So, How Do You Pay for Inclusive Higher Education Programs?

/ December 18, 2018

By Elise McMillan

About the Author

Elise McMillan smiling

Elise McMillan, JD, is the co-director of the Vanderbilt Kennedy University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities and a senior associate in the Vanderbilt University Medical Center’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health. Elise was the founding faculty director of Next Steps at Vanderbilt. The VKC UCEDD facilitates the Tennessee Inclusive Higher Education Alliance.

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There’s been a remarkable movement in Tennessee over the past nine years as five new inclusive higher education programs for students with intellectual (and developmental) disabilities have been established and grown. Five is still not enough to serve the growing number of students with intellectual and developmental disabilities who want to attend college like their peers, and we’re continuing to work to build the capacity of other colleges and universities as well as community colleges to develop programs. There has also been a great increase in funding to assist students who want to attend these programs.

Currently, the five programs in our state are 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. Now, East Tennessee State University in Johnson City has plans to pilot a program this fall. All these programs have strong employment rates for their graduates, more than 80 percent in most cases.

The Tennessee Alliance for Inclusive Higher Education is working to develop more programs, and if you are interested or know someone interested in developing a program, you can visit The contact form can be found under “About Us.” Another important role of the alliance is building sources of funding for students and families to pay for college.

We were extremely excited this past year when the Tennessee Reconnect Grant and the Tennessee Promise Scholarship became available to some of these programs including Union, 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.

Students are eligible for the Reconnect grant if they:

  • Are Tennessee residents
  • Have been out of high school for longer than 16 months
  • Have not already earned a higher education degree
  • Are 23 years old or older
  • have a status of “independent” on their Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA)

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. You can find that information here.

These sources of funding are in addition to several other opportunities for funding support.

One of the first areas of support was the Tennessee STEP UP Scholarship, which remains available today 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 disabilityare also eligible for federal financial assistance. All five of Tennessee’s programs have received the Comprehensive Transition Program status.  Eligible students can be awarded the Federal Pell Grant, the Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant and Federal Work-Study programs. Students who are 23 and above 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.

Just like other college programs, we’re encouraged that the sources of funding programs are increasing. However, learning about the many sources of funding can be quite daunting. There are several resources for learning more about the funding opportunities.

I would encourage students and their families first to reach out to the directors of Tennessee’s five programs. Their contact information can be found on the website of the Tennessee Inclusive Higher Education Alliance at There is also a national website, Think College, that provides financial information, The staff at the Tennessee Student Assistance Corp. also can help. Contact information for TSAC can be found here.

Next Steps at Vanderbilt has created a fact sheet about these various resources. You can find that here.

Elise is a dear friend and an esteemed colleague of mine, and I very much appreciate her taking the time to explain a very complex topic. If you have questions regarding ways to pay for inclusive higher education programs in Tennessee, please write to me at I will strive to find answers for you.

We know these programs help young adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities learn to be more independent, more willing to advocate for themselves and more often will end up employed. Such programs also offer social opportunities that aren’t available elsewhere. Please don’t let the thought of high costs prevent you and your son or daughter from exploring the options that inclusive higher ed programs can offer.

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