Tennessee Believes Program Offers Funding for New Inclusive Higher Education Options

/ September 7, 2021

By Cara Kumari

In recent weeks, a TikTok video of students with the FUTURE Program, the University of Tennessee’s inclusive higher education program, has gone viral and been featured on national TV.  The video shows students with intellectual and developmental disabilities participating in sorority rush and receiving their bids to become members of sororities on the Knoxville campus.  The emotions of those students and their new sorority sisters showed a national audience how inclusion on college campuses not only benefits students with disabilities, but the student population at large.

You can watch the video here:  Students with disabilities rush at University of Tennessee (today.com)

Here in Tennessee, there are six inclusive higher education institutions:

However, there are many individuals, families and communities that would like to have an inclusive higher education opportunity closer to home, because we have data and real-life experiences that show that inclusive higher education is working.  But we also know that resources are a key barrier to expanding current programs or starting new programs. Some of us from the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities visited several colleges and universities over the summer that underscored that very point.

Enter Tennessee Believes.

Gov. Bill Lee and the Tennessee General Assembly has provided $500,000 to DIDD to start the Tennessee Believes Program.  The primary goal of the program is to expand or create new inclusive higher education programs serving students with disabilities.  Through Tennessee Believes, higher education institutions may apply for grants that can range from one to three years, depending on the application.

One thing we at DIDD learned from our visits is that every school’s needs are different, and every program operates differently.  Just like there is no “one size-fits-all” approach to providing inclusive higher education, there is flexibility for the applying institution to tell us their plan and how it will benefit Tennesseans with disabilities.

DIDD released the grant application in late August and interested higher education institutions across the state have until the end of October to apply for the funds.  We plan on awarding the funds early in 2022.

These inclusive higher education programs have yielded great success. Currently 163 students are enrolled, and the programs have a total of 413 graduates.  Even during the COVID pandemic, the schools have maintained strong job placement rate for their graduates at more than 80 percent.  The combination of experiencing college life and classes, gaining new friendships, and learning important job preparation and independence skills has been a win for these students and these institutions of higher education.

DIDD has also had the opportunity to see the results firsthand.  The Communications Division of DIDD has had six Lipscomb IDEAL students as interns over the past three years, and they have produced internal and external communications materials that have helped us share our mission and vision to the public.  They’ve also contributed to our culture at DIDD and have made friendships and connections that remain long after their internship has ended.

DIDD truly believes the Tennessee Believes Program will help increase access to postsecondary education for students with disabilities.  We also believe that diversity and inclusion enriches the college experience for everyone on campus–students, faculty, and staff.

Tennessee Believes will build on the work over the past decade of the Tennessee Alliance for Inclusive Higher Education, tnihealliance.org. The Tennessee Council on Developmental Disabilities, the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center, the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, and a number of state agencies, including the Department of Human Services/Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, have worked together to create and enhance these postsecondary programs in Tennessee. The Alliance has partnered with Think College, thinkcollege.net, the national technical assistance leader, and was also instrumental in designing the STEP UP Scholarships, which provide financial support for students in Tennessee’s inclusive higher education programs.

For too long, many students with disabilities and their families have felt that higher education was out of reach.  And there is still much to be done to increase access and work toward true inclusion.  The Tennessee Believes Program aims to contribute and accelerate that work, where stories of students participating with their peers in college life and learning skills to prepare them for employment goes viral in real life, not just on TikTok.

I appreciate Cara for explaining this opportunity and the governor and the General Assembly for providing this funding. I know several families whose high school students would appreciate the chance to attend an inclusive higher education program, but they need to stick close to home. I hope these students and their families will be able to find champions at their local college or university to apply for this funding and launch additional programs across our state. It’s a learning opportunity for everyone that is hard to beat! If you have questions, please email me at janet.shouse@vumc.org. Thank you for reading.

Cara Kumari is the assistant commissioner of Communications and External Affairs for DIDD.  In her role, she oversees DIDD’s internal and external communications efforts for the state’s home- and community-based waivers, the Katie Beckett Program, and the Tennessee Early Intervention System.  Prior to joining DIDD eight years ago, she spent a more than a decade in TV news as a state government reporter in Nashville, Kansas, Arkansas, and Missouri.  She is a proud graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism.

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