Carolina colleges offer options for special needs students

Heidi Finley

Students in UNC Greensboro's Beyond Academics program graduate after four years. Photo by Beyond Academics

Parents of students with special needs often work hard to get their children through their K-12 education, not realizing that college is an option. But several colleges and organizations in the Carolinas are among the pioneers in a movement to provide more opportunities.

The Exceptional Children’s Assistance Center, which supports families of North Carolina children with disabilities and special health care needs, recommends discussing post-secondary goals with high school teachers and individualized education plan teams to lay the foundation for a successful campus experience.

The Davidson-based nonprofit organization also advises contacting colleges early to ease the planning process.

Other organizations that advocate for students with autism or other intellectual disabilities have laid the groundwork to help parents and students find a good fit for that college experience, particularly though comprehensive transition programs meant to continue academic, career and independent living instruction.

Colleges use federal grants to create or expand comprehensive transition programs, which provide services for students with intellectual disabilities to help with coursework, extracurricular activities and other aspects of higher education. Classes are generally audited, so credit is not transferrable, but students can apply for financial aid.

The North Carolina Post-Secondary Education Alliance offers a chart of in-state programs that includes Appalachian State University, UNC Greensboro and Western Carolina University, along with more than a dozen community colleges, such as Wake Tech.

Another resource, Think College, features a nationwide search for college programs geared toward students with intellectual disabilities. It shows six opportunities in South Carolina, all located on four-year campuses such as Clemson, Coastal Carolina and Winthrop universities.

Scholars with Diverse Abilities

At Appalachian State in Boone, N.C., the Scholars with Diverse Abilities Program is a two-year experience for students with mild to moderate intellectual disabilities who earn a certificate of completion. Participants audit classes that interest them and live in residence halls, unless family members make other arrangements.

Director Anna Ward said students interested in the program and others like it need to show they’ve made progression in a secondary education setting, whether that be in a public high school, a private school or homeschool. Most participants haven’t previously been in inclusive environments without a family member advocating for them and making decisions, she said.

Prospective students “really need to have some future ideas about the types of things that they want to do, as far as a career and a lifestyle,” she said. “Our program, as well as a lot of other programs like this, were started with that in mind – to improve their employability.”

Scholars with Diverse Abilities participants pay Appalachian State’s regular tuition and fees rate – which is about $7,303 per year for in-state undergraduates in 2017-18 – plus an additional $1,000 per semester. The extra funds go toward academic tutoring and paid support staff who are available to help as needed, including on nights and weekends.

Students cannot use federal loans to pay for comprehensive transition programs. However, they are eligible to apply for financial aid such as Pell Grants through filling out a FAFSA, just like traditional degree-seeking students. Some scholarships are also available based on merit and need.

Ward noted that families of students who have mild to moderate disabilities often haven’t saved for college because they have presumed they couldn’t go. But that’s changing, so families should go ahead and start saving.

“Our goal is to help students develop both soft skills and workplace-related skills to be more employable when they graduate and to become more independent,” Ward said.

Students get help with classroom work in the Scholars with Diverse Abilities Program. Photo by Marie Freeman, Appalachian State University

Beyond Academics

At UNC Greensboro, students with intellectual and developmental disabilities can enroll in a certificate program of study in integrative community studies that emphasizes self-determination, life planning and career development. Its program was the first of its kind in North Carolina when it started in 2007.

Beyond Academics – a private, not-for-profit agency – collaborates with the university to provide academic and therapeutic support for the students. The program doesn’t provide residential support, but it does make housing recommendations for students based on preferences and needs. Participants enrolled full time can live in inclusive dorms or in student housing off campus.

UNC Greensboro’s integrative community studies coursework includes core classes such as, “Introduction to Personal Finance,” “Internship Preparation” and a senior capstone portfolio. Credits don’t transfer to other programs.

Beyond Academics participants don’t select a major, but they focus their academic work and internships in the career areas of their choice. A student who enjoys athletics, for instance, may be encouraged to develop a relationship with the baseball team and shadow the coach as a sophomore, then progress to an internship at the campus recreation center as a junior, the program website says.

At UNC Greensboro, tuition and basic fees for in-state students for the 2017-18 school year are expected to total about $7,145. Additional program fees for Beyond Academics students are required, and base packages for support services are assessed at different levels each year.

For example, first-year students are presumed to need 12.5 support hours per week at a cost of $1,200 per month. That includes weekly check-ins, individually scheduled support hours and student life sessions. By senior year, that base package decreases to 4 support hours per week at a cost of $450 per month.

Beyond Academics is the only four-year comprehensive transition program in North Carolina, according to UNC Greensboro’s Research Magazine.

In South Carolina, options for two- to four-year programs are available at USC, Clemson and Winthrop, and four-year programs are offered at Coastal Carolina and the College of Charleston. Clemson also offers a 16-week residential program called Clemson HOPE that focuses on life skills and vocational training in areas such as agriculture, landscaping, carpentry or hospitality.

When it comes to searching for a school that’s a good fit, Ward advises youth and their families to explore options and talk with students and alumni of different programs, along with visiting the schools.

“We all kind of have similar goals but go about them in slightly different ways and in slightly different environments,” Ward said, adding that some schools supply more support than others and each campus develops its own individual culture.


Heidi Finley is the editor of Carolina College Bound. Send questions or suggestions to