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Postsecondary Education Options for Students with Intellectual Disabilities

Research to Practice 45


Originally published: 8/2006

Suggested audiences:

By Debra Hart, Meg Grigal, Caren Sax, Donna Martinez, and Madeleine Will


Exiting high school is an exciting and tense experience for all students and families. But when students with intellectual disabilities consider what will happen next, the possibility of college is usually not promoted as a viable option. This needs to change. Receiving a college education and experiencing that very exciting time in life is as beneficial for students with intellectual disabilities as for students without. The growth that students experience in college can be measured in a number of areas, including academic and personal skill-building, employment, independence, self-advocacy, and self-confidence. For students with intellectual disabilities, this growth is also reflected in increased self-esteem when they begin to see themselves as more similar to than different from their peers without disabilities. Being part of campus life, taking classes (whether auditing or for credit), and learning to navigate a world of high expectations develops the skills needed for successful adult life. When we keep college in the mix of possibilities as students with intellectual disabilities explore which steps to take after high school, it makes the statement that we believe in their potential for success.

This brief presents the following information about postsecondary education for students with intellectual disabilities:

Overview of Postsecondary Models

Some local school systems nationwide partner with two- and four-year public and private colleges to offer dual enrollment options to students with intellectual disabilities, age 18 and over, who are still receiving services from their school system under IDEA. There are an estimated 2000-3000 students with intellectual disabilities annually who are eligible for PSE options. Parents and local school systems typically initiate interest in pursuing these options, while local school system personnel coordinate student services. Some options are linked to teacher or rehabilitation professional preparation programs at the host institution, and participants from these degree programs provide a range of supports to students with intellectual disabilities. Very few PSE programs offer dorm experiences. Often, services end when the student ages out of public school, most often at age 21 or 22.

There are three main types of PSE models: mixed or hybrid, substantially separate, and totally inclusive. Within each model, a wide range of supports and services is provided. Each model is described in the order of prevalence.

  1. Mixed/hybrid model: Students participate in social activities and/or academic classes with students without disabilities (for audit or credit) and also participate in classes with other students with disabilities (sometimes referred to as "life skills" or "transition" classes). This model typically provides students with employment experience on- or off-campus.
  2. Substantially separate model: Students participate only in classes with other students with disabilities (sometimes referred to as a "life skills" or "transition" program). Students may have the opportunity to participate in generic social activities on campus and may be offered employment experience, often through a rotation of pre-established employment slots on- or off-campus.
  3. Inclusive individual support model: Students receive individualized services (e.g., educational coach, tutor, technology, natural supports) in college courses, certificate programs, and/or degree programs, for audit or credit. The individual student's vision and career goals drive services. There is no program base on campus. The focus is on establishing a student-identified career goal that directs the course of study and employment experiences (e.g., internships, apprenticeships, work-based learning). Built on a collaborative approach via an interagency team (adult service agencies, generic community services, and the college's disability support office), agencies identify a flexible range of services and share costs.

Fewer programs that serve adults or youth age 21 and older fall within these three models and offer the same range of services. The major difference between dual enrollment and adult PSE options is that the local education system no longer participates in providing student supports. Primarily, the student and family maintain momentum. Efforts are supported financially in the following ways.


Postsecondary Education (PSE)

Education after the high-school level. Options for students with intellectual disabilities include community colleges, four-year colleges and institutions, vocational-technical colleges, and the other various forms of adult education.

Intellectual Disability

Refers to students with significant learning, cognitive, and other conditions (e.g., mental retardation), whose disability impacts their ability to access course content without a strong system of educational supports and services. These are not students who would access the postsecondary education system in a typical manner; rather, they require significant planning and collaboration to provide them with access. This population typically (though not always) includes students who (a) take the alternative state assessment; (b) exit secondary education with an alternative diploma, such as IEP diploma or a certificate of attendance, instead of a typical high school diploma; and (c) qualify to receive services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) until they are 21.


Of all students with disabilities, those with intellectual disabilities have the poorest post-school outcomes. Until recently, the option of attending college, especially the opportunity to participate in typical coursework, has not been available to high school students with intellectual disabilities. The usual options for these students, especially those past the age of 18, have been limited to segregated life skills or community-based transition programs. Inclusive PSE options are beginning to replace such programs and have great potential to improve student outcomes.

The following research findings outline the current knowledge of PSE options and outcomes for students with intellectual disabilities.

Recommendations for Improving Access to Postsecondary Education

The following recommendations for improving access to PSE focus on strengthening three key elements: awareness, policy, and capacity-building.




Postsecondary Education and Students with Intellectual Disabilities: Bibliography and Web-Based Resources

Web Resources

For more information, contact:

Debra Hart
Institute for Community Inclusion
UMass Boston
100 Morrissey Boulevard
Boston, Massachusetts 02125
617.287.4341 (voice); 617.287.4350 (TTY)

This document was supported by two grants from the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs: College Career Connection/ICI, grant #H324C040241; Postsecondary Education Research Center (PERC) Project/TransCen, Inc., grant #H324C040030.