Here is a new trend: college for people who can’t read or write. And no, that doesn’t mean the one out of three freshmen whose literacy and numeracy skills are so poor that they have to take remedial courses before they are deemed ready to do college-level work. It means students who literally can’t read or write because they are severely cognitively impaired by Down syndrome or some other mental disability. Yet an increasing number of campus administrators have decided that even the “intellectually disabled” (as this group is now called) deserve a college education.
Well, not exactly a college education, since even the most egalitarian administrators concede that people with severe cognitive disabilities can’t handle even the most rudimentary of course offerings. Instead, what a host of new programs for the intellectually disabled offer is what the people who run them call “a college experience.”
Some 250 campuses around the country offer such courses. Students enrolled in the programs sit in on a class or two per semester that regular students are taking for credit, but they don’t receive grades, and their assignments are drastically tailored to fit their limited abilities. Batteries of counselors and tutors (the latter are typically volunteers from the regular student population) help them through, and they fill up the rest of their time with “life skills” seminars and workshops designed to help them use a debit card, take the bus, or get through a job interview, with internships at participating nonprofits, and, presumably, with making friends and soaking up the ivy-covered atmosphere. They don’t receive actual college degrees—indeed, according to the U.S. Department of Education, no student enrolled in any college program for the intellectually disabled has to date received even a two-year associate degree—but if they complete their programs in a process that can take years, they typically receive certificates of completion that they can show to prospective employers.
The “college experience” programs represent the latest step in the concept of “mainstreaming” the disabled, including the cognitively disabled, in a process that began in 1973. That’s when Congress passed the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act , or IDEA), which established the right to a public-school education for disabled children. A companion law, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, along with the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990, outlawed discrimination against the handicapped. Many school districts accordingly dismantled their special-education classes for cognitively impaired youngsters and began seating those children in regular classrooms alongside children of normal abilities, all the way from kindergarten through high school. When those classmates went on to college, their cognitively impaired peers wanted to go, too. As Elise McMillan, co-director of the Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities at Vanderbilt University, which began what it calls a “Next Step” program for intellectually disabled young people this year, told the Chronicle of Higher Education, “[T]hey have the same dreams and aspirations as their brothers and sisters and other students.”
Such sentimental linguistic trafficking in “dreams and aspirations” and “a college experience” in contrast to actual college can be viewed as a harmless if expensive exercise in philanthropy by university administrators—although it does help dilute the value and meaning of a college education, already threatened by grade inflation and the collapse of core curricula. It would be more honest to describe the programs as charity rather than college. The programs may also do some psychological good for the ultra-select group of people they serve (the Vanderbilt program, for example, enrolls only five students at a time). They also likely teach the volunteer tutors and classmates of the cognitively impaired important lessons in compassion for their less fortunate fellow human beings. But it is hard to assess their practical value. Although advocates cite studies showing that intellectually disabled students who complete some sort of postsecondary education earn 1.7 times more per week than their peers who receive no postsecondary education, no students or administrators interviewed by the Chronicle or other newspapers pinpointed any specific better-paying jobs offered to enrollees in the programs. One cannot help but wonder whether the programs simply help cognitively impaired students coast along at their parents’ (or university) expense in a respectable academic setting instead of going to work at the low-prestige jobs for which their limited abilities qualify them.
More alarmingly, although the programs in the past have been funded largely by state grants and private donations (as well as the tuition paid by their enrollees), the federal government is poised to dump large amounts of taxpayer money into them. In 2008 Congress extended federally guaranteed loans and Pell grants for low-income students to intellectually disabled students enrolled in transition, learning-skills and other “college experience” programs. Another 2008 law provides for federal grants to institutions of higher learning that set up such programs.
Worst of all, the programs have generated a litigious entitlement mentality on the part of beneficiaries and their parents. Take the case of Micah Fialka-Feldman, who enrolled in 2003 in the “OPTIONS” program for the intellectually disabled set up by Oakland University in Rochester, Mich. By all accounts Fialka-Feldman, although an extroverted young man who participated in many high school activities as he was mainstreamed along, could neither read nor write. The Wall Street Journal described him as having “a cognitive impairment” that interfered with his ability to acquire literacy. After four years of participating in OPTIONS and taking tutor-assisted classes without acquiring any sort of certificate, Fialka-Feldman decided in 2007 that he wanted to live in a dormitory on the Oakland campus instead of commuting the twenty miles from his home by bus (he said he was inspired by his younger sister’s move into a dormitory at Mt. Holyoke College). “I just wanted to be able to live with my friends and have the total college experience,” he later told a newspaper reporter.
When the university balked at this demand, saying that its dorms were reserved for full-time students enrolled in four-year degree programs rather than part-timers like Fialka-Feldman who typically lived in off-campus apartments, the young man sued the university under the 1973 Rehabilitation Act. He availed himself of free legal services provided by Michigan Protection and Advocacy Inc., a public-interest law firm. In December 2009 a federal judge ruled that Oakland had violated his rights under the 1973 law and ordered the university to allow him to move into a dorm room in January 2010. The judge also ordered Oakland to pay $102,000 in legal fees to Michigan Protection and Advocacy. By then Fialka-Feldman was 25 years old, well past the graduation age of most on-campus students. He completed the OPTIONS program in June after a single semester of dorm life and some seven years after enrolling at Oakland. The university is appealing the ruling.
The Fialka-Feldman lawsuit suggests that what began as a well-intentioned service for cognitively impaired young people who felt disappointed that they could not get into college has hardened into unrealistic expectations that can spell legal trouble for colleges who set up the programs. A recent article on the US News website about such programs was followed by angry comments from parents of intellectually disabled students taking issue with critics who questioned the programs’ usefulness or propriety.
“Should [my daughter] work at Walmart and live below the poverty level for the rest of her life?” wrote one mother. Wrote another: “Why should [my daughter] have to wait on me at McDonald’s”? Those comments said a lot—about upper-middle-class disdain for honest but entry-level service work and about the kind of employment for which those with severe cognitive disabilities can realistically qualify even with the best of “life-skills” coaching on a college campus. Such are the perils of deciding to offer a “college experience,” or indeed college itself, to people who lack the intellectual qualifications to benefit from higher education.