New center aims to help people with an intellectual disability get college degrees in Minnesota

A woman stands in a cubicle
Jean Hauff, college student and advocate for people who have an intellectual disability, stands near her desk at the Institute on Community Integration in Minneapolis.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Updated: April 4, 10:40 a.m. | Posted: April 3, 4 a.m.

In 2018, Jean Hauff knew she wanted to pursue a career in mass media and that would require college studies.

Her top criteria in a college search: far enough from her Twin Cities home, on-campus housing, employment opportunities, and a 3- or 4-year program with support services for students with an intellectual disability. 

“I wanted to be able to take classes like other college students,” said Hauff, who has Down syndrome. 

But no Minnesota school met her criteria. Only four Minnesota colleges offer higher education programs for students with an intellectual disability — but none of those offer certificates specific to her interest area, journalism.

Create a More Connected Minnesota

MPR News is your trusted resource for the news you need. With your support, MPR News brings accessible, courageous journalism and authentic conversation to everyone - free of paywalls and barriers. Your gift makes a difference.

“I’ve been an advocate for inclusive education since Jean was born,” said Mary Hauff, Jean’s mother. “And she’s been included all the way through high school in general education, along with her classmates with and without disabilities and so we were looking for that to be part of her college experience.”

As a result, in 2019, Mary Hauff and other parents of people with an intellectual disability formed the Minnesota Inclusive Higher Education Consortium. The group united a broad coalition of disability advocates and successfully lobbied state officials for support for students like Jean.

In 2023, the Minnesota Legislature allocated $2 million over two years for inclusive higher education, defined as equal access to higher education for students with an intellectual disability who need special education services.

Inclusive higher education calls for students with an intellectual disability to have “the same rights, privileges, experiences and outcomes” as nondisabled students, for an experience “resulting in a meaningful credential.” That means access to the same fields of study, degree programs, housing options and campus activities.

Most of that money will go to colleges to fund new ways to boost enrollment for students with an intellectual disability. Some of the money — $500,000 — funds a technical assistance center operated by the consortium out of the University of Minnesota.

Julia Page is the former public policy director for The Arc Minnesota, an advocacy organization for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. She helped push for the bill’s passage. 

“It’s definitely more of a long-term investment, so knowing that we’re not going to immediately see all those benefits, but I cannot wait to see how it grows year after year in our progress for inclusion in higher ed,” Page said. 

‘I finally get to go to school and get to be accepted’

There are nearly 200 colleges and universities in Minnesota. But of the four institutions with specific programs for students with an intellectual disability, only three are designated as Comprehensive and Postsecondary Transition Programs by the U.S. Department of Education. That status allows students with an intellectual disability to access federal financial aid.

Those schools have a combined enrollment capacity of 90 spots, according to a 2023 report by the Minnesota Office of Higher Education.

Intellectual disability “starts any time before a child turns 18 and is characterized by problems with both intellectual functioning or intelligence — which includes the ability to learn, reason, problem-solve and other skills — and adaptive behavior, which includes everyday social and life skills,” according to the Institute on Community Integration.

Studies show students with an intellectual disability who enroll in college are more than twice as likely to be employed than those who don't. They’re also more likely to have higher wages, live independently and rely less on social services.

Dupree Edwards, 34, said he has intellectual and developmental disabilities. He works at the Institute on Community Integration on a systems change project for the Minnesota Department of Human Services.

A Black man wearing a grey beanie smiles in a photo
Dupree Edwards poses for a photo at the Institute on Community Integration in Minneapolis on Dec. 19.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Edwards tried attending a technical college several years ago, and quit after feeling he didn’t have the right support.

“I got mad because I felt like they didn’t really know I was capable of doing the work,” he said. “And so I just, you know, gave up on it.” 

He said he is successful when he receives accessible reading materials as well as help with organization and structure. It also helps to have someone slow down the learning material, to help him process information. 

“I kind of have a lot of things going on, and I just want a college director or professor to understand what my pace is,” Edwards said.

Edwards testified on behalf of the legislation investing in inclusive higher education, and said “it was like heaven” hearing the bill had passed. He looks forward to formal studies in performing arts in the future.

“I finally get to go to school and get to be accepted and get the accommodations that I need,” he said. 

Minnesota joins other states investing in inclusive higher education

The Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 laid the framework for improving college access across the country for students with an intellectual disability, among other things creating a national technical assistance center and a federal grant program to help colleges and universities increase their offerings.

A growing number of states have invested in inclusive higher education in the last decade. Kentucky passed legislation in 2020 establishing a similar center to Minnesota’s at the University of Kentucky.

The state has since doubled the number of programs from three to six. There are now over 300 postsecondary programs for students with an intellectual disability nationwide.

In Minnesota, the new technical assistance center at the U of M is the home where government, students, school leaders, and other stakeholders in Minnesota can find expertise on best practices on providing postsecondary education for students with an intellectual disability.

The Minnesota Inclusive Higher Education Consortium operates the center out of U of M’s Institute on Community Integration, which lives in a modern building off the U’s campus in Minneapolis.

“We’re in the midst of a workforce shortage, and what better way to address some of that is to help individuals with disabilities who want to go to college, that want to work, to be able to earn those credentials, so that they can help fill some of those employment opportunities that are out there and help the business and ultimately the state economy,” said Mary Hauff, who is now the director of the consortium.

The technical assistance center is informed by an advisory committee where 50 percent of members are students with an intellectual disability. 

In May, Minnesota colleges will be able to apply for money to make higher education more accessible. They can receive up to $200,000 per year for four years.

The Minnesota Inclusive Higher Education Consortium is holding sessions to prepare colleges and universities to apply for the state grants, as well as the federal designation for financial aid.

Grants can go towards any qualifying public or private institution to develop or improve their capacity to enroll and support students with an intellectual disability, according to the Minnesota Office of Higher Education.

Three women smile
Jean Hauff smiles for a photo on the Augustana University campus, posing next to her mother Mary Hauff and her twin sister, Elizabeth Hauff, in November 2023.
Courtesy of Mary Hauff

For many students, it’s long overdue. 

Because there were no suitable options in Minnesota, Jean Hauff had ended up choosing Duquesne University in Pennsylvania, which was piloting a program offering four-year certificates for people with an intellectual disability.

She enjoyed her experience on campus but after her first two years, the university decided to pivot and focus only on students in the Pittsburgh area. She took a gap year, building experience with internships and a public policy class, before landed at Augustana University in South Dakota. The credits did not transfer, however — she’s back at square one.

“Some people do not believe individuals with an intellectual disability can learn or go to college. Some people believe students with an intellectual disability are going to be a problem in a class or on campus. They are wrong,” Jean said.

“College is possible. Students with an intellectual disability are ready and want to go to college. They can contribute to the campus community and pursue a career of their choice.”