about expected practices. For example, colleges and universities receiving funds under the TPSID program must meet the priorities of that funded program. Programs approved to offer federal student aid must document that they meet the regulations guiding Title IV eligibility programs. Neither of these examples address quality assurances, only compliance. The National Coordinating Center’s Accreditation Workgroup is creating the protocol and tools needed to implement an accreditation process and exploring the potential development of an accrediting entity to address these needs.

Diversity and Equity

Efforts to engage additional minority serving institutions (MSIs) could provide much-needed avenues for Black students and other students of color. MSIs are those that have substantial enrollment of racially or ethnically minoritized students (Rutgers University, 2020). There has been some overlap between colleges and universities identifying as an MSI and which also hosted a program for college students with ID. Of the 312 programs in the public directory of colleges and universities enrolling students with ID, 63 of these are co-located at an identified MSI. Only one Historically Black College and University has an established inclusive postsecondary education program for students with ID (Alabama A&M University). Future development efforts aimed at MSIs will build pathways for students with ID who represent a range of racial, ethnic, cultural, and socioeconomic backgrounds, including those who are first-generation college students.

Funding Higher Education

Finances often affect students’ access to higher education, and this reality is no different for students with ID. The costs of tuition and fees for range widely. A study by Grigal et al. (2022) of higher education programs for students with ID across the United States found an average total cost of $14,689 per year, and a range up to $70,000 per year.

Addressing these costs requires consideration of multiple funding sources. In some cases, such as HCBS waivers and state VR funds, access to and use of these funds differ across states (Lee, et al., 2018; Parisi & Landau, 2019). Future policy development must consider how funds can be used to support access to higher education. Additionally, continued and expanded use of the tax- advantaged savings accounts called ABLE accounts (Achieving a Better Life Experience) should be a priority for families of students interested in saving for college (Buonfiglio, 2020).


Access to higher education for students with ID continues to grow through initiatives such as the TPSID model demonstration program, as does interest in program development at colleges and universities across the United States and globally (O’Brien, et al., 2018). Ensuring equitable access to higher education requires a greater number of funding streams, more robust apprenticeship, STEM-focused program development, and intentional outreach to institutions serving predominantly students from underrepresented and lower income groups. Additional federal and state funding will enhance these efforts and increase the sustainability of inclusive higher education options for individuals with ID. 


Tuesdays With Liz | In this video ,  author Grigal talks about the importance of postsecondary education for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.


Buonfiglio, M. (2020). Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE): Savings Accounts for People with Disabilities. Think College Fast Facts, Issue No. 28. Boston, MA: University of Massachusetts Boston, Institute for Community Inclusion.

Carnahan, C., Weinbrandt, D., Atchison, C., Sorby, S., & Proter, K. (2021). Postsecondary STEM opportunities for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities in the United States. Raw Data. University of Cincinnati.

Grigal, M., Hart, D., Papay, C., Wu, X., Lazo, R., Smith, F., & Domin, D. (2021). Annual Report of the Cohort 2 TPSID Model Demonstration Projects (Year 5, 2019–2020). Boston, MA: University of Massachusetts Boston, Institute for Community Inclusion.

Grigal, M.; Papay, C.; Weir, C.; Hart, D.; McClellan, M. (2022). Characteristics of higher education programs enrolling students with intellectual disability in the United States. Inclusion. Advance Online Publication. Available online: http://aaidd.org/

Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008, P.L. 110–315, 122 Stat. 378, 20 U.S.C. §§1001 et seq. (2008).

Kelley, K. R., & Westling, D. L. (2019, July). Teaching, including, and supporting college students with intellectual disabilities. New York, NY: Routledge.

Lee, S., Rozell, D., & Will, M. (2018). Addressing the Policy Tangle: Students with Intellectual Disability and the Path to Postsecondary Education, Employment and Community Living. Washington, DC: Inclusive Higher Education Committee.

O'Brien, P., Bonati, M. L., Gadow, F., & Slee, R. (2019). People with intellectual disability experiencing university life: Theoretical underpinnings, evidence and lived experience. Rotterdam, Netherlands: Sense Publishers.

Parisi, P. & Landau, J. (2019). Use of Medicaid Waivers to Support Students with Intellectual Disability in College. Think College Insight Brief, Issue No. 40. Boston, MA: University of Massachusetts Boston, Institute for Community Inclusion.

Rutgers University. (2020). MSI Directory. Center for MSIs. https://cmsi.gse.rutgers.edu/content/what-are-msis#pbi

Think College National Coordinating Center. (2021). Summary of Cohort 1 and 2 TPSID Programs in the US (2010-2020). Think College Snapshot, July 2021. Boston, MA: University of Massachusetts Boston, Institute for Community Inclusion.