But Tauron Ferguson of Mooresville didn’t know college was going to be a possibility for her son, Brennan Ferguson, who was born with severe dyspraxia, a developmental disability that affects motor skills like writing and talking.
A few years after Brennan graduated high school, the Fergusons heard about UNC-Greensboro’s Beyond Academics program, a four-year certificate program for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Her son had the opportunity to get a postsecondary education, but he had no college savings.
On July 1, for the first time, Brennan Ferguson and the 53 other students in the program became eligible to apply for federal financial aid, including Pell Grants and work-study funding.
“One of the most gut-wrenching things is to sit at the table with families and students who realize that (this program) is here, and it could help their sons and daughters grow and then to realize that they didn’t save enough money,” said Joan Johnson, executive director of Beyond Academics.
When Brennan Ferguson, now 26 and a junior at UNC-G, was originally accepted to the program, the Ferguson family paid for tuition, fees and disability support services out of pocket. For a Beyond Academics student with the maximum level of outside support, a year’s tuition costs about $25,000, though that number can vary by year.
Tauron Ferguson found out on Saturday that her son’s full tuition, fees and support services would be paid for through federal aid.
“Certainly it relieves an enormous financial burden for us, but that’s not all. It validates that (students with intellectual disabilities) are people too, and they deserve these opportunities to create their niche in life.”
The federal aid eligibility came when Beyond Academics received official recognition as a Comprehensive Transition and Postsecondary program by the U.S. Department of Education.
Students attending recognized transition programs have been eligible for federal financial aid since Congress enacted the Higher Education Opportunity Act in 2008.
Beyond Academics wanted to apply for federal recognition in 2008 but was unable to do so because UNC-G’s financial aid offerings were undergoing a series of revisions. The program applied for recognition in October 2013.
Students attending CTP programs still cannot apply for federal loans and are not eligible for tax-free college savings programs.
The Achieving a Better Life Experience Act, co-introduced to Congress in February 2013 by Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., would allow tax-free college savings programs for students with disabilities. It has yet to be passed.
Three in North Carolina
There are now 34 Comprehensive Transition and Postsecondary programs nationwide recognized by the U.S. Department of Education, including three in North Carolina.
Appalachian State University and Western Carolina University offer two-year CTP programs. Seven community colleges in North Carolina offer programs that are similar but unrecognized.
Students attending ASU’s Scholars with Diverse Abilities program have been eligible to apply for aid through the Free Application for Federal Student Aid since 2012.
Director Anna Ward said the program tries to keep costs low for students who do not qualify for financial aid by utilizing a large network of undergraduate volunteers. Program participants are still required to pay $1,000 on top of tuition to cover additional support.
David Kearon, assistant director of adult services for Autism Speaks, said that academic support in many post-secondary education programs for students with disabilities can cost an additional $5,000 to $15,000 per year. Some students are able to cover this cost through Medicaid funding or private scholarships.
Unaware of options
Though more and more postsecondary opportunities are available to students with developmental and intellectual disabilities, many families are still unaware of the options.
“A lot of these programs are brand new, and families are not really engaged after high school,” Kearon said. He said families with children who are autistic tend to be even less aware of options after high school than families of children who have other disabilities.
Autism Speaks created a guide for postsecondary education opportunities and offers grants directly to postsecondary education programs. UNC-G’s Beyond Academics program received money from Autism Speaks to offer scholarships to students.
Tauron Ferguson said the Beyond Academics program, and the federal financial aid that now covers the costs, gave her family a sense of peace. She said she did not want to ask herself 30 years from now if there was something more she could have done to give her son a better life.
“We never imagined that there would be something available for a son with developmental and intellectual disabilities,” she said. “Not in a million years.”