Think College Online Tool

The Think College Initiative is a program of the Institute for Community Inclusion (ICI) at the University of Massachusetts in Boston that focuses on research, training, and the dissemination of information of post secondary education. Think College is a website that provides comprehensive resources to college options for people with intellectual disabilities. They have a college search engine that allows you to find two-year, four-year, and independent programs in your state. All programs listed must be associated with an accredited college or university. To date, there are 264 programs in the United States, and every year, that number increases!  This is exciting news for parents who have been told that their child with IDD would never go to college, and for young adults or adults in high school who want to go to college, just like their peers do.

Search Options

In using the tool, you can search by state, by on campus housing options, by disability type (autism, intellectual and developmental disability, other), by college type (two-year community, four-year university, vocational/trade school), and by those that are Comprehensive Training Programs (CTP) by which there is access to financial aid. The list of schools that fit the criteria you selected will provide a summary of each school, contact information, and a direct link to their program website. They also provide a form with great questions to ask when communicating with each program to determine if it’s the right program fit, such as the academic courses offered, residential access, services and supports provided, fees, integration with other students on campus, and employment training and internship / paid job opportunities.

Our Experience Searching for Post Secondary Programs

When my son and I were researching college options, I developed additional criteria to help us navigate through the programs more efficiently.  He knew he wanted to attend a four-year university in an all-inclusive environment, similar to his inclusive high school experience. Most of the programs are two-year community colleges where students live at or near home, and my son wanted to “go away” to college like many of his other typically-abled friends.

We first did a search for all four-year schools (even though the program may only be two or three years) in the United States that offer on-campus housing. To date, there are 56 four-year universities of the 264 listed programs, or 21% that advertise programs for people with intellectual disabilities with on-campus housing. Then, I developed six questions that would tell me if we wanted to pursue a web conference call or an on campus visit.

Criteria We Used For Our Search

The first three questions were about if my son would be allowed to attend.

  1. Is the program truly for a student with IDD? This question is important because some of the programs are geared specifically for students with autism or severe dyslexia or other learning disorders, so it’s critical to know if the program will support a student with the specific disability they have.
  2. Will the program accept a student without a high school diploma? Some programs require a high school diploma to attend, even though most students with IDD earn a certificate of completion since their intellectual capacity limits their ability to achieve a diploma in all requirement areas.
  3. Does the program accept out-of-state students? Some programs only accept in-state or even in-county students.

The next three questions were around inclusion, and were go-no go factors in our decision.

  1. Is the on-campus housing inclusive or segregated? We wanted to know if my son would have the opportunity to live with his typically-abled peers on campus with the proper training and support for the resident adviser and other students in the residence hall or apartment about disability awareness and inclusion. Some programs have on-campus housing, but it is segregated space set aside just for people with disabilities.
  2. Is more than 50% of the academic time spent with typical peers in general classrooms with support and services? Some programs spend the majority of their time in segregated classrooms, with some social time and activities with their typical peers.
  3. Does the program offer competitive-pay, integrated job placement? While most programs have some type of job training, some programs have volunteer internships where students can practice on-the-job skills. A few have partnerships with local businesses for integrated employment where they receive competitive pay for their work. This is important if the goal is for the student to achieve employment and independence as an adult.

Our Process

We emailed this list of questions to each four-year college that had on campus housing, and was able to further narrow my search to about 20 programs throughout the country. I called this the “possibility list.”  Our next step was to have a conference or video conference call with the program director to get a feel for the program and if it would be the right fit for my son.  Location weighed in heavily at this point (but was not a non-starter), as I was partial towards programs in states where I had friends and connections, and that had a direct flight from the San Francisco Bay Area.  We then went on a handful of site visits to get a better feel for each program.

Your College Search

Depending on the type of disability and your preferences, your criteria may be different.  In primary and secondary public education, students are to be placed in the least restrictive environment (LRE), which is the requirement in federal law that students with disabilities receive their education, to the maximum extent appropriate, with non-disabled peers, and that special education students are not removed from regular classes unless, even with supplemental aids and services, education in regular classes cannot be achieved satisfactorily.  If disability weren’t an issue, where would my son look to go to college?  The options would be numerous.  Given his disability, the options are currently limited, but are expanding every year.  The principle of inclusion and practically, the LRE definition, is what guided us in selecting an adult path for my son.  Inclusion is also about people with typical abilities learning how to view people with disabilities as people with equal value that make meaningful contributions to our society.  That can only be achieved if people with disabilities are included in all of our communities, including on college campuses.