Not 'college material'? Minnesota's Bethel University begs to disagree

A new program at Minnesota’s Bethel University seeks to provide education, experience, and ultimately, employment to students with intellectual disabilities. More colleges are working to provide support for students with disabilities. 

Courtesy of Bethel University
This fall Bethel University in Arden Hills, Minn., will admit 12 students into its new two-year BUILD program for students with intellectual disabilities. Here, students gather in Bethel's Monson dining center.

For people with disabilities, college can seem a distant dream. But a new program at a Minnesota university hopes to change that, at least for some young people, this fall.

The Bethel University Inclusive Learning and Development program, or BUILD, focuses on providing education, experience, and ultimately employment to students with intellectual disabilities. While the program is the first of its kind to be offered at a four-year institution in the state, and among only a handful of similar programs in the nation, the development and launch of BUILD reflects a growing awareness of the challenges facing people with disabilities in education.

“There’s now a growing understanding that students who had once been considered not ‘college material,’ so to speak, really are – if they get the access, the supports, and the accommodations that are theirs by law,” says James Wendorf, executive director of the nonprofit National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD).

As of 2010, about 19 percent of the population – something like 56 million people – had a disability in the US, according to the Census Bureau. Among those 25 and older in that population, only 15 percent have bachelor’s degrees or higher, compared to 34 percent of those without disabilities. For a majority of adults with disabilities, finding employment is difficult at best.

Part of the problem is that by law, people with disabilities who are past the K-12 system have to report any conditions in order to receive support and benefits, something that doesn’t always happen, Mr. Wendorf says.

But that’s slowly beginning to change, as institutions of higher education become more aware of the supports students with learning, intellectual, or physical disabilities require to succeed in college and beyond.

Some programs, such as the University of Arizona’s Strategic Alternative Learning Technique Center and East Carolina University’s STEPP program, urge students with disabilities to report any existing conditions and meet with upper-class role models and staff learning specialists to help with time management and communication.

The Program for Advancement of Learning (PAL) at Curry College in Milton, Mass. provides four-year, liberal arts courses, mentorship, and self-advocacy training to young people with language-based learning disabilities, executive function disorders, and/or AD/HD.

In North Carolina, three campuses already participate in the College Star program, which strives to develop a network of services that identify, support, and encourage students with learning differences.

At Bethel’s BUILD, the focus is on people with intellectual disabilities. Unlike individuals with a learning disability, which affects the ability to process, store, and respond to information, those with an intellectual disability have significantly limited mental and skills functioning, and typically score 70 or less in IQ and standardized behavior tests, according to the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (AAIDD).

BUILD’s two-year program offers Applied Skills Certificates in health or human services, business, or education, as well as on- and off-campus internships. Students are also given the chance to socialize and learn to be independent while living in on-campus dorms.

“This is really some new, cutting edge opportunities for people with disabilities that had not been around before,” BUILD program director Dawn Allen told KARE. “Somebody will be there to help them develop their independent living skills around daily care, meal prep, doing their laundry, cleaning their dorm space.”

The program appears to address some of the issues that NCLD’s Wendorf said disability support services at colleges and universities face: allocating resources and providing the right environments, for instance, to help students with disabilities learn, take tests, and build confidence.

Among the challenges that BUILD does face, however, is cost: Tuition is $40,000 a year, KARE reports – hardly chump change for most Americans. Other programs have similar problems, and tend to rely heavily on donors, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Still, Wendorf says, “Forward-thinking colleges and universities understand that encouraging students with disabilities to attend [their schools] makes sense for their educational mission, for society, for how they run their educational enterprise.”

“They understand it’s in their best interest,” he adds.

Twelve students will start at BUILD in the fall.

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