Higher Learning Commission

An Innovative Postsecondary Partnership Serving Students with Intellectual Disabilities

William Cario, Wanda Routier and Carol Burns

The Benefits of a College Education

It is well known that higher education makes a difference in people’s lives (Cunningham, 2006; Pew Charitable Trusts 2013). A person who graduates from college benefits in many ways, including earning a higher income throughout his or her lifetime, being more likely to be employed, and being more likely to have benefits, such as health insurance and a pension, to name a few (Baum, Ma and Payea 2013; Pew Charitable Trusts 2013). Furthermore, adults who complete college are more likely to have upward movement in socioeconomic status, lead healthier lives, and participate more in civic activities, such as volunteering and voting (Baum, Ma and Payea 2013; Pew Charitable Trusts 2013). The American economy is also positively impacted by higher education completion rates in that adults with higher employment and better jobs and incomes increase tax revenue from their paychecks versus receiving income support from governmental programs (Baum, Ma and Payea 2013). The fall 2015 U.S. Department of Labor statistics reveal that employment for people with disabilities ages 16 to 64 decreased during three consecutive months—October, November and December—which reversed growth in employment for people with disabilities during the first eight months of 2015 (Kessler Foundation/University of New Hampshire Institute on Disability 2015). Evidence reveals that a college education experience, even a certificate program, increases employment opportunities, income, and lifestyle for adults (Baum, Ma and Payea 2013).

New Opportunities

Although the lifelong benefits of a college education are clear, some people with disabilities do not have the opportunity to attend or graduate from college. They are underrepresented and underprepared in higher education (Raue and Lewis 2011; Barber 2012; Grigal and Hart 2010). Since the Higher Education Opportunities Act Amendments of 2008 specifically opened doors to higher education for students with intellectual disabilities, there has been significant growth in higher education programming for these students. From a few scattered programs in 1990, the field has grown to more than 240 programs nationwide (Think College 2015). Recent evidence reinforces early indications that college-based programs improve life opportunities for this underserved population of students (Martinez and Queener 2010).

Pilot Program

During the 2014–15 academic year, Concordia University (CU) collaborated with Bethesda Lutheran Communities (BLC), an organization that seeks to “enhance the lives of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities” (Bethesda Lutheran Communities, n.d.), to establish a pilot project providing a postsecondary transition college learning experience for a cohort of college-age young adults with intellectual and other disabilities. Entitled “Bethesda College at Concordia University” (BC), the collaboration leverages the strengths of the two organizations to prepare cohorts of students for independent living, competitive community employment and life in society.


In 2012, BLC, recognizing the need to expand educational opportunities for persons they serve, approached CU as a potential partner. CU, seeing added diversity and opportunities for its students to grow and learn from and with this new peer group of students, agreed to explore the BC model. In fall 2014, BC enrolled its first cohort of seven students. BC is designed to meet the higher education needs of students with intellectual and other significant disabilities, including experiencing the whole range of college learning and life just as their friends, relatives and siblings do.

The Beginning

Starting a postsecondary pre-baccalaureate program like BC is a daunting task at any institution of higher learning because of the paradigm shift the campus must make about people with intellectual and other significant disabilities. Partnering with BLC, whose focus for more than 100 years has been serving persons with disabilities, added significant insight and understanding of the new students entering the campus community. CU, on the other hand, has the expertise of higher education, operating a college campus on a day-to-day basis, and the campus itself. The two organizations brought their own strengths, complementing each other to establish a unique partnership. The partnership is strengthened by a common religious background and dedication to mission.

The partnership sorted out financial and legal issues. The partners agreed that CU would provide the location for the curricular, cocurricular and dormitory living experiences for BC students. CU also agreed to promote opportunities for integrated activities between BC and CU students. The partners agreed to charge BC students Concordia tuition and room/board. Concordia takes the room/board charges to cover those student life costs and a percentage of the tuition costs to cover the indirect costs of instruction (facilities, etc.). BLC used the remaining funds to cover the costs of academic programs.

It was estimated that twenty students would be needed to make the BC program a student, program, and fiscal success. The organizations also sorted out such BC concerns as safety, legal issues, academic credit and the need for adaptations and accommodations to rules and procedures required for students with significant disabilities.

Student Experience

At the same time, the students in the program have been challenged in all ways to take on the responsibilities of a young adult and to fit in and feel a sense of belonging in the natural university environment. Through continual instruction and guidance from faculty members and peers in all areas of their lives—classes, internships and career preparation, adult living skills, socialization and community life—BC students show the campus that they are learning and contributing to the community, like their Concordia peers. BC students are also teaching CU students, faculty members and staff members in many ways. Reciprocal peer teaching across disciplines such as education, physical therapy and occupational therapy occurs as CU students learn from BC students while BC students learn from their CU peers.

Blended Model

Bethesda College utilizes a blended model of instruction centered on the intellectual, vocational, social and personal growth of its students. Group instruction and development of the whole person is emphasized and supported by individualized advising, coaching and tutoring. Person-centered planning is key. The instructional model integrates a sequence of formal instruction in four areas: Academics, Career Preparation, Adult Living Skills and Campus and Community Life.
Cario William

Each instructional area has a classroom and a practicum component. The Academics area of the instructional model has as its goal academic success and focuses on areas such as problem solving, study skills, content and literacy skills, with CU classes as the practicum. Adult Living Skills class occurs in the dormitory because that is where students live and must learn to take care of themselves, their home, and possessions. The practicum includes doing their laundry, cleaning their dormitory room and suite, taking care of their personal hygiene, managing their money and other personal responsibilities. Campus and Community Life encourages students to fully participate in campus-wide activities. Students receive credit for being an active and contributing member of the CU community. Career Preparation involves job-related skill building in application and interviewing, appropriate hygiene and appearance, communication skills, work ethic, personal responsibility and other needed skills. The internship is the practicum for Career Preparation. Students work three afternoons per week, ranging from on-campus positions their first semester to off-campus higher responsibility positions in their second year. On completion of the program, students will receive a pre-baccalaureate Certificate of Applied Learning from BLC.

Second Year

The second year of BC began in August 2015. There was a 100-percent retention rate from year one to year two. A freshman cohort of five students joined BC for its second year. There were a few revisions made during the first year of BC, and a few have been made since the first year. Students tended to be somewhat underprepared with basic skills for adult life. The BC staff added a technology course and additional skill-building sessions to improve student skills in use of technology, reading, money and writing skills. Furthermore, students had only a basic knowledge of the accommodations they used while in school, so training and exploration of accommodations was also scheduled.

Natural Environment

CU students welcomed BC students and immediately included them in all activities. This was a natural inclusion occurrence. All students, both CU and BC students, have grown up in an era when full inclusion of children and youth with disabilities is the norm. They have gone to school with each other since they were very young. Being together on a college campus merely extends that natural experience into adulthood on campus. Another important factor that is vital to a program such as BC is to take the time to develop relationships and educate key stakeholders about this student population, postsecondary college programs such as BC, and the benefits to students and adults at CU and BLC.

Looking Ahead

Continued support from the top at each organization is essential for the program. Future plans are to continue the partnership between BLC and CU, continue to improve BC as lessons are learned each year and seek funding for scholarships and program development. BLC is considering the feasibility of offering this program at other institutions.

A student says it best: “It’s still hard to get used to, but it is fun. Especially talking and hanging out with new friends, getting around campus, playing games, going to parties, and going to classes. It is a big adjustment, but it’s a good one. We’re tired, and it’s hard, but we’re getting used to being on the transition bridge to LIFE!” (Bethesda College student, interview with Carol Burns, March 2015).


Barber, P. 2012. College students with disabilities: What factors influence successful degree completion? A case study. Disability and Work research report. New Brunswick, NJ: John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development and Kessler Foundation.

Baum, S., J. Ma, and K. Payea. 2013. Education pays 2013: The benefits of higher education for individuals and society. New York: The College Board.

Bethesda Lutheran Communities. n.d. Mission, vision and values. http://bethesdalutherancommunities.org/about-us/mission-vision-values/.

Cunningham, A. 2006. The broader societal benefits of higher education. Solutions for Our Future Project. Washington, DC: Solutions for Our Future, American Council on Education.

Grigal, M., and D. Hart. 2010. Think college! Postsecondary education options for students with intellectual disabilities. Baltimore: Brookes Publishing Company.

Kessler Foundation/University of New Hampshire Institute on Disability. 2015. nTide jobs report: Employment continues to drop for people with disabilities. December 4. http://www.iod.unh.edu/About/News/15-12-04/nTIDE_Jobs_Report_Employment_Continues_to_Drop_for_People_with_

Martinez, D. C., and J. Queener. 2010. Postsecondary education for students with intellectual disabilities. Washington, DC: George Washington University HEATH Resource Center. https://heath.gwu.edu/files/downloads/pse_id_final_edition.pdf.

The Pew Charitable Trusts. 2013. How much protection does a college degree afford? Washington, DC: Author. http://www.pewtrusts.org/~/media/legacy/uploadedfiles/pcs_assets/2013/

Raue, K., and L. Lewis. 2011. Students with disabilities at degree-granting postsecondary institutions NCES 2011-018. U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office. http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2011/2011018.pdf.

Think College. 2016. Find a college. http://www.thinkcollege.net/component/programsdatabase/?view=programsdatabase&Itemid=339.


About the Authors

William Cario is Vice President of Academics, Wanda Routier is Assistant Professor, and Carol Burns is Director, Bethesda College, at Concordia University in Mequon, Wisconsin.

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