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Colorado expands inclusive higher education programs for students with intellectual disabilities

MSU to introduce intellectual disability program
MSU to introduce intellectual disability program 03:35

Across Colorado, thousands of students are heading off to college, including a growing number of students with intellectual disabilities.

Seven years ago, Colorado was one of only three states that didn't have an inclusive higher education program. Today it has four programs thanks to IN Pathways to Inclusive Higher Education.

In 2016, the nonprofit lobbied the state legislature to approve funding for three pilot programs at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs, the University of Northern Colorado, and Arapahoe Community College, and last year secured funding for an additional program at Regis University.

The programs, which are designed to give students with intellectual disabilities the full college experience, have been so successful, state lawmakers have now approved additional money for programs at Metro State University of Denver and Colorado State University in Fort Collins.

Grace Arnold of Evergreen is among 80 students who are enrolled in an inclusive higher education program this year. She was admitted to UCCS in 2019.

"It was like, 'Oh my God I can't believe it's real. I'm stepping into my dream,'" Arnold said.    

Arnold - who is studying Science and Nutrition - juggles three classes a semester, in addition to club activities, a job as a campus tour guide, and volunteer work at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo.

"This is literally the best experience," Arnold said.

The program also teaches students how to live on their own. Arnold shares an apartment with three roommates, which she admits isn't always fun. 

Dr. Christy Kasa, director of UCCS's program, says conflicts with roommates are part of college life.

"But the office of inclusive services is there to provide the coaching and support as they would need it," Kasa said. 

While students graduate with a Comprehensive Higher Education Certificate instead of a Bachelor's degree, Kasa says there are high expectations.

"We absolutely have to change our expectations. We have to presume competence. We have to have high expectation for people with disabilities and know that if we shift what we expect then they can achieve it," Kasa said.

Arnold will graduate next spring and plans to be a zookeeper.

"Being a senior is literally gifted. ... I can't believe this is happening," Arnold said. 

44 students have graduated from inclusive education programs in Colorado since 2016. 

IN! Pathways to Inclusive Higher Education says 75% of them have gone to get jobs, most of them in their fields of study which include education, computer technology, art, communication, human resources and more. 

The nonprofit hopes to launch programs on campuses in rural Colorado within the next couple years.

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