Regis’ inclusive education program offers students with intellectual disabilities support through college

Regis University students gather outside for class during the first week of the 2020 fall semester.
Regis University offers students with intellectual disabilities a specialized program to realize their college dreams. (Courtesy of Regis University)

Jen Anderman loves college.

She lives on campus at Regis University, is learning about world religions like Buddhism, and took on the persona of Benjamin Franklin once to present in a class. 

Anderman, 25, always wanted to follow in her sister’s footsteps, but most colleges don’t offer programs geared toward students with intellectual disabilities who might need more support. Anderman also wanted a program that pushed her academically and allowed her to get the college experience she desired. 

Jen Anderman, right, poses for a selfie with a Regis University student housing adviser. (Regis University)

In Colorado and nationwide, most colleges don’t offer programs for students with intellectual disabilities, which includes limitations in reasoning, learning, problem solving, or social or practical skills. Those colleges that do have limited spots.

Anderman, who is a person with autism, now is living her dream. Regis University’s Global Inclusive College Certificate program has offered Anderman and four other students at the Denver Jesuit school a full college experience for about two years, plus extra support to earn their certificate. Regis’ program launched in the fall and joined several others across the state that offer support for students with intellectual disabilities.

Anderman’s mom says Jen thrives when she gets to learn with students who learn in a variety of ways. Living on campus, she’s made plenty of friends. Home is just 20 minutes away, which means she didn’t have to go far to continue her education.

The program allows Anderman to take any Regis class, which she likes. She said that so far, she has enjoyed them all.

Regis offers a certificate requiring students to complete from 12 to 30 hours of school work over the course of one or two years. The program focuses on academics, but also teaches social skills, emotional regulation, career development, and independence, according to Jeanine Coleman, the certificate programs director. The program also offers tutoring, class preparation and other help.

Coleman hopes to add several more students to the program next year, and the school has received support from the GLOBAL Down Syndrome Foundation and the Anna and John J. Sie Foundation.

Recently the school announced it received $365,000 to help provide scholarships. The scholarships are crucial for many families who never thought that their children would find a college that works for their learning style.

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“They just didn’t plan for that because they didn’t really think it was an option,” Coleman said. “There are just not very many opportunities for individuals with intellectual disabilities beyond high school.”

Statewide, the University of Northern Colorado, University of Colorado Colorado Springs, and Arapahoe Community College offer programs tailored toward students with intellectual disabilities, said Tracy Murphy, Colorado Initiative for Inclusive Higher Education executive director.

Until 2016, Colorado was one of four states nationwide that didn’t offer specific programs for students with intellectual disabilities, Murphy said. Lawmakers that year passed a law establishing specific programs for students at colleges, and last year approved grants to support new or existing programs at higher education institutions

Creating a more inclusive environment is good for students with and without intellectual disabilities, Murphy said.

Students at established programs have rushed fraternities and participated in student government, she said. They’re helping create acceptance and enabled others to see the value students with disabilities can bring to a school campus and jobs, she said.

“College students benefit from seeing that capability,” she said.

For Jordan Stewart, 18, the Regis program has boosted his confidence, his mother Cassy Stewart said. While Colorado offers high school for students with intellectual disabilities until they are 21, Jordan wanted most to graduate with his class and get a diploma with them, she said.

Regis helped Jordan thrive in a college setting. Previously, his mother had worried about his future because so few college programs work with his learning style. 

Jordan Stewart has loved being a part of the school community. He enjoys the classes more than those in high school, and making friends is his favorite part of the experience.

“College makes me feel great,” he said, “and included.”

Jason Gonzales is a reporter covering higher education and the Colorado legislature. Chalkbeat Colorado partners with Open Campus on higher education coverage. Contact Jason at jgonzales@chalkbeat.org.

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