Nicole Foley dreams of going to college so she can take classes with other young students, stay in a dorm, and learn how to live and work on her own.
But the options are limited for the 19-year-old from North Andover, who despite having an intellectual disability attended mainstream classes in high school.
“It’s been very difficult,’’ said Gloria Foley, Nicole’s mother. “I found it really shocking that here in Massachusetts, where we have the best of the best in education talent, we have such limited options. We should be on the cutting edge and show other states how to do this.’’
Advocates say the state has made progress in primary and secondary education over the past few years for students with intellectual disabilities, but more needs to be done for college inclusion.
“The current options are very limited for young adults with intellectual disabilities as well as autism,’’ said Julia Landau, senior project director at Massachusetts Advocates for Children. “We know that going on to higher education is a critical requirement to get a job. The limited options in Massachusetts have direct implications on their ability to have paid employment and live as independently as possible.’’
An intellectual disability is characterized by significant limitations in both intellectual functioning and in adaptive behavior, such as learning everyday social and practical skills.
To help explore additional options, the state created the Task Force on College Inclusion for Students with Intellectual/Developmental Disabilities earlier this year. The task force has been holding hearings throughout the state this fall soliciting feedback from the public about how students with disabilities could be educated alongside non-disabled peers in college. Members include lawmakers, higher education officials, and disability advocates.
Supporters say inclusion helps students discern their own interests, needs, and strengths, become advocates for their own choices and decisions around academic, social, and work activities, acquire career and life skills, and participate in college life like their peers and siblings.
State Representative Tom Sannicandro, an Ashland Democrat who is heading the task force, said inclusion is the norm for kindergarten through high school so college should be no different. One of the biggest challenges, he said, is educating the public about why intellectually disabled students should have that access.
“When students hit 18, they hit a barrier that doesn’t exist for other kids,’’ Sannicandro said. “By creating barriers to higher education, we’re limiting their ability to get a job and be better equipped for life. I’m trying to change the dynamic and say higher education offers opportunities to everyone and we want to give that access to them. It’s time we gave these students the same access we give everyone else.’’
Sannicandro said some of the state universities and community colleges offer classes through the Inclusive Concurrent Enrollment grant pilot program that was started about six years ago.
Colleges partner with local school districts, which are required to provide education until age 22, to offer classes and a campus experience to students between the age of 18 and 22 who have severe disabilities and have not passed the MCAS graduation test. He said there are between 2,000 and 3,000 students in Massachusetts that fit that profile.
In Massachusetts, Bridgewater State University, Westfield State University, University of Massachusetts Amherst, University of Massachusetts Boston, and MassBay, Bunker Hill, Roxbury, and Holyoke community colleges participate.
Lesley University in Cambridge also offers a program for intellectually disabled students on campus. While the program has its own curriculum and students have their own housing to fit their needs, such as a large kitchen where they can learn to cook, officials say students take part in typical campus life, including athletics.
Lesley sees it as a way to provide college access to students who may not otherwise have the opportunity, said Lesley president Joe Moore. Lesley is renovating the four buildings it has for the 68 students, and then plans to invite institutions from around the country to see how it works.
“We can’t grow the program, yet we know from the families we serve that there needs to be more of these programs around and different variations,’’ Moore said.
Officials and advocates say the existing programs have been very successful but are limited, which is why they are looking to see what else can be done, not only at public but private universities.
“What we’re learning is that there is certainly a tremendous demand for these kinds of opportunities,’’ said Dana Mohler-Faria, president of Bridgewater State University and a task force member. “I’m hopeful the results of the task force and the results of what we’re doing on some of the campuses will demonstrate it makes a big difference and we’ll get the support for these students.’’
Bridgewater State has been participating in the inclusion program for two years and is already looking to expand from its 19 students, said Mohler-Faria. He also said the school will be starting a pilot program next year that will allow some students to live on campus.
“It’s our belief that everyone has the capacity to learn so we have to set expectations for that and allow them to go to their highest potential,’’ Mohler-Faria said.
Students participating in the Inclusive Concurrent Enrollment Program aren’t necessarily taking classes for college credit, but they are getting academic and social experience that will better prepare them for an independent life, Landau said.
Most of those who don’t go to college take part in segregated life skills classrooms or vocational training, Landau said.
“By opening the doors of higher education, these students are able to continue to be educated alongside peers and gain not the just the content skills but to learn self-advocacy skills, how to navigate public transportation and social skills needed to live on their own,’’ Landau said.
“Are you going to help prepare this population of our citizens to live and work in the community or do we stay with the status quo, which is living and working in a segregated way?’’
Gloria Foley said her daughter, Nicole, learned alongside mainstream students in high school and is eager to do the same in college. She would also like to live on campus. The problem is, they can’t find a program. She is taking classes at Cape Cod Community College now while finishing up at the Riverview School in Sandwich. She lives in an off-campus dorm in Hyannis.
Foley said they’ve traveled to Wisconsin, Vermont and all over Massachusetts, but nothing is close enough or fits her daughter’s desire for inclusion.
“My dream is to go to college and be a lifelong learner,’’ Nicole Foley wrote in an essay last year. “Many people have low expectations of individuals with an intellectual disability. I want to change that perception by setting my expectations high and overcoming all barriers that stand in my way of college! If I can’t get over the fence that is my barrier, then I will find a way around it.’’
Jennifer Fenn Lefferts can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.