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

Seeds of Sustainability
Partnerships for Successful Transition Programs


Rachel H. Ray is an assistant professor and director of the Trailblazer Program at the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s Munroe-Meyer Institute and the University of Nebraska-Omaha. She may be reached at

As a first-generation college graduate, I understand the importance of postsecondary education. Growing up in poverty, I knew that going to college was the best pathway toward livable wages and a career. Employment data have changed very little over the past three decades and continue to show individuals with some college experience earn more and have lower unemployment rates than those who have not attended college at all (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2020). Postsecondary education is deemed so important for achievement that school districts have increased efforts to ensure students exiting high school are college and career ready (English et al, 2017). As a parent of a son with intellectual disability (ID), I see the importance of college as something equally as vital for him and his peers with disabilities. Watching my son navigate the adult world of day services and limited career training opportunities, I quickly realized he had entered a space in which he did not want to be, and it was a space with no option for postsecondary education. Something needed to change.

As a faculty member in Nebraska’s University Centers for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities (UCEDD), I knew opportunities for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) to attend college existed, and I began to plant the seed with teachers. If I provided the space and opportunity, would the district send their students? The answer was a resounding yes!

A man in an aqua t-shirt, wearing an identification badge, stands next to the mascot of the University of Nebraska-Omaha.

Dillon Denton, a student in the Trailblazers program, with Durango, the mascot of the University of Nebraska-Omaha.

With funding from a Think College mini-grant, we began strategic planning and program development in January 2018. Just as a gardener sows seeds, I knocked on doors and planted the idea that an inclusive postsecondary education program was the right thing to do at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. We held stakeholders’ meetings and informational sessions in which students told personal stories. One young man recounted, “I want to be able to go to college like my sister.” Tears streamed down his cheek as he continued. “Everyone keeps telling me that I can’t go to college and get my dream job when what I want is to do the same things others get to do.” Of all the sessions, hearing from adults with IDD left out of the college equation is what fueled our mission.

Using funding from the mini-grant, we piloted the Trailblazer Program, an inclusive postsecondary program at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, in fall of 2018, with one student. While it was a small start, it was sustainable. Each semester, our student audited two courses that aligned with his career goals, and he participated in campus activities, interned at the campus security office, and learned how to navigate campus independently including transportation, the fitness center, and cafeterias. In partnership with a local school district, we developed a clerical and data entry internship program for transition students. Our program provided the work and office space at the university’s Community Engagement Center, which houses 35 nonprofit and student organizations. The school district provided the support staff and transportation for eight students per week. The transition students provided valuable support to non-profits that needed workers; all in an inclusive setting with access to the campus for lunch, breaks, and events. By October 2019, we had nine students working, learning, and engaging in campus activities. The only cost to our program was a portion of my salary, plus office space rental fees. With the data collected that first year, we were ready to open our inclusive postsecondary education program and work-based learning program to more students.

As we moved to a full program in 2019 with four students, we quickly learned that many of our applicants needed more preparation to be successful on campus. As a new concept in our region, transition planning infrequently included college-related activities as individualized education plan (IEP) goals. To change that trend, we developed the College and Career Exploration Program, a college readiness program for students with disabilities ages 18-21. Initially, we piloted the program with three school districts and 12 students, and funding was braided between the UCEDD and school districts for staff support. For six hours each week, students came to campus and learned classroom and social skills for college settings, along with independent living and advocacy skills. In two years, we went from having one college student and eight interns to 21 students on campus each week. All of this was accomplished with a portion of my salary and rental costs braided with support staff and transportation from area school districts.

As we strove to expand our college enrollment while remaining sustainable, school districts approached us to become an approved education service agency so that they no longer had to send staff and so that program fees could be covered by the Nebraska Department of Education (NE DoE). We met with NE DoE leadership, provided them with program information, hired a certified special education teacher as required, and submitted our rates for approval. Once our rates were approved, we finalized our first contracts with two districts for $83,000. We provided unpaid internships for 22 students and inclusive college programming for one student. Our applicants for the fall of 2022 Trailblazer Program include 13 promising candidates, with nine of them coming from our College and Career Exploration Program with eligibility for two more years of transition services through their school district. We are meeting our goal to increase our enrollment in the Trailblazer Program, and funding from several of the students will come through school contracts.

Starting new inclusive postsecondary programs can have numerous challenges. As funding is the biggest deterrent to starting and sustaining a program, staffing remains the primary expense. Dual partnerships and contracts with local school districts can provide the per-student expenditure to allow for additional program staff to be hired (e.g., a certified teacher, education coaches, career specialists). Contracting with school districts is a reliable revenue source for monies to support program staff and materials, and the efforts are worth it. Our first student graduated last May. He is working full-time in a job he loves and has paid leave and benefits. College did for him what it does for most that attend; it provided the foundation for personal growth, training, and networking that led to a career path that would not have been available otherwise. Partnering with school districts provided the model to achieve that success.


U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2020). Learn more, earn more: Education leads to higher wages, lower unemployment, Career Outlook. Retrieved from

English, D., Cushing, E., Therriault, S., & Rasmussen, J. (2017). College and career readiness begins with a well-rounded education: Opportunities under the Every Student Succeeds Act. Washington, DC: College and Career Readiness Center at American Institutes for Research. Retrieved from