Dyersburg State Offers Tennessee’s First Inclusive Higher Education Program at a Community College

/ July 5, 2022

By Janet Shouse

Last year, Tennessee began to offer grants to colleges and universities in our state to create more inclusive higher education programs for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities or to enhance existing programs. The grant program, which launched last August through the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, is called Tennessee Believes. I’m very excited to let you know that one of our state’s community colleges, Dyersburg State Community College, has gotten this grant, and their program is launching this August.

I am particularly delighted by this effort because so many families and their college-age students would like to be able to attend the community college in their area. The thought of attending a college or university hours away from home is daunting to many students with intellectual and developmental disabilities. (And it’s daunting for mom and dad, too!) I am hoping that other community colleges will look at Dyersburg’s Eagle Access program and work to create a similar program on their college campuses.

Our state currently has six inclusive higher education programs located at four-year universities and colleges across the state. They are:

Now, with the Tennessee Believes funding, Tennessee State University in Nashville, and Dyersburg State Community College in Dyersburg, TN, are creating two new inclusive higher ed programs this fall. Funding was also awarded to Next Steps at Vanderbilt University and the FUTURE Program at UT-K to create new educational opportunities for their students.

Today, I’m focusing on Dyersburg State Community College’s Eagle Access program. Nikki Erickson is the program director for the program. She spent 26 years in public education at the K-12 level – most of that as a special education teacher, before joining Dyersburg State. Nikki had a family member with a severe disability, which led her to the special education field.  She has also been very involved in Special Olympics in her area as the treasurer and a committee chair for the past 20 years.  Nikki said she needed a change in her work life, which is what lead her to join the postsecondary education field and the Eagle Access program.

I asked Nikki some key questions about Eagle Access.

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

Dr. Brigham Scallion, an associate professor, brought the idea for an inclusive higher education program at Dyersburg State Community College from his work as a member of the Tennessee Council on Developmental Disabilities. Scallion serves on the DD Council as a family member; he is the father of a teenage daughter with Down syndrome and volunteers with the Down Syndrome Association of West Tennessee. Our previous college president, Dr. Karen Bowyer, was a key player and asked Dr. James Barham, dean of Arts and Sciences, to chair the development of this work. However, there were many people who supported the idea and provided information and assistance to get the program going.

Q: What are the eligibility criteria for the program?

Students must have an intellectual disability or a developmental delay, be a client of Vocational Rehabilitation and can verify how their disability has affected their life and academic skills.

They must have one of the following high school diplomas: regular, occupational, special education, alternate academic or Hi-SET. (The Hi-SET is what was formerly called a GED—General Educational Development test.)

Students will go through an interview process with questions and must be able to communicate a desire to work toward improving employment skills.

They must have basic reading and math skills (at or near fourth-grade level) and be between the ages of 18-29.

Students must have access to transportation to and from the campus, and they must be able to function independently and with groups of peers for up to two hours at a time and be able to physically get around the campus.

Students are able to accept and follow rules, as well as behave appropriately and with respect to others.

Q: How many students are to be enrolled in the program?

We will enroll 10 per year.

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

They will attend two regular college classes on campus and a continuing education class with the Eagle Access program.  The day will start around 8 a.m. and end around 12:30 p.m. Activities and guest speakers will be built into the Eagle Access program to help them prepare for the job world.  A portfolio will be created with their assistance for them to use on job interviews.  The last semester they will participate in an internship within the community with help from the Eagle Access program staff.

Q: Do you offer residential options?

No, since we are a community college, we don’t offer housing to any students.

Q: What is the tuition? And how do most families pay for that?

The program costs $2,500 plus the cost of the two regular college classes, which runs $171 per hour.  There are scholarships available to help offset the cost through FAFSA—the Free Application for Federal Student Aid form that all college students use to apply for financial aid for college or graduate school.

Q: What sets your program apart from others?

Dyersburg has the first community college program in the state of Tennessee.  Our professors are accustomed to working with many different types of students (online, adult education, special needs, etc.).  The Eagle Access program is set up to be a half-day program, ending at lunchtime, so students can still work or handle other commitments easily.

Q: Is there anything else you think is important for students and families to know about inclusive higher education programs in general or the Eagle Access program in particular.

Tutoring with the Academic Success Center is available for all students, and:

  • Study partners will be part of the mentoring program
  • Accommodations such as planning, organizing, notetaking, study sessions, etc., will be included.

The continuing education coursework includes life skills/independent living, career development/exploration, digital literacy, and internship/work-based learning.

Q: What is the deadline to apply?

July 1 is the official deadline, however, since this is the first year, we will accept late applications as along as we have spots available — up to the end of July.


I’m grateful to Nikki for taking time out of her very busy schedule to provide all this information, and I hope Dyersburg State Community College has a very successful launch of the Eagle Access program! We know the inclusive higher education programs in our state provide great training opportunities for students to learn self-advocacy and employment skills. More than 80% of graduates in Tennessee are employed after graduation. We know, too, that other students on campus benefit from the inclusion of students with IDD on their campuses. If you are interested in bringing an inclusive higher education program to your community, I would encourage you to begin networking and seek a Tennessee Believes grant. For more information about the Tennessee Inclusive Higher Education Alliance, check out the website, If you have questions, please contact me at janet.shouse@vumc.org. Thanks for reading!

Nikki Erickson is the program director for the Dyersburg State Community College’s Eagle Access program. She spent 26 years in public education at the K-12 level – most of that as a special education teacher, before joining Dyersburg State. Nikki had a family member with a severe disability, which led her to the special education field. 


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