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Oklahoma bills would give full tuition scholarships to students with intellectual disabilities

Nyk Daniels
/
KGOU

Lori Wathen always hoped her son would continue his education after high school.

But Reis, 21, has an intellectual disability, and college programs for students with his needs are often cost-prohibitive, Wathen said.

Opportunities for students with intellectual or developmental disabilities are growing in Oklahoma. Four universities in the past five years have created degree- or certificate-granting programs for these students that also assist with independent living on a college campus.

The price to attend these programs, though, can exceed how much traditional students have to pay.

State lawmakers advanced legislation this week that could make the difference in the Wathen family’s ability to afford a college education for Reis.

The two bills would allow students with intellectual disabilities up to age 26 to access dollars from the Oklahoma’s Promise scholarship fund.

Receiving students would have their tuition covered at a public in-state college or CareerTech center that offers a comprehensive transition program designed to support students with intellectual disabilities. The measure wouldn’t apply the typical credit requirements of the Oklahoma’s Promise program.

Both bills unanimously passed committee votes in the House and Senate this week. The added scholarships are expected to cost $400,000.

Wathen said the legislation could have a “huge impact” for families like hers and give her son a better chance at future job placement.

“I know personally, for my family, it would honestly be the only way Reis would be able to attend a postsecondary college program is if we had some additional financial support to offset those costs,” she said.

The University of Oklahoma enrolls students with intellectual disabilities through its Sooner Works program. (Photo by Kyle Phillips/For Oklahoma Voice) Families earning a household income of $100,000 or less would qualify, should either of the bills become law. The household income limit would increase to up to $200,000 if the student has been adopted.

The cost of therapy and medical needs associated with an intellectual disability often make it difficult for families to save for college, said Julie Lackey, director of the Oklahoma Inclusive Post Secondary Education Alliance.

The alliance worked closely with lawmakers and the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education to develop the scholarship legislation.

Existing scholarships for these students are limited, usually offering only a few thousand dollars a semester, Lackey said. Meanwhile, the college programs that accommodate intellectual disabilities cost between $23,500 and $30,000 a year.

That’s why an organization Lackey founded — Lead, Learn, Live — is raising funds to help offset the cost of tuition and fees for students who are currently enrolled.

“There is nothing as comprehensive that even touches what this (legislation) could do for students,” Lackey said.

Lead, Learn, Live helped found the comprehensive transition programs at Oklahoma State University and Northeastern State University. Giving access to full-tuition scholarships could be “life changing” for current and future students, Lackey said.

It also could put students on a path toward employment.

Of all students with intellectual disabilities who completed a postsecondary program in the U.S., 59% landed a paying job within 90 days. That’s higher than the average employment rate, 34%, for working-age adults with an intellectual disability.

The Senate bill’s author, Sen. Ally Seifried, R-Claremore, said initial estimates indicate the state could cover the cost of her legislation without having to raise Oklahoma’s Promise funding.

Currently, 75 students are enrolled in applicable programs, she said, and they have a better shot at gainful employment once they graduate.

“This is, of course, a feel-good bill, but it also has a really meaningful, good ROI for the state,” Seifried said during a Senate committee hearing Tuesday.

When she filed a similar bill in the House, Rep. Ellyn Hefner, D-Oklahoma City, thought of her son, who has an intellectual disability. Hefner said she’s unsure if college will be right for him, but it is for other families.

Some of her son’s friends are enrolled in OSU’s Orange Opportunity Scholars program, which serves students with disabilities like his. Those students are enjoying the traditional college experience, like joining Greek life and playing intramural sports, along with peers who followed a more typical path.

Hefner said she hopes her bill allows more students that opportunity.

“Let’s open this up so that parents and students can decide where they want to go with the finances that they have,” she said.

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Oklahoma Voice is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Oklahoma Voice maintains editorial independence.

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