Let’s Take a Look at Inclusive Higher Education and Then Start With Next Steps at Vanderbilt

By Janet Shouse

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Tammy Day, Program Director, Next Steps at Vanderbilt

What’s the step that many of us take after we leave high school? We go to college. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 69.2 percent of 2015 high school graduates enrolled in colleges or universities.

Many high school students with intellectual and developmental disabilities watch as their siblings and their peers go off to college, and some of those students feel left out and left behind. However, for many students with disabilities, gaining admission to a college or completing coursework for a two-year or four-year college degree isn’t possible. Yet, some of these students still long to go to college, as their siblings and friends have. In recent years, there has been a movement to create a college experience adapted to the needs of these students. Originally called “post-secondary programs,” these efforts are now called “inclusive higher education programs.”

These non-degree programs provide students with intellectual and developmental disabilities with a college experience that enhances employment and independent living skills. Students, who generally range in age from 18-26, take college courses, have internships and jobs, and build relationships with their peers, both those with disabilities and those without. The programs offer support and adaptations to college courses. A primary goal of these programs is to provide career exploration through internships that help the student experience a variety of potential work environments and college life. Another goal is promoting independence and self-advocacy skills.

Tennessee currently has five inclusive higher education programs for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities. They are:

My hope is to highlight these inclusive higher ed programs over the next couple of months in our blog.

Naturally, the first program director I spoke with was Tammy Day, who guides the Next Steps program at Vanderbilt, since she’s next door on campus. I asked Tammy a series of questions, including some questions that may encourage students, parents and advocates to reach out to their local colleges and universities to see if those schools would like to start an inclusive higher education program. (I know many families, including those with typical children, would like for their son or daughter to be able to attend college close to home.)

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Students at Next Steps

Q: How did the Next Steps program get started? Who served as champions? Faculty or family or someone else?

A: Next Steps at Vanderbilt can directly link its origins to the dreams of two parents, including one at the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center, and two professionals who started meeting to explore the development of inclusive college experiences for young adults with IDD back in 2004. One of these key pioneers in this effort was the Tennessee Council on Developmental Disabilities.

This determined group attracted other stakeholders and evolved into the Tennessee Postsecondary Education Alliance. This initial group included parents, educators from higher education and secondary education, disability agency partners like the Down Syndrome Association of Middle Tennessee, The Arc Davidson County, The Arc Williamson County, the Autism Society of Middle Tennessee (which is now Autism Tennessee), and others. After a couple of years of meetings and research, the DD Council offered a grant for a university to pilot Tennessee’s first inclusive higher education program. Vanderbilt and the Kennedy Center answered the call, and Next Steps was born.

Q. What is the eligibility criteria for Next Steps?

A: Students must be between the ages of 18 and 26 and must have an intellectual disability. The student must also have a strong desire to attend college, to become as independent as possible, and to have a meaningful career after college. These are the most important. Other criteria can be found on the Next Steps website. (Although applicants may have other disability diagnoses, such as autism, the emphasis is on students who also have cognitive impairments.)

 Q: How many students are in the program?

 A: We can accept up to 10 new students each fall. Since we are now a four-year program, this means we will be at capacity with 40 students. Deadline to apply for fall 2017 is Jan. 13.

 Q: What does a student’s day look like?

 A: Our students have a typical day just like that of other college students in that their daily schedules are dependent upon what classes meet that day and what appointments they have with their advisors, tutors, exercise partners, etc. Their days are more structured by the Next Steps staff to have meeting times with peer mentors (called Ambassadores) during the first two years, and then they will be supported to schedule their own days during their third and fourth years to meet with supports they need and friends they want to hang out with. The students are also involved with career exploration activities on and off campus each week.

 Q: Does your program offer residential options?

 A: We have plans to slowly develop the residential component of Next Steps. The model we are designing will have first- and second-year students living on campus, and third- and fourth-year students will live with graduate students off campus in nearby apartments.

 Q: What’s the tuition?

 A: Though fees are subject to adjustment, the program is currently $16,324 per year.

 QHow do most families pay for tuition?

 Most families use multiple funding streams to cover tuition. This funding stream includes self-pay, Vocational Rehabilitation Transitional Learning Services funds, the STEP UP Scholarship for Tennessee high school graduates (which is the equivalent of the Hope Scholarship), private foundations in the Middle Tennessee area, and federal financial aid for eligible students.

 Q: What is the employment rate of your graduates?

 A: 86%

 Q: What sets your program apart from others?

 A: Next Steps at Vanderbilt students are getting a well-rounded college education at a Top 20 university. In this, they are taking classes with amazing classmates from all over the world, being taught by experts in their fields, and the students get to help “educate” future Special Education teachers in Peabody’s College of Education as well as other students all over campus on the values of an inclusive community. This is a very mutually beneficial partnership between our students with ID and the whole living and learning community.

 Q: Is there anything else you think is important for students and families to know about post-secondary education/inclusive higher education programs in general or yours in particular?

 A: The Next Steps program accepts a wide range of students. One simple way to demonstrate this is to acknowledge that our students’ reading/writing abilities range from early elementary levels to middle school level. We work hard to support each student in development and completion of his or her individual programs of study by meeting the students where they are and helping them to soar.

I would like to thank Tammy Day for her time and her willingness to share information about the Next Steps at Vanderbilt program. As I mentioned, Tammy is the program director of Next Steps at Vanderbilt, and she is the current chair of the Tennessee Inclusive Higher Education Alliance. Tammy has been an educator for more than 30 years, and the guiding focus of her vocation has always been, “How to I equip my students for live after school?”

For additional information about the five Tennessee Inclusive Higher Education programs and the alliance they have created, check out the Tennessee Inclusive Higher Education Alliance at tnihealliance.org/.

Another excellent source of information is Think College. Think College is a national organization dedicated to developing, expanding, and improving inclusive higher education options for people with intellectual disability. Think College supports evidence-based and student-centered research and practice by generating and sharing knowledge, guiding institutional change, informing public policy, and engaging with students, professionals and families. Visit the Think College website, www.thinkcollege.net/, for publications, resources, webinars, videos, and more, including information for students who may be wondering why they might want to go to college or whether they could.

If you have questions about post-secondary programs for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities in general or about Next Steps in particular, you are welcome to email me at janet.shouse@vanderbilt.edu or leave a question in the comment section below. I will try to find an answer.

Finally, I hope all of you have had a wonderful holiday season and a Happy New Year while I took a few weeks off!

Just a quick reminder—Feb. 8 is Disability Day on the Hill! We would love to have you join us. Please register at tndisabilitydayonthehill17.splashthat.com/

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