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Support for Students with Down Syndrome College Programs, Support Services and Resources for Postsecondary Success

The National Center for Education Statistics found that approximately 67,000 students with intellectual disabilities are enrolled in postsecondary programs, but that number has grown tremendously in recent years with the passing of the Higher Education Opportunity Act in 2008. Ensuring students with Down syndrome and their families have access to quality education opportunities after high school is key, but it’s just as important to ensure these students know about their options. The following guide highlights standout college programs, offers details about scholarships and financial aid and provides expert advice for families weighing their options.

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College Programs for Students with Down Syndrome

Finding a school that’s well suited to an individual’s needs can be overwhelming to any student, including those with Down syndrome. The following programs were compiled for their excellent support services, abundant resources and continuing focus on overall improvement.

REACH is a four-year certificate program that serves students with mild intellectual and/or developmental disabilities and helps develop the skills needed to live and work with greater independence. Special emphasis is placed on ensuring students in the program have opportunities to interact with those who don’t have disabilities, and every REACH learner audits one standard college course per semester. Internships are also included to build job skills, with approximately 94 percent of program graduates having paid work when they exited the program.

The Diverse Scholars Program at FSU is comprised of five core components: university coursework, vocational and employment support, peer mentoring, campus events and specialized facilities. Residents of Massachusetts who are 18-22 years old are encouraged to apply. Alongside specialized and typical college courses, learners in this program also participate in internships and volunteer work, and they are encouraged to take part in campus-based student organizations.

Bearcat B.E.S.T. (Building Excellence through Skills Training) is a full-time program that focuses on bridging the gap between high school and adulthood while putting special emphasis on functional academics, social skills, vocational training and daily living activities. Applicants must be aged 18-21 to be admitted. In addition to auditing traditional college courses and taking continuing education classes, students also complete a series of sessions focused on instilling life and independence skills. Internships, community service and work study are available to all learners, and 100 percent of graduates completed paid work while in the program.

The REACH program at the University of Iowa is a two-year intensive certificate option allowing students with learning and/or cognitive disabilities the opportunity to become engaged and independent graduates. In addition to auditing classes, students also have the option to gain college credits and take continuing education courses alongside students with and without disabilities. Specific studies in social skills, independent living and workplace readiness are core components of the certificate, and 82 percent of students have held a paid job upon graduation.

Understanding Individualized Education Plans and IEP Transition Planning

IEPs, or Individualized Education Programs, are legal documents created by schools and agreed to by parents. In addition to detailing each student’s individual learning needs, the document also lists all the ways a school will assist in their learning and how progress will be measured. For some students with intellectual and/or developmental disabilities, these documents can be carried over from high school to college and tailored to specific learning goals at that educational level.

Preparing for College: IEP Transition Planning

What is IEP Transition Planning?

As part of the requirements under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), IEPs are used to help students figure out what they want to do after high school and how to achieve those goals. By the time a student is 16 years of age, school officials must have begun transition planning in high school, working with students and their families to identify strengths, interests and goals. Aside from academic progress, other areas of focus include job training and daily life skills.

What Transition Services are Available for Students?

Transition services are often available both at school and in the community, including specialized independent living classes, internships, physical therapy, speech-language support and therapeutic recreation.

What Does an IEP Transition Plan Include?

IEP transition plans are divided in two sections: postsecondary goals and transition services. The first category covers what each student wants to achieve after graduating high school, and it may include vocational training, postsecondary education, jobs or employment, and independent living. The second section of the plan focuses on the services and support mechanisms a student is likely to need in order to reach their goals. Examples include special education instruction, community experiences like volunteerism, career and educational counseling, and assistance with daily living skills.

Inclusive Colleges: Why They Matter

For students with Down syndrome, it’s important to know how to find an inclusive campus. While the 2008 Higher Education Opportunity Act states that individuals with intellectual disabilities have the right to attend colleges, some schools are doing more than others to ensure learners with Down syndrome have the individualized programs and services needed to thrive. Inclusive colleges offer specific programs—often offered as a certificate—to instill within graduates the life and work skills needed to thrive.

  • Academic

    According to data from Think College, nearly 270 American colleges currently offer programs that are aimed at serving students with intellectual disabilities. Some of these may focus on building independence and life skills solely, while others integrate traditional college classes that can be audited or taken for credit. The goal of these programs is often to ensure students with Down syndrome can interact with students who don’t have disabilities, thereby providing a fuller college experience.

  • Social

    Students with Down syndrome at college campuses are encouraged to participate in a range of clubs and organizations, including those that cater to their needs and others that are more affinity-based, such as wildlife enthusiasts, language clubs or PanHellenic societies. Many programs also offer classes that focus on building social skills, such as interacting in relationships, making friends or working alongside colleagues.

  • Employment

    As part of ensuring students with Down syndrome have access to a typical college experience, many are encouraged to participate in internships, volunteer programs or work-study opportunities to build their skills and add lines to their resumes.

Scholarships & Financial Aid for Students with Down Syndrome

Like any other student, finding financial aid and scholarships to help offset the high costs of higher education often makes the difference in whether or not they are able to attend. Fortunately, there are numerous funding sources specific to students with disabilities alongside more general financial aid.

Federal Financial Aid

Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the federal government provides specific funds to students with intellectual disabilities who want to complete some form of postsecondary education. Funding for this population often mirrors funding for other students, with options including federal Pell Grants, work-study programs and federal supplemental educational opportunity grants. To qualify for federal aid, students must meet the following requirements:

  • Accepted or currently enrolled in a comprehensive transition and postsecondary (CTP) program that serves students with intellectual disabilities and participates in federal programs for student aid. As of late 2017, 25 states currently offer approved CTP programs.

  • Maintain what the Department of Education deems satisfactory academic progress.

  • Meet basic eligibility requirements for federal student aid. (Note: students with intellectual disabilities are not required to have a GED or high school diploma, and they aren’t required to pursue a full degree or certificate while in school.)

To be approved for funding, CTP programs adhere to the following:

  • Be offered by a school that has been approved by the Department of Education.

  • Specifically support students with intellectual disabilities by providing academic, independence and/or career instruction.

  • Provide a structured curriculum augmented by qualified academic advisors.

  • Require participants to undertake courses for credit and audit with nondisabled students, enroll in noncredit courses with nondisabled students and/or take part in an internship or training program with nondisabled students.

Scholarships and Grants

A range of scholarships and grants are available to help bridge the funding gap between federal aid and available family financial contributions. Some of the best are listed below.

American Association on Health and Disability (AAHD): Frederick J. Krause Scholarship $999

AAHD provides this scholarship to students with disabilities who are pursuing studies related to health or disabilities. Approved areas of study include health promotion, disability services, rehabilitation, disability policy, special education or other studies that better the quality of life for individuals with disabilities. The deadline for applying each year is November 15.

Dallas Foundation: Joe Hornsby III Scholarship $2,000

This scholarship is open to students planning to enroll in an undergraduate or technical program at an accredited school, with priority given to students with special needs. The deadline for application submission is April 3, and students must have at least a 2.0 GPA.

National Down Syndrome Society: Ethan Saylor Memorial Scholarship $500

This scholarship is given to students with Down syndrome who want to pursue their goals and break down limitations. To apply, students must write a 500-word essay about their passions and dreams, and applications must be submitted by February 1.

Ruby’s Rainbow: Ruby’s Rainbow Scholarship Up to $5,000

This nonprofit, which exists to support those with Down syndrome, offers a range of scholarships to students aged 18 or older who want to enroll in a class or program that enhances employment, independent living or life skills. Aside from a completed application, students are encouraged to send something that helps the reading panel get to know them better.

United Parent Support for Down Syndrome: UPS for DownS Scholarship Program $2,500

UPS for DownS provides numerous scholarships to help students with Down syndrome pursue educational or job training opportunities, including junior college, undergraduate, or graduate school. A separate scholarship is also available to students who have a sibling with Down syndrome. Applications must be postmarked by April 1.

Washington State Association for Justice: WSAJ Past Presidents’ Scholarship $7,500

This award is made to high school seniors who have overcome a disability or shown great achievement and can demonstrate financial need. All applicants must also have a history of helping individuals in need or protecting the rights of people with disabilities. The application deadline is March 17.

Interview with an Expert

Kathy Lambert, the director of RISE at Judson University, oversees a program that provides students with an opportunity to experience residential college life in a Christian community and develop independent living and professional skills. RISE students earn a post-secondary certificate of completion in liberal arts, with an emphasis in one of six areas of concentration. Kathy has an extensive background in marketing, product development and corporate relationship building and support. In September 2015, Kathy opened a consultancy to work with high school students, providing person-centered planning and customized employment services for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. In addition to her work at Judson, Kathy serves as assistant director of the Willow Creek Community Church Penguin Project, which trains students with intellectual and developmental disabilities to perform musical theater.

How can students with Down syndrome overcome challenges in college? 

Like any other traditional college student, those with Down syndrome will be able to overcome challenges by knowing himself/herself well. Self-regulation is so important, like understanding how diet and physical activity impacts his/her physical and emotional health. At the same time, having good supports in place is very helpful to a student with Down syndrome. For our RISE Program, Judson University has hired a team of traditional student mentors who are assigned specific support roles for the residence hall, academics and internships. We have found that the traditional student mentors are key to helping all of our students problem solve and overcome challenges. Finally, our curriculum includes approaches for overcoming challenges of various kinds, including asking for help, problem-solving and decision-making.

How can inclusive colleges and transition resources benefit students with Down syndrome?

Like many inclusive colleges and transition resources, we feel that mentoring our students is key to helping them succeed. The mentor relationships provide practical and academic outcomes, but also have resulted in strong friendships that benefit our students socially. Our campus has embraced RISE students to be in the university choir, manage sports teams and to participate in the spirit squad. Our students now call Judson their home.

What advice do you have for students with Down syndrome and their families when considering postsecondary options?

would say that no one program fits all. As with any traditional student, it’s important to know your priorities and goals to help assess the options. One of the key questions is whether you are seeking a live-on-campus or commuter experience.

Also, think about the resources and/or services that you currently use. Once a student is living on a college campus, are those services still needed? If so, it’s important to consider the logistics of how those services will be provided. Can the provider come to campus? If not, how will the student get to the provider’s location? Finally, check out ThinkCollege.net. This is a great resource to learn about programs in your area and across the United States.

Additional Resources

The resources below were curated to help students with Down syndrome and their families find the information, research and resources needed to feel supported and make informed decisions.

  • Band of Angels

    As the world’s largest provider of non-medical information on Down syndrome, Band of Angels has been supporting and inspiring communities since 1991.

  • Global Down Syndrome Foundation (GDSF)

    GDSF is an all-around international non-profit offering a variety of resources in areas of research, medical care and education.

  • International Down Syndrome Coalition (IDSC)

    The main mission of IDSC is to advocate for those with Down syndrome throughout their entire lifespan, which includes ensuring students have access to educational opportunities.

  • National Association for Down Syndrome (NADS)

    NADS provides parent with support, self-advocacy programs, resource referrals, public awareness, conferences and retreats for students with Down syndrome and their families.

  • National Down Syndrome Congress

    This national organization provides resources for families alongside a self-advocates program.

  • National Down Syndrome Society (NDSS)

    In addition to providing advocacy for individuals with Down syndrome, NDSS also has 375 local affiliates to better serve communities.

  • Ruby’s Rainbow

    This nonprofit supports the educational dreams of students with Down syndrome by providing scholarships, supplying housing resources about available education programs and sharing success stories.