WARRENSBURG, Mo. — Zach Neff is all high-fives as he walks through his college campus in western Missouri. The 27-year-old with Down syndrome hugs most everybody, repeatedly. He tells teachers he loves them.
"I told Zach we are putting him on a hug diet – one to say hello and one to say goodbye," said Joyce Downing, who helped start a new program at the University of Central Missouri that serves students with disabilities.
The hope is that polishing up on social skills, like cutting back on the hugs, living in residence halls and going to classes with non-disabled classmates will help students like Neff be more independent and get better jobs.
In years past, college life was largely off-limits for students with such disabilities, but that's no longer the case. Students with Down syndrome, autism and other conditions that can result in intellectual disabilities are leaving high school more academically prepared than ever and ready for the next step: college.
Eight years ago, disability advocates were able to find only four programs on university campuses that allowed students with intellectual disabilities to experience college life with extra help from mentors and tutors. As of last year, there were more than 250 spread across more than three dozen states and two Canadian provinces, said Debra Hart, head of Think College at the Institute for Community Inclusion at the University of Massachusetts Boston, which provides services to people with disabilities.
That growth is partly because of an increasing demand for higher education for these students and there are new federal funds for such programs.
The federal rules that took effect this fall allow students with intellectual disabilities to receive grants and work-study money. Because details on the rules are still being worked out, the earliest students could have the money is next year. Hart and others expect the funds to prompt the creation of even more programs.
"There is a whole generation of young people who have grown up under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and the Americans with Disabilities Act, and to them it (college) is the logical next step," Hart said.
The college programs for these students vary. Generally the aim is to support the students as they take regular classes with non-disabled students. Professors sometimes are advised to modify the integrated classes by doing things like shifting away from a format that relies entirely on lectures and adding more projects in which students can work in groups.
One program in Idaho offers classes in drama, art and sign language. Students on other campuses can improve their computer skills or take child development classes.
Sometimes they're paired with non-disabled students and advocates say the educational coaches, mentors and tutors who help them often are studying to become special education teachers or social workers and learn from the experience too.
Disability advocates say only a small percentage of these students will receive degrees, but that the programs help them get better jobs.
Historically, adults with intellectual disabilities have been restricted primarily to jobs in fast food restaurants, cleaning or in so-called "sheltered workshops," where they work alongside other disabled people and often earn below-minimum wages, said Madeleine Will, vice president of the National Down Syndrome Society.
With additional training, Hart said participants can go on to do everything from being a librarian's assistants to data-entry work in an office.
Much remains to be learned about what type of program works best, but Hart said that will likely change.
Besides allowing for federal financial aid for these programs, Congress also has appropriated $10.56 million to develop 27 model projects to identify successful approaches.
The infusion of federal money has generated some criticism. Conservative commentator Charlotte Allen said it's a waste to spend federal tax dollars on the programs and insisted that calling them college dilutes the meaning of college.
"It's a kind of fantasy," said Allen, a contributing editor for Minding the Campus, a publication of the fiscally conservative Manhattan Institute. "It may make intellectually disabled people feel better, but is that what college is supposed to be all about?"
Oftentimes students with these disabilities stop their formal education when they finish high school, which is usually around the age of 21. Some districts have a partnership with colleges under which the district pays for their 18- to 21-year-old students to take higher education classes. In other cases, college costs are paid for by the parents.
Their children previously haven't been eligible for grants and work study money because they generally weren't seeking a degree and wouldn't have been admitted to college through the typical process.
These programs look "at higher education for what it's purpose in our community and our culture is – to provide opportunities for learning," said Meg Grigal, a researcher who works with Hart.
Back at the University of Central Missouri, Neff and another participant in the program for students with developmental issues, Gabe Savage, laugh with friends during lunch in their residence hall cafeteria.
Savage, a 26-year-old from Kansas City, is grateful for it all – new friends, the chance to try out for a school play, brush up on his computer skills and even take a bowling class with non-disabled students looking to earn a physical education credit.
"It's an answer to my prayer that I am here," he said. "I always wanted to do this."