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

States’ Roles in Inclusive Postsecondary Education


Siddarth Nagaraj is a program specialist at Pact, and a former consultant with the Association of University Centers on Disabilities.

Denise Rozell is the director of policy innovation at the Association of University Centers on Disabilities. She may be reached at drozell@aucd.org.

Note: Specific references to “intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD)” as opposed to “intellectual disability” reflect the language in the particular legislation discussed. The term “ID/IDD” has been used in overlapping instances with this in mind.

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

While the federal government plays an important role in making college possible for students with intellectual disability (ID), many new ideas in inclusive education begin at the state level.

Attending college can be expensive. State legislatures have created or expanded scholarship programs, making it easier for students with ID to get the financial support they need to attend college.  Some states agencies permit Medicaid funds to help students with career services, transportation, housing, and other things they need to attend college.

Some states have used their money to create inclusive programs at 4-year colleges and community colleges for students with ID. Colorado passed laws creating programs that have been a model for other states to follow.

In Georgia, the state Developmental Disabilities Council and vocational rehabilitation agencies use their dollars to expand programs and get parents and students involved. More programs are needed throughout the country, and state legislatures can help get them started.

While the federal government plays a fundamental role in establishing national frameworks, guidance networks, and supports for expanding educational opportunities for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD), many policy actions that have made postsecondary education more inclusive and affordable for students with ID/IDD have been passed at the state level. States have grown as hubs of innovation in inclusive postsecondary education policy, and in the different ways in which they support students with ID/IDD seeking higher education. 

Although the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 created federally funded model demonstration programs and offered guidance for modern inclusive postsecondary education programs (IPSE), innovation and direct action have occurred most intensely at the state level. Supporting their constituents, state legislatures have encouraged IPSE as a way to promote successful employment, independence, and community integration. State legislators may also view these programs as a way to encourage constituents to remain in their state for college and beyond. State legislatures have created and expanded tuition scholarships (as well as amendments to eligibility regulations), launched pilot IPSE programs through appropriations support, and supported existing programs financially. They have also passed legislation that has improved public infrastructure and cross-agency coordination on behalf of students with IDD.

Scholarships and Benefits

States have developed creative, scholarship-focused policies. Some have created scholarship programs for students with ID/IDD, while others have expanded eligibility for existing scholarship programs, or amended eligibility rules for state higher education benefits to allow students with ID/IDD to pursue them. In 2016, Florida’s legislature passed an act that created the Florida Comprehensive Transition Program Scholarship. The funds benefit students with intellectual disability aged 18 to 26 who pursue higher education at a comprehensive transition program (CTP) in Florida that is approved by the Florida Center for Students with Unique Abilities (Florida Postsecondary Comprehensive Transition Act, 2016). Other state legislatures have created scholarships for students with ID/IDD, including Tennessee, which established the STEP UP program in 2014 to provide financial aid to in-state students with intellectual disability who enroll in a U.S. Department of Education-approved CTP in Tennessee. STEP UP was modeled directly on the Tennessee HOPE Scholarship (funded by the state lottery), which supports in-state students who enroll in traditional programs at public colleges, universities, or private universities in the states, and provides the same level of funding to its recipients.

Four female college students sit around a table. Two of them are playing cards. The other two are talking and smiling at each other.

Developing students’ independence and community integration are major reasons for states’ involvement in inclusive higher education.

State legislatures also have expanded state scholarships so that students can use them for enrollment in 4-year programs as well as 2-year programs. This has made it easier for students with ID/IDD to pursue inclusive postsecondary education for longer periods and also encouraged the creation of more complex programs. In the case of Tennessee, the STEP UP scholarship initially covered only students who were in two-year programs but was later expanded to include students with ID in four-year programs that more closely follow traditional college program models (Scholarships and Financial Aid, 2016).

State legislatures have also exercised their power over state higher education benefits to support students with ID/IDD by amending the eligibility rules of existing scholarships originally created to support broader populations. In 2018, Ohio's legislature included a provision in the state appropriations bill that expanded eligibility for the Ohio College Opportunity Grant (OCOG) award to include in-state students with ID enrolled in Ohio degree, certificate, and non-degree programs (including CTPs). The OCOG provides financial aid to students with the highest need, enabling them to pursue in-state higher education, and this expansion creates new inclusive opportunities for students with ID (Ohio Department of Higher Education).

Alabama’s legislature has made policy changes that specifically support students with disabilities whose parents are veterans. In 2021, the legislature enacted a law that permits in-state students whose parents are veterans with disabilities or deceased veterans to receive the same state educational benefits for enrollment in CTPs at Alabama higher education institutions as students with similar parentage who are pursuing a traditional inclusive higher education degree or certificate.

Pilot Programs

Some state legislatures have provided state funding to expand college opportunities for students with IDD by directly authorizing and funding the creation of IPSE programs. In 2016, Colorado approved a bill that established an inclusive higher education pilot program based at two 4-year institutions (the University of Northern Colorado and the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs), and a community college. The legislation also spells out requirements for inclusive program design, such as peer mentoring, a structural focus on competitive integrated employment, and admissions standards that are not exam-based. The legislation, which has been a model to other states since its passage, also creates feedback requirements to inform improved higher education policy in the future, because the state Department of Education must evaluate the programs for legislators on an annual basis (Colorado Inclusive Higher Education Act, 2016).


State legislatures can also pass laws that build comprehensive infrastructure to coordinate inclusive higher education. In 2016, Florida’s legislature created the Florida Center for Students with Unique Abilities (FCSUA), a model hub for inclusive higher education research, technical assistance, and public information. The Center administers the Florida Comprehensive Transition Program Scholarship directly, in contrast to other legislative models which give individual institutions power over how CTP scholarships are administered. It also determines Florida CTP program requirements and timelines, collects data about student needs and outcomes, and conducts state research and evaluation of Florida’s CTPs. The Center also supports programs by informing families and students about them and engaging businesses in Florida to facilitate job, internship, and other work experience opportunities for CTP students (Florida Postsecondary Comprehensive Transition Act, 2016).

Bringing Together State Alliances

Certain states have also passed legislation that connects multiple agencies to help students with ID/IDD. In states such as Georgia, the state Developmental Disabilities Council (DD) and vocational rehabilitation agencies (VR) have drawn from state budget allocations to provide funding, technical support, and guidance on development to IPSE programs. DD Councils and VR agencies in many other states have provided support, including funding to set up and expand programs, engage families and students, expand student opportunities, and develop networks between different CTPs.

Some states permit Medicaid waivers to be used in ways that can help students with ID/IDD access tuition aid, career services, transportation, and housing and support.

Although many states do not permit Medicaid waivers to include postsecondary education services, a few (such as Pennsylvania) do so, which helps students access education coaches and peer mentors in residential halls. Pennsylvania also allows students to use Medicaid waivers for tuition up to a lifetime limit of $35,000 (Parisi & Landau, 2019).

Some state legislatures also help students with ID/IDD pay for transportation and employment services indirectly by including these in their Medicaid waivers. In this instance, the state Medicaid agency has affirmed that these are key to independent living. The waiver coverage in states that allow this not only helps students travel to and from college, but also helps them reach college coaching for internships, jobs, or other work experience that will build their professional skills and support their transition to work. Because Medicaid is a state/federal program, the state’s waiver must include this provision and the Medicaid agency must interpret that waiver to include these types of services.


Many innovative ideas in education, including inclusive higher education, first emerge at the state level, where they are tested before federal policy catches up. While the federal government retains its leadership in IPSE through HEOA and federally funded model demonstration projects, most legislative action continues to come at the state level, providing new resources for scholarships, inclusive programs, and infrastructure. As inclusive higher education continues to expand and evolve, states will remain innovators in policy change, and will use their unique authority over higher education and local structures to ensure that students have more opportunities from the beginning. 


Colorado inclusive Higher Education Act, CO SB16-196 (2016). https://leg.colorado.gov/sites/default/files/documents/2016A/bills/2016a_196_enr.pdf

Florida Postsecondary Comprehensive Transition Act, Fla. Stat.1004.6495 (2016). http://www.leg.state.fl.us/Statutes/index.cfm?App_mode=Display_Statute&URL=1000-1099/1004/Sections/1004.6495.html  

Ohio Department of Higher Education. Ohio College Opportunity Grant (OCOG) and Students with Intellectual Disabilities. Retrieved from https://nisonger.osu.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/Ohio-College-Opportunity-Grant-ID-Factsheet_Final.pdf  

Parisi, P. & Landau, J. (2019). Use of medical waivers to support students with intellectual disability in college. Think College Insight, Issue No. 40. https://thinkcollege.net/sites/default/files/files/IB_40_Use_of_Medicaid_Waivers_final.pdf

Scholarships and Financial Aid - As enacted, revises various provisions governing Tennessee STEP UP scholarships., Pub. Ch. 930 (2016). https://wapp.capitol.tn.gov/apps/Billinfo/default.aspx?BillNumber=SB1584&ga=109 

Tennessee Higher Education Commission & Student Assistance Corporation (2015). Tennessee STEP UP Scholarship. Retrieved from https://www.tn.gov/collegepays/money-for-college/state-of-tennessee-programs/tennessee-step-up-scholarship.html