Interested in Attending an Inclusive Higher Ed Program? Check Out Ways to Pay

/ May 19, 2020

By Elise McMillan

Tennessee is celebrating its 10th year of having inclusive higher education on college campuses. The 10-year anniversary has been noted with resolutions passed by the Tennessee General Assembly, the Nashville/Davidson County Metro Council and Vanderbilt University’s Student Government Association. There are now six Tennessee programs and interest from a number of other Tennessee college campuses, but there’s still much more demand for programs for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities who want to attend college just like their peers.

One thing that hasn’t changed in the past 10 years is the constant question of “How do I/we pay for college?” That question is perhaps even more important during the pandemic as resources for many individuals and families become even more limited.

There are a number of options for funding at the six programs in our state: TigerLIFE at the University of Memphis, Union EDGE at Union University in Jackson, Next Steps at Vanderbilt and IDEAL at Lipscomb University in Nashville and FUTURE at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville and ACCESS at East Tennessee State University in Johnson City.

What funding is available currently?

The Tennessee STEP UP Scholarship is available for students who meet the qualifications. It is similar to Tennessee’s HOPE Scholarship. Students who have completed programs at a Tennessee high school including receiving a regular high school diploma, a special education diploma or an Occupational Diploma, and who have had an IEP during those programs are eligible. Students must have been out of high school for less than 16 months to receive the award of $3,500 annually to help cover tuition. The award is available for up to four years. The amount of the STEP UP Scholarship is the same as the HOPE Scholarship. This type of scholarship for inclusive higher education does not exist in many other states.

For programs that have received the Comprehensive Transition Program status from the U.S. Department of Education, qualifying students with an intellectual disability are also eligible for federal financial assistance. Five of Tennessee’s programs have received the Comprehensive Transition Program status. This federal financial assistance can include the Federal Pell Grant, the Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant and Federal Work-Study programs. Students who are 23 or older do not need to consider their parents’ incomes. More information can be found at

In Tennessee, students who are clients of the state’s Vocational Rehabilitation program are eligible to receive the Transitional Learning Services award, currently $3,000 per semester for up to four semesters to use towards their tuition. Also, some out-of-state students have been able to receive assistance from their state’s Vocational Rehabilitation programs. That may be worth checking into if a student is coming from another state.

The Tennessee Reconnect Grant and the Tennessee Promise Scholarship  are available to some students of these inclusive higher education programs, including Union University, the University of Tennessee and Vanderbilt University. For the Tennessee Promise Scholarship, students who graduated from a Tennessee high school and completed the Promise program requirements during their final year of school are eligible for this award. The Promise Scholarship is a what is called a “last-dollar award,” which means that it that pays tuition costs per semester up to $2,100 after any other gift aid has been applied. The maximum award time is five semesters. More information about the requirements and resources for parents can be found at

For the Tennessee Reconnect Grant, there are different qualifications. More information about this “last-dollar award” can be found at The Tennessee Student Assistance Corp. has a very helpful website and very helpful outreach staff across the state, and they do an outstanding job of helping students and families navigate these programs.

Planning for the future

It’s never too early to start saving for college and if the student is several years away from entering college, another helpful resource for saving is the ABLE Account. ABLE is a tax-free savings program available in many states and administered in Tennessee by the Tennessee Treasury Department. ABLE accounts can help Tennessee residents with disabilities who qualify put aside money to pay for qualified disability expenses including education. More information can be found at

The federal ABLE Act recognizes that many students with disabilities and their families want to save for college and other things, but they also don’t want to jeopardize access to benefits such as Medicaid/TennCare, Supplemental Security Income and Social Security Disability Insurance. Under the terms of the ABLE Act, funds held within ABLE accounts will not count toward the $2,000 federal cap on assets. ABLE accounts can be opened by an individual with a significant disability with an age of onset of the disability before age 26.

Additional resources for paying for college

Transition Tennessee will be offering a webcast on July 22 about financial aid options within inclusive higher education. This webcast will feature representatives from two Tennessee inclusive higher education programs. Register now! After July, you can find the webcast in our archives:

There are a number of resources and organizations to provide help for finding funds to pay for college. Reaching out to the staff of college programs in which you are interested is a first step. They are quite knowledgeable about the many ways students and families are paying for their programs. Their contact information can be found on the website of the Tennessee Inclusive Higher Education Alliance at

A number of non-profits, foundations and service organizations offer scholarships. Sometimes these may be disability diagnosis or geographically specific. More information can be found on the Think College website. Think College now hosts a Facebook group for families of students considering college. Funding opportunities are quite often shared among the many families participating. The Think College website also provides additional resources and information at

Transition Tennessee,, includes very helpful modules for students, families, educators and others about paying for college.

Congratulations to those students and families getting ready for inclusive higher education. While we will always continue to work to build additional resources, there are now many more sources of information and funding resources than when these programs began 10 years ago.

Young adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their families have found that attending these inclusive higher education programs can help them become more independent and become better advocates for themselves. They also have higher rates of employment. Such programs also offer social opportunities and a sense of community. If college life sounds appealing to your son or daughter, I would encourage you to check out these funding options. And I appreciate my friend and colleague, Elise, sharing this information. If you have questions or comments, please email me at

Elise McMillan smilingElise McMillan is the director of the Vanderbilt Kennedy University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities and holds leadership positions with Next Steps at Vanderbilt, TennesseeWorks Partnership and Tennessee Disability Pathfinder. She and her husband are the proud parents of a Next Steps at Vanderbilt graduate.

May 19, 2020

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