Supporting College Students With Down Syndrome

By Erika Riley

Published on September 21, 2021

Supporting College Students With Down Syndrome is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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Many people with disabilities, including students with Down syndrome, pursue higher education. College students with Down syndrome and their parents can choose from various inclusive higher education programs. This guide covers different resources and avenues of support for college students with Down syndrome.

College Programs for Students with Down Syndrome

Each student has their own individual needs. Parents and students should consider these needs when searching for the right college. Below we list a few different programs specifically designed for students with Down syndrome.

College of Charleston, REACH Program

The REACH Program is a four-year, fully inclusive certificate program for students with academic and developmental disabilities. The program helps students achieve skills in academics, socialization, independent living, and career development. Students take two traditional College of Charleston courses and one REACH support course each semester.

Framingham State University (FSU), The Diverse Scholars Program

The Diverse Scholars Program allows students with intellectual disabilities between the ages of 18-22 to take FSU courses and engage in internships and student life. Students audit courses and meet with an Ed Coach, a peer mentor, and university staff to achieve personal goals. They also work on social-emotional skills and self-advocacy.

Saint Vincent College, Bearcat B.E.S.T. Program

The Bearcat B.E.S.T. program helps transition students to increased independence while strengthening their academic, social, vocational, and living skills. The program prepares each student for gainful employment. Additionally, the program assists students in creating their own support systems by using self-advocacy skills.

University of Iowa, UI REACH

UI REACH is an integrated, on-campus college experience for students aged 18-25 with developmental, cognitive, or learning disabilities. Students take both UI REACH courses and courses with other undergraduates. They also explore career options and pursue job shadowing opportunities and internships. is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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Understanding Individualized Education Plans and IEP Transition Planning

Students with Down syndrome and other disabilities often possess legal documents called Individualized Education Plans, or IEPs. Teachers create IEPs, which require parents' signatures. IEPs map out each student's education journey. They clearly outline the support and services that will help the learner. They also dictate how to measure a student's growth and success. In general, an IEP helps to create a program tailored to a student's specific needs.

Q. What is IEP Transition Planning?

IEP transition planning helps students with IEPs prepare for their futures, whether it includes college or employment. Each plan features postsecondary goals and transition services. Planning must start when or before the student is 16 years old. Typically, teachers meet with both students and their families to discuss the plan. Students set specific goals, receive services, and complete activities to help them achieve their goals.

Q. What Transition Services are Available for Students?

Transition services vary greatly from plan to plan. They can include educational instruction, community experiences, and volunteer work. They can also feature career and college counseling and help with daily living skills. Services change over time depending on the student's goals and progress.

Q. What Does an IEP Transition Plan Include?

Each IEP includes postsecondary goals and transition services. For each goal, the IEP should state transition services and activities that will help the student reach that goal. It should also list the person or agency involved in transition services. Additionally, IEPs discuss students' strengths and weaknesses.

Inclusive Colleges: Why They Matter

The Higher Education Opportunity Act, enacted in 2008, authorizes the creation of comprehensive transition and postsecondary programs (CTPs) for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities. However, that does not mean that every college has a CTP or will be accommodating to every learner's needs. Students and their parents should research different programs and services to ensure they make the right choice for them.

Opportunities at Inclusive Colleges

Both two-year and four-year colleges offer academic programs for students with intellectual disabilities. Sometimes, these programs lead to a degree or a certificate. Some programs require students to audit classes, meaning they do not need to turn in every assignment and will not receive a grade or credit. Other programs provide a mix of program-specific classes and classes with other university students.
Many colleges offer both residential and commuter social programs for students with intellectual disabilities. These programs can introduce students to other students both with and without disabilities. Some programs also link students to peer mentors.
Programs at career schools, two-year colleges, and four-year colleges give students with intellectual disabilities the skills and training they need to achieve employment after graduation. These programs often provide on-the-job training and career development counseling.

Accommodations for Students with Down Syndrome

Assistive Technology
Assistive technology accommodations allow students to use different tools both in and out of class to better support their learning. These technologies can include items like special pencils and binders, and high-tech solutions like screen readers and modified keyboards.
Learning Assistance
Learning assistance allows students with Down syndrome to develop a learning plan that works for them. Plans often include an IEP.
Response Accommodations
Response accommodations allow students with disabilities to complete their coursework in alternative ways that better suit their skills and abilities. For example, a student might take a skills assessment instead of writing an essay, or vice versa.
Setting Accommodations
Setting accommodations allow students to work or study in a different environment than other students. Students might work better in a different setting for a variety of reasons, including less distractions and less stimuli.
Timing Accommodations
Timing accommodations allow students to change the timing of instruction or assignments. For example, a student might receive more time to finish an exam.

Scholarships and Financial Aid for Students with Down Syndrome

Both individual schools and the federal government provide financial aid opportunities for students with Down syndrome. Students and their parents should research available options, including those listed below.

Federal Financial Aid

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) ensures a free public school education for every student with an intellectual or developmental disability. While it does not apply to postsecondary education, it paved the way for students with intellectual disabilities to qualify for different forms of Federal financial aid. Examples include the Pell Grant, the Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant, and the Federal Work-Study Program.

To qualify, students must maintain satisfactory academic progress, meet the basic federal student aid eligibility requirements (except holding a GED or high school diploma), and be enrolled in a CTP. Colleges and career schools offer CTPs to students with intellectual disabilities who want to continue academic, career, and living instruction to prepare for employment. CTPs usually offer academic advising and a structured curriculum. They also require students to spend time with non-disabled students.

Scholarships and Grants

In addition to Federal financial aid, students with Down syndrome can apply for private scholarships and grants. Below, we feature just a few of the many scholarships and grants available to students with Down syndrome. Keep in mind that some scholarships may be closed for the current academic year.

Jack Scura Fund

Eligible students must enroll or plan to enroll in a New Jersey college or university. Learners must have an intellectual disability, severe physical disability, or psychiatric disability. Applicants must hold a minimum 3.2 GPA and submit a resume and essay.

Amount: $7,500

National Down Syndrome Society Ethan Saylor Memorial Scholarship

Applicants must be 18 or older, have Down syndrome, and "intend to pursue a passion despite previous limitations." The application requires students to submit a 500-word essay detailing their passions and dreams and how they would use the scholarship.

Amount: $500

Ruby's Rainbow Scholarship

Applicants must be 18 or older, have Down syndrome, and plan to pursue a postsecondary program. Students must supply a high school diploma or the equivalent and transcripts.

Amount: Up to $10,000

UPS for DownS Scholarship Program

United Parent Support for Down Syndrome (UPS for DownS) offers this scholarship to students with Down syndrome pursuing educational or job training opportunities, or a postsecondary degree. UPS for DownS reserves one scholarship for students entering a therapeutic field.,/p>

Amount: Up to $1,500

Wells Fargo Scholarship Programs for People with Disabilities

Wells Fargo awards this scholarship to applicants with an identified disability. Students need a minimum 3.0 GPA. High school seniors or graduates planning to enroll in a two- or four-year college may apply.

Amount: Up to $2,500

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 postsecondary 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.

Q. 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 themselves well. Self-regulation is so important, like understanding how diet and physical activity impacts physical and emotional health. At the same time, having good support 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 halls, academics, and internships. We have found that traditional student mentors are key to helping all of our students solve problems and overcome challenges. Finally, our curriculum includes approaches for overcoming challenges of various kinds, including asking for help, problem-solving, and decision-making.

Q. 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.

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

I 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 an 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 This is a great resource to learn about programs in your area and across the United States.


Additional Resources

In addition to educational programs and financial aid, many nonprofit foundations specifically support students with Down syndrome and their families. Many nonprofits provide additional information about postsecondary education for students with Down syndrome.

Global Down Syndrome Foundation

Global's primary focus is to improve the lives of people with Down syndrome through research, medical care, advocacy, and education. They support the Linda Crnic Institute for Down Syndrome, the first academic institution in the U.S. dedicated solely to the study of Down syndrome.

International Down Syndrome Coalition

The IDSC houses the largest online Down syndrome community in the world. The site connects individuals with Down syndrome and their families to resources, expertise, and education. It also hosts support groups.

National Association for Down Syndrome

NADS offers various services like parent support, resource referrals, retreats, and conferences and seminars. The association also provides a self-advocacy program for young adults with Down syndrome.

National Down Syndrome Congress

The National Down Syndrome Congress advocates for the Down syndrome community in legislation. The nonprofit also provides resources to parents and individuals with Down syndrome to help them find local support.

National Down Syndrome Society

The NDSS provides resources for individuals with Down syndrome and their families regarding topics like education, employment, and financial wellness. They also run the National Buddy Walk program.

Ruby's Rainbow

Ruby's Rainbow seeks to support people with Down syndrome through their higher education journey. They also work to spread public awareness of Down syndrome.

Latest Posts is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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