The transition from high school to college is not an easy one. And it’s definitely not easy when you have a learning disability and are used to having accommodations through an IEP. But thanks to programs like Elevate, students with learning disabilities can learn to adjust to college and learn the skills they’ll need to succeed in college. I should know. I have Asperger’s and have been part of the Elevate program at Arapahoe Community College for the past three years. In fact, I became part of Elevate in my sophomore year in 2016; the year Elevate was started. But since my freshman year of college, I’ve grown as a person and learned more about myself. This is my story.
I was diagnosed with Asperger’s when I was in sixth grade. Throughout middle school and high school, I had the support of my teachers and a group of friends who had disabilities like me. But when I started college at Arapahoe Community College, everything changed. I no longer had an IEP to ensure that I got accommodations. Instead, I had to make my own requests for accommodations. And the accommodations were limited. If I needed extra time on a test, I had to make an appointment at the testing center. If I needed help with my math homework, I had to go to the math support center and hope that a tutor would be available. If I needed help writing a paper for a class, I had to go to the writing center in the library. I was also now expected to keep track of due dates on my own; which meant I had to buy a planner and learn how to use it. On top of all this, I had no group of friends who had disabilities like me. That meant no one to have lunch with. No one to study with. No one to hang out with. But I refused to accept that I was having a hard time adjusting and simply pretended that everything was fine around my parents, my teachers, and my counselor through student access services. Eventually, they found out. Particularly, when my grades suffered so bad, I had to withdraw from a math class and retake it the following semester, along with an English class I failed. I retook both classes and passed both. But my parents and my counselor knew that I needed support.
It was in the fall of 2016 that I became part of the first Elevate group. I welcomed the opportunity, mainly because I now felt that I wasn’t alone at ACC. I quickly became good friends with the other group members. And since then, I’ve remained good friends with many of them; while also making new friends. Every fall Elevate gains new members. And I’ve met other college students with disabilities; some who have disabilities that aren’t immediately obvious like me, others who have disabilities that are more obvious. And I’ve had lots of fun with the friends I’ve made through Elevate. We’ve taken campus tours of UCCS, UNC, and Metro. We’ve had lunch together. We’ve gone to parties. We’ve attended the annual summer social fundraiser IN! hosts. We’ve gone to Comedy Works together. And we’ve hosted all sorts of events on campus at ACC through the Elevate club we founded. We’ve done bingo, a special screening of Big Hero 6, pizza and painting, and coffee and donuts with cops. Of course, we also attend study hall and Elevate workshop too. And Elevate has helped me learn all sorts of skills for college. Elevate has taught me all sorts of skills, from study skills to life skills to job skills. When I was in my freshman year of college, I used to highlight all the text in my textbooks. Now, I only highlight the important content. I used to never take notes in my classes. Now, I write down notes as I need them; whether it’s the key parts of a concept in biology, the main points of a philosophy reading, or vocabulary terms that the teacher uses during an art history lecture. I used to just sit in class and not pay too much attention to the lectures. Now, I pay attention in class and actively listen to the lectures. I used to not pay much attention to deadlines for assignments. Now, I write down assignment deadlines in my planner and break big projects into smaller parts. I used to frequently leave the classroom during class for long periods. Now, I limit my breaks and avoid leaving the classroom during class. I used to sleep through my alarm and rely on my mom knocking on my door to wake me up. Now, I get out of bed as soon as the alarm on my phone goes off. I used to waste my money on food from the café. Now, I bring my own food. I used to avoid checking my email for weeks. Now, I check it every day. I used to not know how to write a resume or cover letter. Now, I know how to write them. But these aren’t the only things I’ve learned in college.
When I first started college, I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do with my life. I thought that I might want to go into teaching, or journalism. Now, I know that I want to become a librarian and major in communications. I’ve learned that I’m passionate about helping shelter animals find homes; even if my major isn’t veterinary medicine. I’ve learned that I’m passionate about autism awareness and advocating for equal educational opportunities. I’ve learned just how hard I’m willing to work for something I want. I’ve learned how to advocate for myself. And I’ve learned that having Asperger’s gives me a different way of seeing the world. And that’s a good thing.
What is Inclusive Higher Education?
Inclusive higher education is an individualized approach to education and inclusion in college for students with intellectual disabilities. Students accessing inclusive services do not need to meet the standard admissions criteria for college. Inclusive higher education is designed for students who may need additional supports to be successful in college.
College is about more than academics. It also includes career preparation, socialization, and independent living. Inclusive higher education is designed to support students in all of these areas. Supports are provided by a range of people, including inclusive staff on campus, campus support offices (tutoring center, writing center, disability service office, etc.), peer mentors, professors, and friends.
Students in inclusive programs can choose any area of study that they are interested in! For example, students in Colorado have chosen to study Art Design, American Sign Language, Brewing Studies, Communications, Criminal Justice, Early Childhood Education, Dance, Government, Healthcare, Human Services, Leadership, Library Sciences, Photography, Photojournalism, Physical Education, Public Speaking, and more.
Students typically take three classes each semester. Two classes are chosen from the college's course catalog based on the student's area of interest. The third course is a specialized course designed to support students with IDD.
Students receive both accommodations and modifications as needed in their classes. Modifications are what make inclusive higher education unique - these are only available via inclusive higher education programs. Modifications might include reading at a different grade level than the course textbook, decreased number of tasks on an assignment or exam, changing exam format from a written paper to a multiple choice test, lessening the length of a writing assignment, rewording questions on an exam to simpler language, or others based on a student's individual need.
Students pick a career of their choice that is in alignment with their academic courses. Throughout college, students work closely with a Career Coordinator in their campus' inclusive service office to prepare for their future career. Students may also use the resources offered by the college Career Center.
Year 1: Students focus on career exploration and developing career readiness skills.
Year 2: Students define a career plan and future goals. Students continue to develop job skills through job shadows, practice interviews, internships, and on-campus work experiences.
Year 3: Students participate in off-campus internships and/or employment in their area of study. Career Coordinators in the inclusive service offices work with students to find opportunities specific to their career interests. Job coaching is provided to students when needed.
Year 4: Students continue to engage in work experiences and look for placement options for after college.
Post college: The intent of inclusive higher education is for students to exit college and enter into competitive, integrated employment.
For on-campus jobs, students in Colorado have worked in the recreation center, dining hall, bookstore, pie cafe, department student assistant, campus admissions department, and more. Off-campus employment examples include work at a community arts center, therapeutic riding center, preschool classroom, radio station, wood shop, hospital, and more!
A big part of college for any student is the social development. Students are encouraged to get involved on their college campus through activities such as joining clubs, playing intramural sports, participating in Greek life, volunteering, taking on leadership positions, and more. Other students might not join a group, but are instead experiencing college life through on-campus activities such as dances, bingo nights, karaoke, movie nights, sporting events, going out with friends, and more!
Depending on the school, students may have the option to live on campus in residence halls or apartments. Students also have the option to commute to campus daily.
Students at UNC talk about their experience living on campus:
Peer mentors play a huge role in college, offering support in academics, career, independent living, and social life on campus.
Since college can be overwhelming for any student, the role of the peer mentor becomes especially important for students with intellectual disabilities. Successful peer mentors know how to help students feel comfortable in the college environment, and are willing to be a resource and helping hand. Communication is an essential part of being a peer mentor so that students feel comfortable approaching their peer mentors with questions about school or student life on campus. Learn more about peer mentors.
Graduating from College
Students earn a Comprehensive Higher Education Certificate with a concentration in their area of study, awarded by their institute of higher education. The length of certificate and number of credit hours varies by school, but each have similar requirements. Students will generally take 2-3 classes per semester and engage in vocational preparation (career planning, on-campus job, internships, off-campus work experience, etc.) as it relates to their chosen area of study.
To see some examples of paths students have taken through college, read about Colorado's first inclusive higher education graduates.
The goal is that students leave college prepared for employment and greater independence.
Next Steps for Interested Students
- Check out the other pages in this section to learn more about preparing for college: For Students, For Families, For Educators, Financial Resources, FAQ.
- Register for one of IN!'s upcoming webinars to learn more about inclusive higher education.
- Start conversations with your family members, teachers, and case manager to plan for the transition to college.
- Tour a college campus! This is a great way to get a sense of what feels right for you, and you can even meet with the inclusive service office staff while you are on campus.
- Students apply directly to the inclusive service office at the school of interest to them. There are no SAT/ACT, GPA, or prerequisite course requirements. In general, students must have a documented intellectual disability, have completed high school (students may choose to participate in their school district 18-21/transition program before attending college), and have a desire to go to college.
- To learn more about the inclusive higher education movement nationwide, check out Think College.
Visit the websites for schools offering inclusive services in Colorado to learn more about what their schools have to offer!