Julia Gault fell in love with Texas A&M University as a high school student when she went to a football game with her dad, who also attended the university.
“I did really want to go college, like really bad,” said Gault, 26. “I mean, everyone else wanted to. I was like, ‘I want to, too.’”
Gault, who has a disability that can make it hard to read, had tried an extended special education program for students with disabilities, but she didn’t like it very much. Today, she’s happy to be studying at Texas A&M through a program for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
Colleges have not always been inclusive of people with disabilities. People with hearing, visual, or other physical or cognitive disabilities who needed additional accommodations were often denied admission into college programs or were institutionalized away from society.
Colleges now can’t discriminate against people with disabilities and must provide “reasonable accommodations,” such as offering note takers, providing written supplements, making classrooms accessible or recording lectures.
And in 2008, the Higher Education Opportunity Act opened up federal financial aid for the first time for students with intellectual disabilities in certain programs.
Today, there are accommodations and college and career programs designed for students with disabilities to live independently, work and participate in their communities.
“In more recent years, what has dramatically changed, I think, is an effort to get more students with intellectual and other developmental disabilities — so students with some more challenges — into higher education,” Patton said.
Higher levels of education are associated with higher employment rates for people with and without disabilities, and several studies have found that most people with disabilities tend to get jobs after completing postsecondary education programs.
But navigating the programs and available resources can be tricky because students in some programs may only qualify for either state or federal financial assistance, depending on the type of program they pursue. Here’s more information about the options available to Texans and how to find the best fit.
Resources during and after secondary school
In kindergarten through 12th grade, public schools are responsible for identifying students with disabilities and those who may need modifications to curriculum and programs in order to succeed.
In Texas, public school staff must begin exploring postsecondary options for students with disabilities and individualized education programs when students are around 14, according to Texas law. Transition services must be included in a student’s individualized education program by the time they’re 16 years old, according to federal law. Learn more about transition services through the Texas Education Agency’s website or by contacting your school.
It’s important for families to look at options and ask questions early to find the best fit for a student and to prepare for changes, Patton said.
Many universities and colleges have departments that help enrolled students with disabilities, including mental health or developmental conditions, but students are responsible for identifying their disabilities and needed accommodations.
College accommodations may also be less extensive than in schools because individualized education programs are not required after high school, and different laws define disability rights in schools and colleges. Here’s more information from Think College, a national assistance center for students with intellectual disabilities, about the differences in the laws and requirements. You can also learn more about your rights to accommodations through Disability Rights Texas.
Accommodations won’t be enough for every student. Here are some programs designed for students with developmental or intellectual disabilities who may qualify for state or federal financial assistance.
Job training programs
Job training programs prepare students to get jobs, usually in specific occupations and can include industry certifications. And if a program is approved by the Texas Workforce Commission, the costs may be covered by funding for students who have disabilities that seriously limit their functional skills, such as mobility, communication, interpersonal skills or work skills. To learn more about who can qualify for this funding, look up and contact your local Vocational Rehabilitation Office through this website.
E4Texas at UT-Austin is one of the job training programs designed to be more accessible for people with disabilities, including developmental or intellectual disabilities.
In E4, students prepare for jobs as personal care attendants, child care associates or teacher assistants. During the three-semester program, students take specialized classes at UT-Austin’s campus, audit other UT courses, volunteer and get work experience.
It offers extra support from staff for students with disabilities, but it is also open to students without disabilities.
Twenty-year-old Ayala Montgomery of Dallas has an intellectual disability that sometimes makes it hard for her to comprehend words when she’s reading. She said one of the reasons she joined E4 was to connect with fellow students with disabilities.
“I also wanted to help people that actually struggle with disabilities, like, to let them know that you’re not alone, and there’s many people just like you that struggle with the same things day to day,” Montgomery said. “I wanted to leave an impact.”
In her personal care attendant class, she has learned skills like how to help people get out of a wheelchair and about the support network available to people with disabilities. She also has been assisting older people by volunteering with AGE of Central Texas.
E4 students also live on campus and get help from program staff to live independently and participate in the community, said Joe Tate, E4’s program manager. At the end, students receive certificates of completion and can go on to get specific job certifications, but they do not get college credits. E4 students are not eligible for federal financial aid. But students with disabilities may qualify for financial help from the Texas Workforce Commission to pay for the program, Tate said.
E4 accepts 10 to 15 students every summer. The program costs $8,000 per semester. That does not include housing.
Other job training programs open to students with disabilities in the state include:
The PATHS Certificate Program at Texas A&M University, which prepares students to get jobs supporting people with disabilities or working with children. It lasts two years, and up to 15 students will be accepted per year beginning this year. Updated program costs are still being determined, according to program staff.
HOPS, a two-semester program at Texas A&M University, in which students earn credentials for jobs in greenhouse nursery, landscape management or floral design. The program admits up to 25 students. It also requires a six-week summer program at Texas A&M for adults with a disability. The prerequisite program costs about $13,776.50, including housing and food. Tuition for each semester of the program costs about $10,000 but does not include housing or food costs.
The STEPS program at Austin Community College, in which students with disabilities can prepare to work or continue to study. The program takes two years on average and offers pathways to additional ACC courses to work in jobs such as administrative assistant, teaching assistant and office medical support. The program accepts 30 students and typically costs $1,790 per semester.
Comprehensive transition programs
Comprehensive transition and postsecondary programs, known as CTPs, are for students with intellectual disabilities. Students in these programs spend at least half of their time taking classes or participating in internships or work-based training with people without disabilities. This designation also allows students to receive federal financial aid. Learn more about CTP requirements here.
These programs are also meant to prepare students for jobs, but they usually offer a broader, structured curriculum for work and life skills, rather than focusing on a specific career or field of study. Many also cater learning opportunities, such as courses or internships, to students’ individual interests.
In Texas, the programs usually do not lead to degrees, but students are given certificates of completion by the university or college.
Texas A&M’s program, Aggie ACHIEVE, is open to students who are 18 to 27 years old and have a documented intellectual disability or autism. The program lasts up to four years.
Students in the interdisciplinary program can take select noncredit courses, take physical education courses and participate in student life at A&M. The students have access to graduate assistants who help them navigate classes and live on their own.
Initially, students live on campus. They get residential mentors who spend five to nine hours a week with them during freshman year, said Heather Dulas, the program director. As juniors, the students move off campus and can live on their own or have roommates. When they finish, students receive certificates from the university. The program is approved by the U.S. Department of Education, but students do not get college credit for most of their courses.
Gault, the student who fell in love with A&M after a football game, has learned how to navigate her schedule and chores, like doing her laundry, through Aggie ACHIEVE. Now she works at a small-animal hospital and wants to become a veterinary assistant, she said.
“It’s amazing, so much fun,” she said. “You will get used to the campus, and they will help you, like, find classes. They help us with homework and stuff that we have trouble with.”
Christian Anguiano, a 23-year-old from San Antonio in Aggie ACHIEVE, has interned as a research assistant for an entomology professor, looking at how insect farming could create a sustainable food supply. He also traveled to Washington, D.C., to present his research. He wants to be a pharmacist technician but said going to college has been important for him.
“You get an amount of experience in things you want to do for your career,” he said.
The programs at Texas A&M and UNT cost over $30,000 per year, including the required on-campus housing for the first two years.
UNT’s program, ELEVAR, admits 10 to 12 students every year and is four years long. Students take UNT courses (not for credit) and participate in paid internships based on their interests. They also take other classes designed to meet their needs in areas like career planning, financial literacy, and health and wellness.
Texas generally does not provide state financial aid for college to non-degree-seeking students, so the programs rely on tuition and additional program fees to operate and offer students additional support, said Brenda Barrio, the UNT ELEVAR faculty lead and an associate professor of special education.
Students can apply for federal grants and work-study jobs through the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, form. UNT ELEVAR has also used donations to create scholarships for some students, and most students in UNT’s program now get some financial help from the Texas Workforce Commission, Barrio said.
The Houston Community College’s VAST Academy has three campuses that can serve up to 55 students and a smaller online cohort, said Sue Moraska, the director of the program. Tuition for the two-year program costs $1,036 per semester, she said, and some students have gotten financial support from the Texas Workforce Commission. The classes focus on skills such as communication, work etiquette, budgeting and being comfortable using computers, Moraska said.
Texas A&M-San Antonio’s TU CASA program lasts 18 months and costs about $2,019 per semester, according to the program’s website. The program addresses academic, work and life skills and accepts applications from students in San Antonio, Bexar County and adjacent areas, according to the website.
There are other programs that are not CTPs that also allow students with disabilities to take or audit courses at public or private colleges. For example, the LifePATH program at Lone Star College offers options for students with disabilities to get an associate’s degree (eligible for financial aid), complete a foundational skills certificate (not for credit) or receive additional support while taking other traditional college classes for credit.
Scholarships, tuition waivers or other funding may also be available to help students cover costs for a program or college classes.
These job training and college programs offer additional accommodations, but they are still competitive and require diligence from students, according to program leaders. Programs at universities or colleges may require application processing fees. Most application fees range from $15-$50. The HOPS, STEPS and VAST Academy programs do not require application fees.
Students with disabilities applying to the programs should be fairly independent and interested in the learning opportunities.
“You have to be able to take care of your medical needs, dietary needs, safe-navigating from place to place,” said Dulas, the Aggie ACHIEVE program director. “If you wouldn’t be able to spend a weekend or a week alone in your own home, you may not be ready yet to be on a college campus.”
If a student is not yet at that level of independence or is not admitted the first time they apply to a program, students and their families can reapply or look at other programs they may qualify for.
“It doesn’t mean never,” Dulas said. “It means maybe give your student a little bit of room to grow and build some skills and some more self-confidence and then come in.”
When exploring options, students and families should consider whether a program aligns with the student’s goals and needs, including whether a program offers residential support for students to live independently.
Programs can also serve as stepping stones to other opportunities, said Moraska, the director of the VAST Academy in Houston. She said 10% to 15% of the program’s students every year have gone on to get certificates or associate degrees.
“Once they start in a program, they have that opportunity to go to college, and they’re successful,” she said. “They become more self-determined, and they want to go on and do more.”
Programs like Aggie ACHIEVE and UNT ELEVAR are new, so data on students’ employment outcomes after graduation is not yet available. At UNT, all 10 students in the program in the spring were working paid internships, said Barrio, the program’s faculty lead. A few students also left the program.
From 2018 to Dec. 6, 2022, 45.5% of students with disabilities who went through job training programs with financial support from the Texas Workforce Commission had gotten jobs in line with their individualized employment plans, according to the commission.
Students who have completed PATHS or E4 also say the programs taught them independence and self-advocacy in addition to job skills.
“It opened the doors for me to go to college and graduate from A&M, and then now I’m able to work for a similar program,” said Shelbi Davenport, who has a physical disability due to a rare genetic disorder that can cause trouble walking and with coordination. She completed the PATHS program in 2015 and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in leadership studies in 2020. She now works for the HOPS program at A&M.
If you want to learn more about a program and how to pay for it, contact program staff or your local Vocational Rehabilitation Office for job training programs.
Think College lists more of the programs available for people with intellectual disabilities and has more resources for students and families, including plain-language guides on choosing a program and getting financial aid.
Disclosure: Houston Community College, Texas A&M University, the University of North Texas, Lone Star College and the University of Texas at Austin have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
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