With the help of a five-year grant, the University of Minnesota has partnered with nearby community and technical colleges to improve post-secondary programs for students with intellectual disabilities.
Central Lakes College, Ridgewater College and the University’s Institute on Community Integration, have received $2.2 million from the U.S. Department of Education to implement an education model that aims to improve engagement and retention for intellectually disabled students.
Occupational skills programs that provide vocational and technical job training for students with intellectual disabilities already exist at CLC and Ridgewater but not at the University. Jean Ness, a research associate with the ICI, said the ICI will research and evaluate the education model.
The program will use the Check and Connect education model developed by the ICI in the early 1990s. It pairs students with an instructor who will act as a monitor and mentor.
The model has been used for K-12 students with and without disabilities and has also been implemented in higher education. However, this will be the first time the model has been used specifically in colleges and universities for students with disabilities, Ness said.
Ness said she thinks the model will improve and expand the services offered by the programs at CLC and Ridgewater.
According to the website for the Check and Connect model, mentors — trained professionals with at least a four-year degree who are employed by the colleges — "fuel the motivation and foster the development of life skills needed to overcome obstacles."
There is a growing desire for programs geared toward students with intellectual disabilities since the Higher Education Opportunity Act passed in 2008, making federal grants, loans and work-study available to disabled college students.
Currently, Ridgewater, CLC and Riverland Community College offer the only three programs in Minnesota.
Technical and community colleges in Minnesota have open enrollment, so students with intellectual disabilities don’t have the additional barrier of the college application process, Ness said.
The occupational skills program at CLC has been around since the mid-1980s, said Suresh Tiwari, vice president of academic and student affairs at CLC. The program helps students with intellectual disabilities develop social and workplace skills and live independently in apartments near the college.
Without higher education opportunities, disabled students try to find employment or seek social services, Tiwari said. The options available are very limited.
He said the need for these types of programs is great and that hopefully the additional resources provided by the grant will impact the size of the
program at CLC.
Though the University doesn’t have special programs for students with intellectual disabilities, Disability Services is responsible for making the application process accessible to all applicants regardless of disability, said Tim Kamenar, a disability specialist.
"If a person meets admissions standards with an intellectual disability, they can certainly come to the University," Kamenar said, adding that the controversial issue is the amount of accessibility colleges can provide to disabled students in the classroom.
"How can we make an organic chemistry class accessible if a person has a 50 IQ?" Kamenar asked.
Recently, the Department of Education’s Transition Programs for Students with Intellectual Disabilities has also awarded grants to fund 27 similar programs including those at Big Ten schools Ohio State University and the University of Iowa.
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