Disability advocates are calling on federal education officials to clear up what they say is misleading information that’s keeping students with intellectual disabilities from being able to attend postsecondary programs.

In a letter to U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos this month, 71 advocacy groups and other stakeholders from across the country said guidance is needed to clarify that funding available under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and through vocational rehabilitation can be used to pay for transition programs offered on college campuses.

“This guidance is critically important to support the goals of postsecondary education, employment and independent living for these students,” the letter states.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

More than 250 colleges and universities across the country offer programs for students with intellectual disabilities. Research suggests that individuals who complete such programs are three times more likely to have paid employment as compared to others with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Families often request that school districts pay for their children to enroll in postsecondary programs during their last years of eligibility under IDEA. Or, they ask for vocational rehabilitation to support young adults in such programs after they’ve left high school.

At issue now is whether or not IDEA and vocational rehabilitation funding can be used to pay for the programs.

In their letter to DeVos, disability advocates contend that federal law should allow for funding to be available. But, they say that correspondence from the Department of Education and comments from staffers in the agency’s Rehabilitation Services Administration are sending mixed messages leading some states and school districts to refuse to cover the cost of postsecondary programs.

“This is not a problem that’s happening all over. It’s in certain states and sometimes even certain districts within states,” said Stephanie Smith Lee, senior policy adviser at the National Down Syndrome Congress, who said she’s heard of issues in North Carolina, Georgia, Ohio and, most recently, Kansas.

Some families have had to withdraw students with intellectual disabilities from postsecondary programs they’ve been attending because their funding was discontinued and others have been discouraged from applying, Lee indicated.

“I think the bottom line is, what message does this send to parents and students with intellectual disabilities?” Lee said.

Rachel Mast, 19, who has Down syndrome, graduated from high school in May and plans to attend a postsecondary program for students with intellectual disabilities at Missouri State University in Springfield, Mo. starting in January. Just recently, however, her family learned that vocational rehabilitation in Kansas, where she lives, will only pay for educational programs that are for credit, essentially disqualifying most postsecondary programs which, like Missouri State, only grant certificates.

“Postsecondary programs are expensive,” said Rachel’s mom, Jawanda Mast, who is facing a $22,000 annual price tag for the Missouri State program and plans to fight the Kansas policy. “She will (go regardless), but it will be hard. It certainly would help if vocational rehabilitation would do what they’re supposed to do.”

Lee with the National Down Syndrome Congress said that her group and others aren’t asking DeVos to mandate that funds be available for students to attend postsecondary programs, but rather to make clear that the dollars can be used for this purpose. She said advocates have met with Johnny Collett, assistant secretary for special education and rehabilitative services at the Education Department, and his deputy, Kim Richey, on the issue.

“We were encouraged by these discussions, but in the meantime, more and more problems are starting to bubble up,” Lee said.

For their part, the Department of Education said they are considering the matter.

“We have been working closely with this group on these important issues and we are currently assessing the best ways to be responsive to their recommendations,” agency spokeswoman Elizabeth Hill told Disability Scoop.