By Erin Riley | Download as PDF. Since 2007, a small number of Massachusetts community colleges and state universities have implemented Inclusive Concurrent Enrollment pilot programs to provide access to inclusive college coursework for students with severe disabilities aged 18-22. The programs have proven successful in teaching the important transition skills these students will need to be prepared for adult life in the community after special education. Now is the time to build on this success by expanding ICE programs to all public colleges and universities in Massachusetts.
Historically, students with intellectual disabilities and other severe disabilities have had difficulty accessing education at all levels. Although Massachusetts was a leader in integrating these students into the elementary and secondary public education system in the 1970s, barriers to higher education have yet to be adequately addressed. Currently, to enroll in credit-bearing coursework, colleges typically require students to have obtained a high school diploma or its equivalent. Since most students with severe disabilities are unable to pass state tests or complete coursework necessary to earn a diploma, they have been effectually barred from accessing college.
This is a serious problem. Higher education is about more than earning a degree. It is a place where many young adults learn for the first time how to make difficult decisions and tackle challenges without the help of parents. College prepares students to live and work independently after graduation by teaching them important self-confidence, time-management, and self-advocacy skills. This learning process should not be limited to young adults without disabilities. Students with severe disabilities have academic and non-academic skills that translate to higher education, and they should have the opportunity to explore college in a similar way to their non-disabled peers and learn essential life skills in a supported environment.
Five years ago, collaboration between Representative Tom Sannicandro (D-Ashland) and Massachusetts Advocates for Children resulted in legislation creating a pilot grant program called Inclusive Concurrent Enrollment (ICE). To participate in ICE, school districts and institutions of higher education form partnerships and request state funding to provide access to inclusive college experiences for students with severe disabilities. Students aged 18-22, who are still eligible for special education services from their public schools, dual enroll in both college and high school, and take at least one inclusive college course with the support of an educational coach.
ICE students are not educated separately. They enroll and participate in the same classes as their non-disabled peers. In addition, many ICE Students learn to travel to college independently, and all students learn how to navigate the campus, participate in student activities, and use school facilities and resources. ICE students take exams and some elect to take courses for college credit if they achieve a passing grade.
The success of the ICE grant program has been remarkable. Students with disabilities have thrived both in and outside of the classroom. They have learned valuable academic and non-academic skills that will translate to success in competitive employment and independent living. Students without disabilities have benefited as well. They have been motivated to work harder and accept individuals with disabilities. Professors have acknowledged that ICE students express viewpoints and describe experiences that have never before been represented in higher education.
Success did not occur immediately. At first, some professors were not ready to include these students. A few believed that higher education should be reserved solely for the academic elite. However, reservations were quickly overcome as the ICE students engaged in their coursework, completed assignments, and exhibited appropriate college behavior. Faculty, administrators, and other students all agree that ICE students make valuable contributions to the college community. It is clear that there is a place in higher education for all students that have the desire to learn and the will to work hard.
In Massachusetts we have seen that ICE is both successful and sustainable. In just five years Holyoke Community College (HCC) has partnered with seven school districts to become a completely self-funded program serving 20 students who take up to six credits each semester. Eleven other districts are on a waiting list to partner with HCC should space in the program become available. Three additional community colleges and two four-year state universities also have implemented ICE programming, and are including between 6-18 students on each campus. Larger numbers of students are requesting to enroll each year.
Now is the time to expand the ICE program to each and every public institution of higher education in the Commonwealth. This is what expansion implies: each public college and university should take steps to implement a plan to include students aged 18-22 with severe disabilities in on-campus inclusive college coursework with their non-disabled peers. The number of students should be proportionate with the presence of individuals with these disabilities in our society. For most schools, this equates to approximately 15-20 students in total. Students should enroll in one or more courses each semester for credit, audit or non-credit status, and should have complete access to the campus and student life.
Massachusetts is a national leader in education. We have made a commitment to opening the doors of higher education to everyone. In particular, we have been at the forefront of including students with disabilities in education at all levels, and expanding ICE is the next logical step in this process. There is a place for everyone in higher education, and although it takes hard work and dedication to create the infrastructure necessary to create ICE programming, the rewards far outweigh the challenges.
Erin Riley was a Rappaport Fellow in Law and Public Policy in 2012. She is pursuing a juris doctorate at Northeastern University School of Law and is focusing her legal studies on education and special education law and policy. She received a B.A. in Government and Economics from Connecticut College in 2006. As a Rappaport Fellow, Ms. Riley worked in the office of Representative Tom Sannicandro in the Massachusetts General Court. The opinions in this article belong solely to the author.