Nineteen-year-old Lauren Buchanan is a student at Bethesda College, a specialized program for students with intellectual disabilities. It is run by the nonprofit Bethesda Lutheran Communities, located on Concordia University's campus in Mequon.
"I wanted to go to college because I wanted to meet new friends, see new people and, like, have good relationships, good friendships with people," Buchanan says.
Young adults like Buchanan used to be excluded from higher education. But in recent years, they've gained increasing access to colleges and universities.
According to Think College, a national group that tracks these programs, there are now 270 colleges and universities across the U.S. with offerings for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
Many of them launched following the 2008 reauthorization of the Higher Education Opportunity Act (HEOA), according to Think College Co-Director Debra Hart. The HEOA opened federal aid to students with intellectual disabilities and provided grants for universities to pilot inclusive programs.
In Wisconsin, a couple four-year universities provide tailored programs for students with special needs. The University of Wisconsin-Whitewater will join their ranks this fall.
K-12 school districts provide transition services for students with disabilities that sometimes include community or technical college classes. But Bethesda College goes a step further. It's a two-year certificate program focused on teaching independent living skills and work experience. Students live in dorms and participate in campus life. They can also take regular college courses, though not always for credit.
"I think that there are individuals who have seen their older siblings go to college, and why can't they go too?" says Bethesda College Director Kristine Leonard. "They walk out with being able to live independently, call an Uber if they have to, they have a job. They can plan their own meals and cook their own meals."
Lauren Buchanan is taking classes including Independent Living, Career Prep and Ceramics. She says she's been homesick, but her family isn't that far, in Gurnee, Illinois.
"I'm very proud of me making my own decision, even if it's scary to be away from home," she says.
Jenine Buchanan, Lauren Buchanan's mother, says just living away from her parents has helped her daughter mature.
"She's been forced, in a way, to have to advocate for herself," Jenine Buchanan says. "Whereas if adult children [with disabilities] are still living with their parents, the parents tend to just do it because it's easier for us to do it."
The first college program for adults with intellectual disabilities in Wisconsin began in 2007 at Madison's Edgewood College. Like Concordia, it's a private Christian school.
"I just think higher ed is more accepting [now] of students with disabilities," says Brianna Huebner, who directs the Edgewood College "Cutting Edge" program.
Edgewood is the only school in Wisconsin that offers a bachelor's degree option for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Huebner says it's a highly individualized process, working with each student and their professors to provide accommodations.
"We've had a student with Down syndrome receive a bachelor's degree," Huebner says. "We have a student with cerebral palsy who's currently finishing up his requirements for a degree, and certainly students with autism as well."
There's evidence that these programs help students beat grim employment odds.
Advocates say many adults with disabilities still end up in sheltered workshops earning below minimum wage. One survey from the Wisconsin Department of Health Services found just 15 percent of adults with intellectual disabilities had paid jobs in the community.
Both Edgewood and Bethesda report employment rates of about 80 percent for their graduates.
This fall, there will be another option in Wisconsin for students with special needs, this time at a public university.
James Collins, director of the new LIFE program at UW-Whitewater, says the school has a history of inclusivity and is a natural fit for this new demographic. Whitewater is known for its wheelchair basketball team.
"Really the interest has been helping an underserved segment of the population that has a ton of potential but has had limited opportunity," Collins says.
UW-Whitewater's new program will be similar to Bethesda's — a two-year certificate program heavily focused on independent living skills and work experience.
The world of higher education for people with intellectual disabilities has room to improve. Many programs are not accessible to low-income students because they don't qualify for federal financial aid. And they're not accredited, which raises questions about oversight.
Advocates are working on those issues. A task force is drafting accreditation standards for possible Congressional approval. If that happens, it would bring credibility to the growing field of inclusive higher education.
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