Smoother transitions to higher ed

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In Massachusetts, higher education opportunities are opening up for students with autism and intellectual disabilities.

New legislation requires the state’s public colleges to provide accommodations for people whose disabilities have impeded them from earning a standard high school diploma. This means these students can take classes and participate in extracurricular activities as nondegree-seeking students without having to pass a college entrance exam, meet GPA requirements and pass other barriers to admission.

Editor’s note: This article is the second of two focusing on how community colleges serve students with intellectual disabilities.

Massachusetts Bay Community College President David Podell advocated for the legislation. He has a background in psychology, with a specialty in the area of disabilities. And his college has helped people with intellectual disabilities since before he became president.

Experiencing new opportunities

The Transitional Scholars Program (TSP) at MassBay began in 2007 to ensure all students leaving high school had the opportunity to “enjoy the benefits of going to college,” Podell says.

“Community colleges are the engines of opportunity. We don’t want any population to be left out,” he adds.

Transitional Scholars are typically between ages 18 to 22 and are either currently enrolled in their high school transition program or are transitioning from high school to postsecondary education after earning their diploma. Students take one or two college courses each semester and can stay in the program for up to three years.

While enrolled in the program, Transitional Scholars participate in campus activities, join clubs and organizations, and have full access to all MassBay supports and services. They also receive intensive support from educational coaches, both in and out of the classroom. The coaches help students with time management, executive function skills, organization, finding resources on campus and more, explains Phoebe Bustamante, MassBay’s director of accessibility resources.

Related article: Bridging gaps for students with intellectual disabilities

About 16 students participate each year, and the program is individually tailored to each Transitional Scholar. Students choose courses of interest, with the help of advisors.

“There are a lot of conversations before registration and lots of opportunity to talk about goals,” Podell says. 

Bustamante adds, “Not all students have goals to get a certificate or degree. Some have goals about being social. We accommodate both types of students.”

Guidance toward his goals

Radley Theolien has big goals: he wants to be a broadcast journalist, preferably for ESPN. The 21-year-old soccer lover has played for the New England Revolution Unified youth team. This year, he participated in Major League Soccer All-Star week in Minnesota as not only an athlete, but as an on-the-scene reporter, interviewing other athletes.

He also has specified neurodevelopmental disorder and mental health challenges. So, in 2019, when he was attending Needham High School, the Transitional Scholars Program seemed like a great next step for Theolien.

Photo: Students in MassBay’s Transitional Scholars Program and their families attend a recent orientation. (Photo: MassBay)

His mother, Yardley Theolien, says she and her husband had emphasized the importance of college to their children, and this was her son’s chance. He started with one class, and, with the help of his educational coaches, he did well, so the next semester, he took two classes.

The coaches helped him gain the “essential skills he needed to be successful in school,” Yardley says, including one important life skill: he learned how to travel to and from the campus on his own.

“He made a special bond with the coaches,” she says.

Radley says the coaches also helped him with organization skills, taking notes, time management and being focused.

“They guided me through my college career,” he says.

His favorite class was public speaking. He says he loves to talk and, “as a journalist, you have to know how to talk.”

Radley graduated the program, but he’s not really leaving MassBay. He’s starting at the college as a freshman this fall. Though he won’t have the intensive support of TSP coaches, the college helped connect him to a college navigator from Easter Seals who will work with him on a weekly basis.

“Had it not been for the Transitional Scholars Program, I don’t know whether Radley would have been able to attend college at all,” Yardley says.

MassBay did a study in 2017 to look at outcomes for the program. It found that 86% of Transitional Scholars were engaged in competitive employment after leaving the program.

Cost challenges

Although TSP has expanded access to college, the program’s cost can be challenge. When TSP first began, it was state-funded. After five years, it became self-sustaining. The comprehensive cost for services is $5,400 per semester for up to four credits (one class) and $7,900 per semester for five to seven credits (one to two classes).

Eventually, Radley had to drop back to one class a semester as a Transitional Scholar because the cost was prohibitive, Yardley says.

Podell acknowledges the issue.

“We always worry about access,” he says. Scholarships are available through MassBay’s foundation, but “there’s more work to be done.”

And while the new legislation in Massachusetts requires colleges to have programs to serve students with intellectual disabilities, “it doesn’t necessarily fund them,” Podell says. And that could limit access.  “That, to me, is troubling,” he adds.

Despite that, Podell says the law passing is a major step forward.

“Having been in this field a long time, you revel in each win,” he adds. 

About the Author

Tabitha Whissemore
Tabitha Whissemore is a contributor to Community College Daily and managing editor of AACC's Community College Journal.