The ‘college experience’ without academics

More than 250 programs help intellectually disabled youths go to college, AP reports. That’s up from four programs eight years ago. Now, as I wrote here, federal grants and work-study funds will be available to students with intellectual disabilities, even though few are  pursuing a degree.

Generally the aim is to support the students as they take regular classes with non-disabled students. Professors sometimes are advised to modify the integrated classes by doing things like shifting away from a format that relies entirely on lectures and adding more projects in which students can work in groups.

What if the college professor thinks group projects aren’t the best way to teach college-ready students?

Disability advocates think college training will allow mentally retarded adults to qualify for better jobs than cleaning, flipping burgers or working in a sheltered workshop. But the story stresses socialization, not vocational training. At University of Central Missouri, intellectually disabled students live in a dorm, eat in the cafeteria and enjoy the “college experience.”

(Gabe) Savage, a 26-year-old from Kansas City, is grateful for it all — new friends, the chance to try out for a school play, brush up on his computer skills and even take a bowling class with non-disabled students looking to earn a physical education credit.

Is this a good use of the university’s resources? Perhaps I’m just a hard-hearted grinch, but I keep thinking of the students who want to take classes (and get a spot in a dorm) so they can get a college education, not just an experience.

About Joanne


  1. Maybe I’m hard-hearted too, but most profs have zero “special ed” experience. And asking profs to “modify” (which is probably a euphemism) to accommodate students who couldn’t hack the regular class…that could be seen as an abridgment of the prof’s academic freedom.

    I have had students with various disorders in my classes. Sometimes it works fine, but the semester I had an autistic student I had to drop any of the “active” activities because they just couldn’t interact, and I felt like they were being singled out.

  2. georgelarson says:

    If a group of “normal” but aggressive young people decide to confuse and harass the intellectually disabled students outside the classroom who will protect the disabled? I saw this problem in high school with mainstreamed students.

    Will students with normal intellects be kept out of college to make room for the intellectually disabled?

    Will the state give the intellectually disabled students scholarships to attend college for 4 years to receive no degree?

    College is a very expensive place to teach socialization. Could not the socialization problem be better and more inexpensively dealt with in some other environment?

    Is there any evidence that “college training will allow mentally retarded adults to qualify for better jobs than cleaning, flipping burgers or working in a sheltered workshop.” Or is this wishful thinking?

  3. Mike Curtis says:

    One word: Alchemy.

  4. Michael E. Lopez says:

    I’ll bet Incitatus had college training, and I’ll bet it made him a better Senator.

    Who are we to cut off the path to future success?

  5. Cardinal Fang says:

    Do we know that the Down’s kids and autistic kids in these classes are any worse students that the neurotypicals in the same classes? In the post above this one, Joanne reports that 63% of students at a Rhode Island community college need remediation. Maybe the intellectually disabled kids can keep up.

    I also wonder about the 250 programs cited in the AP article. Are those programs all for students with intellectual disabilities, as the article says? (Sometimes journalists misquote their sources.) Might some of them instead be aimed at autistic students with normal academic ability, who need help in the non-academic side of college?

    We know that the incidence of Down’s is not growing, but the incidence of autism is skyrocketing. Many students with autism or autism spectrum disorders are smart enough to do the academic work of college, but need support to navigate the whole college experience.Those students can benefit from college if given that support.

    It’s a puzzle to know how to deal with students like Ricki’s autistic student. Assuming that student was able to do the activities in class that didn’t involve group work, and was able to learn the subject, do we want to say to him and the huge number of other autistic students who will soon be college age, Sorry, you’re smart enough to learn but you don’t fit in here, goodbye, enjoy your unemployment?

  6. And some people wonder why the country is going downhill….

  7. This is insane. College isn’t sleepaway camp with ashtrays, or is it?

    “The federal rules that took effect this fall allow students with intellectual disabilities to receive grants and work-study money.”

    College gets more expensive all the time, but there’s money for people with Downs to enroll? I understand that people with Downs can benefit from the social experience and even some of the class work, but I think that these programs are designed to get more federal $$ into the college coffers.

  8. This is a little puzzling. In order to have the diagnosis of Intellectually Disabled, a student would have to have an IQ under 70. That would, by the way, be entirely distinct from the diagnosis of autism, which is not an intellectual disability but a developmental one (sounds like a technical distinction, I know). So, in reality we are skipping over the students with IQ’s of, say, 71 to 90, in order to put those with much lower IQ’s into the college environment? Very targeted, high octane job training with some literacy instruction thrown in, would be a much better idea for the “under 70” group. Socializing is not a good enough reason to go to college.

  9. Wow, what a cold-hearted take on this issue that the author and the commentors have. Sounds like the argument against same-sex marriage, or integrated schools. The significance of the college experience will some how be eroded if intellectually disabled youths are permitted to attend. The world will come to an end. Let’s pass an amendment.

    For starters, the number of slots that are afforded under these programs will be totally insignificant when considering the overall student population.

    Secondly, why such a negative reaction to an expanded definition of what a college education could provide? Universities and community colleges provide great experiences and opportunities for a wide array of society. Perhaps, the college settting is a fantastic environment for people with learning disabilities to be able to learn the social skills, and academic knowledge, to succeed in the world. If so, what’s the big deal if they didn’t get a four-year degree? Why should they be categorically denied the cultural and educational experience of attending college after high school?

    I urge all the elitists who’ve commented to expand their notion of what a college could be.

  10. georgelarson says:

    “Perhaps, the college settting is a fantastic environment for people with learning disabilities to be able to learn the social skills, and academic knowledge, to succeed in the world.”


    Is there data anywhere to back this up? It was not in the article. Pleae share with us what we are missing.

  11. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Quoth Doug:

    (W)hy such a negative reaction to an expanded definition of what a college education could provide?

    Because Mission Creep is the death of excellence in all fields. The more that high schools, or colleges, militaries, or governments try to do, the less they do anything particularly well.

  12. As a teacher, I frequently feel the pull to gear class to the lowest common denominator. When the lowest common denominator is really low, it lessens the chance that class will leap to great heights. We should treat the mentally disabled with humanity, but not as candidates for college. Doesn’t Tocqueville predict that democracy will inexorably lead to this kind of absurd insistence on equality?

  13. It’s like Tom Lehrer’s intro to “It Makes A Fellow Proud To Be A Soldier”, in which he declares that the Army “has carried the American ideal to its logical conclusion, in the sense that not only do they prohibit discrimination on the grounds of race, creed, and color, but also on the grounds of ability”.

    If state universities have changed their mission from educating the next generation of business people, artists, engineers, mathematicians, historians and such and decided instead to provide enrichment experiences for the mentally retarded, what of the previous mission?

    If any moron can go to Big Name U., only a moron would want to go there.

  14. Also, few professors have ANY sort of training in dealing with disabilities. On the one hand, it’s relatively easy to deal with some (I had a Blind student one semester, I just asked him what he needed – all it took was e-mailing documents to Student Support so they could be converted to Braille). In other cases, with developmental or behavioral disabilities, it can be far more challenging. (I realize that disabilities like Down’s are not strictly developmental or behavioral, but some individuals can have those components).

    I had a student one semester with an unspecified developmental disability; they were a person who blurted out whatever came into their mind, even in the middle of lecture or an unrelated discussion. Sometimes the things said were pretty inappropriate. I admit, I didn’t know how to deal with it, and no one seemed to want to give me any guidance beyond, “You are required to make the accommodations listed on the student’s plan.”

    In some cases it may not be clear what the best accommodation even is. Add that on top of the other things profs are expected to do – teaching, research, service, and now, increasingly, administrative tasks (we are expected to write reports yearly on how we involve students in volunteer work and such), there comes a point where it just breaks a person, where you realize you’re doing everything half-assed because you are trying to do so much.

  15. When I first saw Joanne’s post I thought it was about all the fools who take out loans to go to college only to drop out…

    As for the actual post… the social experience at colleges is one of the most insulated and non-realistic experiences in existence that would only serve to prevent the intellectually disabled from being able to function in society. College should in no way be a cultural experience as it has become… this has derailed the purpose of a college education.

    Doug – “For starters, the number of slots that are afforded under these programs will be totally insignificant when considering the overall student population.”

    I have seen individual ID students in public schools who are effectively responsible for the hiring of three staff members. The student to funding and student to staff ratios for disabled students are way out of whack compared to the average student.

  16. Super sub, you’re right that the college social experience is a far cry from normal social life (and from the social lives of non-college-attending young people in the same age group). Plus, to me sending ID youth to college is a huge case, as Michael Lopez said, of mission creep. It arises, I think, from the “if the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail” problem. If college becomes the default mode for young adults, then we decide that what ID young adults need is college. Instead, we need to be looking at the actual needs of young adults with ID, and designing programs that more closely meet those needs.

  17. Cardinal Fang says:

    ricki, What are you saying here? That it would be so much easier if I didn’t have Them in my classroom? We should stick Them somewhere where nice people like me don’t have to deal with them? If not that, what?

    It’s one thing to say that a person with a developmental disability shouldn’t be in your classroom because that person is unable to learn what you are teaching– which, I imagine, is true of a lot of students with Downs. It’s quite another to say people with disabilities, in general, are inconvenient and you want to have classrooms free of them.

  18. Cardinal –
    Just about every college student in Ricki’s classes is paying large sums of money to be there to learn. If a disabled student’s condition causes routine classroom disruption or causes the professor to teach the class in a manner that the professor does not feel adequately educates the whole class, the disabled student should not be in that classroom.
    This is not to say that the student should not be able to learn the same material… just that to force them into a classroom designed for non-disabled students serves no one.

  19. Joanne provides more evidence that the K-PhD industry in the US is first and foremost a make-work program for public-sector employees.

  20. A college campus is not a substitute for adult daycare. This sort of program is ruinous for the reputation of any college which tries it. Either a college offers college-level academics, or it isn’t a real college. There isn’t a middle ground. Effectively, the government is paying people to ruin the reputation and efficacy of public universities. Brilliant. (meant sarcastically.)

  21. For those concerned about mission creep, and the role of colleges in society, I submit the Columbia, Rutgers, University of California, and BMCC mission statements for your consideration:

    Columbia University
    Columbia University is one of the world’s most important centers of research and at the same time a distinctive and distinguished learning environment for undergraduates and graduate students in many scholarly and professional fields. The University recognizes the importance of its location in New York City and seeks to link its research and teaching to the vast resources of a great metropolis. It seeks to attract a diverse and international faculty and student body, to support research and teaching on global issues, and to create academic relationships with many countries and regions. It expects all areas of the university to advance knowledge and learning at the highest level and to convey the products of its efforts to the world.

    As the sole comprehensive public research university in the state’s system of higher education, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, has the threefold mission of:
    • providing for the instructional needs of New Jersey’s citizens through its undergraduate, graduate, and continuing education programs;
    • conducting the cutting-edge research that contributes to the medical, environmental, social and cultural well-being of the state, as well as aiding the economy and the state’s businesses and industries; and
    • performing public service in support of the needs of the citizens of the state and its local, county, and state governments.

    University of California
    “The distinctive mission of the University is to serve society as a center of higher learning, providing long-term societal benefits through transmitting advanced knowledge, discovering new knowledge, and functioning as an active working repository of organized knowledge. That obligation, more specifically, includes undergraduate education, graduate and professional education, research, and other kinds of public service, which are shaped and bounded by the central pervasive mission of discovering and advancing knowledge.”
    — from the University of California Academic Plan, 1974-1978

    Borough of Manhattan Community College
    As one of twenty-three colleges within The City University of New York, BMCC shares CUNY’s mission to preserve academic excellence and extend higher educational opportunity to a diversified urban population. In addition, Borough of Manhattan Community College is dedicated to providing general, liberal arts, career education and continuing education programs, relevant to the needs, interests and aspirations of students of all ages.
    The College is committed to offering quality education in pluralistic urban environment, to fostering excellence in teaching, to facilitate the enhancement of learning, and to sustaining full access to higher education for those who seek fulfillment of personal, career or socioeconomic goals. BMCC is also committed to providing collaborative programs and services responsive to the educational, cultural and recreational needs of the community.
    Consistent with its stated mission, the College supports the following goals:
    • To provide higher education to a diverse urban constituency in support of CUNY’s policy of open admissions.
    • To provide a collegiate environment conducive to the advancement and reinforcement of teaching and learning.
    • To provide all students with a level of proficiency in basic skills to assure their readiness for, and likely success in, college and the workplace.
    • To enable and encourage students to make sensible and informed choices in setting their academic, career and personal goals.
    • To provide for all students a general education that fosters personal development, intellectual curiosity and critical thinking to enhance informed and effective participation in society.
    • To promote multicultural awareness and understanding in our college community and respect for pluralism and diversity in our society.
    • To prepare liberal arts and career students for transfer to four-year colleges.
    • To prepare students in career programs for employment and career mobility.
    • To encourage lifelong learning independent of degree programs.
    • To enhance cultural, recreational and social life of the community.
    • To maintain a governance structure that facilitates the participation of faculty, administrators, and students in the life of the College and encourages contributions and involvement by alumni and advisory groups.

  22. Doug,

    I urge all the elitists who’ve commented to expand their notion of what a college could be.

    As the parent of future college students, I’m not paying for a college degree which isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on. Expropriating flagship state universities as college experience camps for the intellectually disabled will drive real college students away.

    Public expenditures have reached unsustainable levels. The only question now is, which state will default on its debt first? As a taxpayer, funding college classes for students who have no hope of receiving a degree, and paying administrators high salaries to administer these programs, strike me as the definition of frivolous spending.

    You may call me a hard-hearted elitist if you will. The argument for public support of education is not that it makes everyone feel so virtuous. We are entering a time in which students who can do the work won’t be able to afford college–and the state won’t be able to pay for it.

    This is, however, good evidence of the sort of wasteful programs which got us into this fix.

  23. Doug – not sure how posting the mission statements of the three universities helped your point given that they talk about cutting edge research and learning at the ‘highest’ level. Even the CC talks about either preparing students for the workforce or admission to 4-year schools. No where do the mission statements discuss experiencing the college culture and socialization as you and disability advocates promote. The emphasis is on higher learning, which ID individuals are unfortunately not capable of.

  24. Cardinal Fang says:

    SuperSub, the community college lists this as one of its goals: ” BMCC is also committed to providing collaborative programs and services responsive to the educational, cultural and recreational needs of the community.”

    Seems to me people with disabilities have “educational, cultural and recreational needs” just like the rest of the community.

  25. But it never says that it will be providing them an opportunity to sit in class with the general population.

  26. So college isn’t about an actual degree or learning or education? It’s about an “experience”? Why not just set up CollegeLand where people can pay to live in dorms, eat cafeteria food, go to football games and stay up all night?

  27. The ed world never disappoints me; each successive bad/silly/irresponsible idea is succeeded by a worse one.

    First, there are already far too many “regular” kids in college who do not have the preparation and/or motivation necessary for college-level work. That’s been true for decades (one of my best friends was an example), but it keeps getting worse. In some areas, it is career suicide for a non-tenured teacher to suggest that any kid is not college material.

    Second, many of the intellectually disabled do not even belong in regular k-12 classes and/or schools, as has been said above. Not everyone has the ability for academic work, at least beyond very basic literacy. The necessity for ability and motivation is recognized in sports and the arts and is completely ignored in schools. No matter the effort, I never had the possibility of playing college basketball, being a decent pianist or doing many other things. Let’s stop the make-believe; in the current economic environment, we can’t afford it.

  28. Rutgers is the most explicit in that they recognize the greater good a university can provide for the citizens of the state:

    • providing for the instructional needs of New Jersey’s citizens through its undergraduate, graduate, and continuing education programs;
    • performing public service in support of the needs of the citizens of the state and its local, county, and state governments.

    However, I believe all of the schools mission is about transmitting learning and knowledge for students. I assume that in the United States, now and looking forward, this is an inclusionary statement until otherwise notified (note to self: commentors on this list may be serving notice).

    How great it would be if Harvard or Yale or SUNY Oswego, or any of the U of A’s, developed a breakthrough program that provides for the educational needs of intellectually disabled students to function in society at a higher level, and remove some of the stigmatism that is associated with their disabilities. That would be a fantastic public service and serve a swath of society that is underserved. Doesn’t that make more sense that crank out another lawyer?

  29. There is a lot more to the college experience than just getting a degree. it’s about learning to cope in the ‘real’ world, working with others, and getting job experience–whether that is a job that requires a degree or not.

  30. Doug,
    You’re assuming that its possible to educate mentally retarded students to a higher level, when all the objective medical knowledge says otherwise. It would be nice to teach dogs to read too, but its not going to happen.