Cortvriend bill would create path for intellectually disabled to experience college


STATE HOUSE – Rep. Terri Cortvriend has introduced legislation that would provide inclusive opportunities at state colleges for young people with intellectual disabilities or autism.

The bill, which is modeled after a law enacted in neighboring Massachusetts in 2022, would allow students with intellectual disabilities age 18 to 22 — who are currently allowed to remain in high school — to experience college and college life while they transition to adult life.

“Our state already recognizes the importance of providing education to students with intellectual disabilities to age 22. But currently, those students do not have a means to progress beyond high school, long after their same-age peers have moved on. They, too, are transitioning to adulthood, and the greater independence and choice that come with college and its activities offers them opportunities to grow, mature and prepare for the future. Having this option available would provide significant social and emotional benefits to these students and better prepare them for life as an adult,” said Representative Cortvriend (D-Dist. 72, Portsmouth, Middletown).

The Higher Education Opportunities for Students with Intellectual Disabilities Act (2023-H 5636)  would enable students age 18 to 22 with intellectual disabilities to attend classes at state institutions of higher education and participate in campus activities in accordance with their Individualized Education Programs, without having to meet the typical entrance requirements such as having graduated from high school or meeting certain GPA or standardized test requirements. Participating students would not receive college credits unless they’ve met the prerequisites and requirements of any course, but they would enjoy the social benefits of participating in college life.

Under the program, funding would follow the student — the student’s public school district would be required to forward to the college the same amount of funds it would have spent educating that particular student had he or she stayed in high school. Colleges would not have to bear the costs of providing any supports, and would not be allowed to charge school districts any additional amount. Other sources of funding, public or private, could be used if necessary.

The legislation would also enable students to return to high school if it is found that attending college courses has not worked out to the student’s best interest, with pro-rated funding returning to their district.

The bill includes reporting requirements that ensure public institutions of higher education, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and the Office of the Postsecondary Commissioner work together to develop best practices for implementation of the plan.

The legislation is not necessarily about academic advancement — there are already programs for students with disabilities who need supports to enroll in college for credit. It is intended for those who would not be pursuing a degree, but who would benefit socially and emotionally from the experience of the college atmosphere.

Representative Cortvriend, who introduced the legislation after seeing a news report of the law’s enactment in Massachusetts, said she has had some preliminary discussions with representatives of Department of Education, the Commissioner of Higher Education, school superintendents and the Rhode Island Developmental Disabilities Council, and all were receptive to exploring the idea.

“This would be an option, not necessarily the right choice for every individual student. But for some, it would provide experiences and growth that they can’t acquire through more years of high school. Whether they will be preparing to hold a job or transitioning to adult services, they are growing up, and being in a vibrant environment of other young adults would expand their horizons and help them get ready for the adult world,” said Representative Cortvriend.

She added that since school districts would send only the money they would spend on individual students if they stayed in high school, the change would be revenue-neutral for public schools. But it could ultimately save the public money if it results in students who are better prepared for their future and need fewer supports into adulthood.

The bill was introduced Feb. 15 and has been assigned to the House Finance Committee.