Higher Education and Opportunities Act Allows New Opportunities for Individuals with ASD
For the neurotypical population preparing for post-secondary education, a significant rite of passage is filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and indicating the colleges of their choice. The FAFSA form is required for a student to be eligible for any type of federal aid and virtually all colleges require that students apply for federal aid before being considered for any state or private financial aid. All federal aid, and just about all other types of aid, requires that the student be enrolled full time in a degree-bearing program at an accredited college or university.
The path to post-secondary education funding is less clear for students on the autism spectrum. Many students on the spectrum are not yet ready to enroll full time in a degree-bearing program. This in the past has precluded them from participating in the FAFSA process and from receiving the grants associated with it. The 2009 reauthorization of the Higher Education and Opportunities Act (PL 110-315) opens new possibilities for students with an intellectual disability to receive support for a variety of higher education opportunities. Under the new provisions of the Act, it is possible for a student with an intellectual disability to be eligible for Pell Grants, Supplemental Education Opportunities Grants and the Federal Work Study program if they are enrolled in a “comprehensive transition and postsecondary program for students with intellectual disabilities.” The Act requires the institute of higher education offering a post-secondary transition program to already be authorized to participate in the federal financial aid programs and that the United States Department of Education approves the transition program. This means a student with intellectual disabilities like Asperger Syndrome, “high functioning autism,” or significant ADHD/ADD can now enroll in an approved college-based transition program and apply for financial assistance. They no longer need to be enrolled full-time in credit-bearing classes, nor do they need to be in a degree-bearing program.
Until now if a student in a post-secondary education program was not registered full-time in a degree-bearing or certificate program, they had few options for financial assistance. Students with ASDs and their families have had to rely upon the local school districts through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (I.D.E.A.) to fund a transition plan that would prepare the student for the world of work or higher education. However, many school districts feel that if a student has met the basic requirements of graduation in terms of the student’s ability to read, write and do arithmetic, then their legal obligation has been met. They fail to understand that students on the autism spectrum need assistance in learning independent living skills and need remediation in their deficits in executive functioning. Families often must hire an educational advocate or attorney to compel the school district to provide funding for a transition program.
If the families of students on the autism spectrum fail in their attempt to secure funding from the school district or their student has already graduated from high school, then families must attempt to secure funding from state offices of vocational rehabilitative services or state office of developmental disabilities. This can be a difficult and arduous process. Vocational Rehabilitative Services may state that they provide these services already; however, their focus is not upon the aspects of the world of work most vital to students with ASDs. Most offices will not provide assistance with issues concerning independent living or social skills that many transitional programs provide. Departments of disability services may be reluctant to provide funding for transition programs for higher functioning individuals with average to superior intellectual abilities without clear documentation that the student’s adaptive functioning is delayed.
Since the regulations governing the implementation of the legislation where only finalized in fall of 2009, institutes of higher education with an existing transition program, or those considering initiating one, are only now in the process of applying for recognition. As of this past August, no program had yet received approval from the Department of Education. If families or self-advocating individuals are considering a post-secondary transition program as an option for the future it will be important to ask any prospective programs about their status with the Department of Education.
Advocates should be aware of some important definitions and criteria in the new legislation. In order to be eligible for an approved program a student must meet the legislative criteria for having an intellectual disability, and it is required that currently or in the past the student was deemed eligible for special education or related services by a local education agency. The federal regulations allow for a rather broad definition of intellectual disability and leave it to the discretion of the individual transition program to identify what definition they will use.
The passage of the Higher Education Opportunities Act is welcome relief for families of higher functioning individuals on the autism spectrum. The financial aid that may become available is still minimal at this point, but it is an important beginning. By providing financial support for these families, to help pay for post-secondary transition programs, we are increasing the odds that students with a diagnosis of an Autism Spectrum Disorder will be able to have access to a college education and secure meaningful employment.
Paul Cavanagh, PhD, MSW is the Director of Academics and Evaluation at New York Institute of Technology Vocational Independence Program. Ernst VanBergeijk, PhD, MSW is the Associate Dean and Executive Director at New York Institute of Technology Vocational Independence Program.