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Observations From Below: My Favorite Mistake

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Some of the best things in life happen by accident. Many people have heard that the chocolate chip cookie was accidentally invented by someone trying to make chocolate cookies. The thought was that the milk in the chocolate chips would melt, and turn the regular dough into chocolate dough. Similarly, my involvement in the field of postsecondary education for people with Intellectual / Developmental Disabilities (I/DD) began seemingly by accident.

I joined the NC Postsecondary Education Alliance (PSE) in 2010. An old friend of mine from was looking for a replacement speaker on a panel about postsecondary education in NC. He happened to contact me, and I've been involved ever since.

The PSE Alliance is a statewide group of educators, legislators and families working alongside with people involved in the state I/DD system, whose mission is dedicated to extending access to college for people with I/DD in North Carolina. Up until just a few years ago, this would have been unheard of and scoffed at. I'm happy to report, that as a result of changes in federal and state laws, the idea of people with I/DD attending college is taking root.

In 2008, the federal government passed the Higher Education Opportunity Act (HEOA), and for the first time, they reauthorized bill language to include financial aid, Transition Postsecondary Education Programs for Students with Intellectual Disabilities (TPSID) and a National Coordinating Center.

The following was found at

Financial Aid:

Students with intellectual disabilities are eligible to apply for federal financial aid to help cover the cost of attending college under these circumstances:

• The student must meet the definition of intellectual disability as outlined in the act
• Students must be attending an approved Comprehensive Transition Program - a list of these programs is maintained on the Federal Financial Aid website
• Students who meet these two criteria DO NOT have to have a standard high school diploma, or be pursuing a degree or certificate.
• Students with intellectual disabilities DO still have to meet the financial need criteria for eligibility
• They are eligible for federal grants and work study funds, but NOT student loans.

Transition and Postsecondary Programs for Students with Intellectual Disabilities (TPSID):

The 27 TPSID grantees, located in 23 states, create or expand college programs that focus on academics, social activities, employment experiences, and independent living. TPSIDs provide individualized supports for students and opportunities to be involved in college experiences with their peers without disabilities. Evaluating what works and does not work is a key component of each project.

National Coordinating Center:

Think College serves as the National Coordinating Center for these projects. The Center conducts evaluation of the TPSID projects and collects information related to best practices in academic, social, employment and independent living program components.

If someone were to look at North Carolina, they would see that we have a variety of programs structured in different ways to meet people's needs. I recommend looking at all of them to determine which one fits your family's needs. There are four universities in the UNC system that have programs to assist students with I/DD. UNC has the Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental and Related Disabilities (LEND) program, UNCG has their Beyond Academics program, Appalachian State has Scholars with Diverse Abilities (SDAP), and Western Carolina has the University Participant (UP) Program. There are also several community colleges offering programs for students with I/DD, and the PSE Alliance is working continually to expand these options. All of these programs have the same common goal in preparing the students to participate in community and on-campus social/recreational activities, as well as training for future employment and the transition into adult independent living.

Western Carolina University has published a website to help students, teachers and families with the transition process into postsecondary education. It's called, Roads to Learning and Earning, and can be found at The main objectives of this website are:

1. Raise expectations of parents, teachers, administrators, and students;
2. Demonstrate possibilities of competitive employment, post-secondary education/training, and independent living options for youth; and
3. Provide teachers, parents, and student with a web-based guide to prepare students and create opportunities for positive post-school outcomes.

The main thing to keep in mind, is that the transition process begins earlier for students with I/DD than others. There are more barriers to overcome, so the earlier you start planning, the better chance you have of receiving a fruitful education. Best of luck on your journey.