Imagine you’ve spent years building a house. You’ve invested time and labor into the project, feeling a sense of pride and accomplishment as first the frame goes up, then the walls and the roof.
But as the interior begins to take shape and you begin to truly envision the satisfaction and security that will be yours in your new home, imagine the work coming to a sudden, screeching halt. You aren’t allowed to finish the job.
Until recently, for students like Simon Chase and thousands of others across the nation with intellectual and/or developmental disabilities (I/DD), that analogy could easily describe their academic experience. Once they completed high school, access to higher education became virtually non-existent. But thanks to UNC Greensboro’s Beyond Academics program, which has been at the forefront of a rapidly growing movement across the country, Chase and his peers now have the opportunity to attend college.
“A lot of people don’t even give us a chance,” explains Chase, a junior from Charlotte, N.C. However, he says Beyond Academics offers much more than a chance. They set high expectations for their students. “They actually believe we can do something.”
Seeds of a movement
For years, the notion of students with I/DD continuing their studies in a higher education setting was a foreign concept, says Joan Johnson, executive director of Beyond Academics. These students were finishing high school and then going out into a world with few opportunities for employment and independent living.
In the early 2000s, Johnson was working with CenterPoint Human Services, a Winston-Salem, N.C., organization that served individuals with I/DD and their families. While at a national conference, a parent on CenterPoint’s community-wide planning committee learned about a program for students with I/DD involving a partnership between a community organization and a university. “They brought back this idea for continued learning opportunities in a collegiate environment, and everyone got excited,” recalls Johnson.
When UNCG Vice Chancellor Terri Shelton learned about the fledgling movement, she was also inspired. “I thought, ‘I hope we can be that collegiate partner.’ Giving folks with intellectual disabilities access to the benefits that higher education brings — it was a perfect fit with our university’s mission.”
Dignity of Risk
Beyond Academics was North Carolina’s first post-secondary program for students with I/DD, with an inaugural class of eight in 2007. It’s currently the only four-year program in the state and one of only a handful of four-year programs in the country. This fall, 62 students are enrolled.
The program blends UNCG’s resources with the expertise of a non-profit service and support organization. As they pursue their Integrative Community Studies (ICS) certificate at UNCG, students select coursework that reflects their career, personal, and community interests. They also work with program personnel and the local community to learn life skills essential to being a valued employee, citizen, and neighbor.
Lalenja Harrington, program director for Beyond Academics, says it’s all about providing the right structure to put students in a position to succeed. “We all need support in different ways. I can’t change my oil. I need somebody to do that for me. But I still get to drive a car.”
College offers students a chance to meet expectations — or learn from failure.
“If you aren’t allowed to try, you can’t make a mistake,” says Kimberly Miller, an assistant professor in UNCG’s Department of Community and Therapeutic Recreation who works with the program to measure and evaluate its effectiveness. “We learn when we make mistakes. So there’s a lot of dignity in being given the opportunity to try. And if we fail, then we can learn from it and grow. That’s the dignity of risk.”
Along the way, a comprehensive system of data collection has become a hallmark of the program. By interviewing students and families about their experiences and closely tracking graduates, Johnson and her colleagues have developed benchmarks to measure success and improve outcomes. They look at factors such as employment, independent living, community involvement, and financial independence.
The data show ICS graduates outperforming individuals with
I/DD across the nation. While access to meaningful careers continues to be a challenge, ICS graduates earn nearly $1 more per hour than their counterparts nationally. With the acquisition of new skills and confidence, ICS students require, on average, 50 percent fewer supports upon graduation. Postsecondary education for individuals with I/DD doesn’t just make sense in terms of equity and access; it makes economic sense as well.