Feature Issue on Inclusive Higher Education for People with Intellectual, Developmental, and Other Disabilities
Developing Partnerships for Successful Campus Housing Experiences
Inclusive dorm life builds authentic relationships.
When thinking of the traditional college experience, it is hard not to think about living on campus. Studies have shown that living on campus could be the most important factor in a student’s persistence in higher education (Astin, 1999). Students who live on campus have greater social awareness, academic achievement, and sense of belonging to the university (Arboleda, Wang, Shelley & Whalen, 2003). Importantly, living on campus is shown to provide positive gains in psychosocial development, intellectual orientation, and self-concept (Schroeder & Mable, 1993). These outcomes may be because university housing is designed to place students in a group living dynamic with peers with whom they would not typically live. The amount of personal growth that comes from living on campus is significant, and offering opportunities for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) in post-secondary education programs can affect both the growth of the student and university at large. Students enrolled in post-secondary education programs have shown growth in independent living skills, which translates to improved employment and independent living outcomes (McConnell et al., 2021).
Supporting individuals with disabilities is not new to campus residential life programs, however, students more frequently had physical disabilities requiring modifications or accommodations within the residence hall. With the increase in inclusive higher education programs for individuals with IDD in the United States, many universities are learning how to support students with IDD in the residence halls as well.
Developing Housing Support
The Succeed Program, a post-secondary program for individuals with IDD at the University of Missouri-St. Louis (UMSL), has developed an inclusive housing program with its university partners that focuses on supporting the independent living goals of the students enrolled in the program. Succeed believes that true independent living is actually interdependent living. Our residential program focuses on supporting a student’s physical needs, emotional growth, social connections, and extended family. The goal is to identify and supplement existing residential life supports already in place, building the capacity of the general residential life program while providing support needed for students with IDD to have full access and opportunity. We do not develop exclusive residential programming for students enrolled in Succeed. The program instead supports the residential life program and staff.
An obstacle to inclusion for individuals with IDD in residence life is fear. Fears about including students with IDD in the residence halls can come from university administration, housing staff, and the student’s family. This is why, when developing residential supports, it is important to establish a clear support structure for each of these stakeholders, and acknowledge that fear often comes from the possibility of increased risk. There is an inherent risk for anyone who lives in campus housing. Most college students do not go through the extensive vetting process that many inclusive post-secondary programs have in place for students who are living on campus, however. Any 18-year-old who gets admitted to the university can apply and live on campus. Universities understand the risk in housing traditional students and provide supports and systems to address those risks. The Succeed Program works with the housing program to develop a meeting structure, staffing plan, and communication structure that can respond to difficult discussions and provide housing staff a safe place to talk about their fears and how to address them.
Informal social time is critical to the student experience.
The Succeed Program’s inclusive housing model begins with buy-in. Succeed provides training for housing professionals and student staff members. Resident Advisors are taught about the impact of inclusion in housing, along with strategies to support all students and learn about our student’s individualized independent living goals. As a partner with housing, Succeed provides funding for additional peer staff who support all aspects of residential life programming and student life in the residence halls. Students enrolled in the Succeed program use the same housing assignment process and conduct process, and they follow the same rules as any other UMSL student. The Succeed program adds an additional layer of support to each of these areas only as needed. Weekly meetings are held between Succeed staff and housing staff to discuss student independent living goals and concerns. There have been many lessons learned and stressful meetings with Residential Life at UMSL in the nine years that the Succeed program has housed students on campus. Residential life and Succeed have both grown, however, and our residential life program has become more inclusive, emphasizing equity and inclusion practices for all residents. Over the past nine years, Succeed moved from providing segregated campus housing to fully inclusive housing and services.
Developing inclusive residential supports for students also means prioritizing the transition for both the student and their extended family. Once admitted, students in the Succeed Program begin attending meet and greets, inclusive campus orientations, person-centered planning meetings, and an overnight Succeed Summer Enrichment Camp. The student’s family attend most of these events and an all-day family transition workshop. Each of these experiences helps the student and their family transition to campus. Succeed staff members also learn the supports that each student needs to be successful living on campus.
The Student Experience
Students enrolled in higher education programs with inclusive campus housing see the biggest benefit. One alumnus who graduated from the Succeed Program described the transition support that the Succeed staff and housing staff provided as a key factor in his success living on campus. The graduate said, “I am not going to get along with everyone right away” and that “you might not click with someone right away, but you might click with them later on” as important lessons in the first year. Another graduate described the peer mentors as their most important supports on campus. “They were very helpful and willing to talk. I could talk to them about issues with friends,” the graduate said. The relationship between housing and the Succeed program challenges the perception that inclusion is something to fear. Rather, the partnership fosters a positive culture, where everyone feels supported, including those with IDD. This allows the students to experience the potential development of authentic relationships and build independent living skills that are not simulated in any way. Building inclusive residential supports for students with IDD requires the understanding that the housing program and post-secondary education program need to model what true interdependence looks like.
Diversity Alliance Interview with Jonathan Lidgus, Director of the SUCCEED Program | In this video interview , author Jonathan Lidgus discusses how students with disabilities are guiding the growth of the program.
Arboleda, A., Wang, Y., Shelley, M. C., & Whalen, D. F. (2003). Predictors of Residence Hall Involvement. Journal of College Student Development, 44(4), 517–531.
Astin, A. W. (1999). Student involvement: A developmental theory for higher education. Journal of College Student Development , 40, 518–529.
McConnell, A., Sanford, C., Martin, J., Cameto, R., & Hodge, L. (2021). Skills, Behaviors, Expectations, and Experiences Associated with Improved Postsecondary Outcomes for Students with Significant Cognitive Disabilities. Research & Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities, 46(4), 240–258.
Schroeder, C. C., Mable, P, & Associates. (1993) Realizing the educational potential of residence halls. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.