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Obama Left a Critical Group Out of His Free Education Plan

AFP / Getty Images

In his State of the Union "spoilers" tour, President Barack Obama announced a plan to make two years of community college free for students who maintain a 2.5 GPA and attend classes at least half-time. The White House estimates it would benefit around nine million students per year. “We also have to make sure that everybody has the opportunity to constantly train themselves for better jobs, better wages and better benefits,” Obama said in a promotional video.

Critics have been quick to point out that although the plan may make tuition more affordable, Obama’s plan doesn’t address the quality of an educational institution or the costs of non-community colleges. But few, if any, have noted how it glosses over an often-underrepresented group: the developmentally and intellectually disabled. 

Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), people with developmental disabilities are guaranteed an education through high school graduation or until they reach the age of 22 (whichever comes first). After that, families much choose from an array of state, federal, and private programs, depending on what they believe will work best for their disabled family member.

Only in recent years have postsecondary education programs for disabled students started popping up at colleges and universities across the country. Some programs allow these students to attend regular college courses. Others try to provide the traditional college experience—living in dorms with friends, providing internships—but with curriculums catering to the needs of someone with intellectual disabilities.

These programs can be competitive and expensive. For example, annual tuition at George Mason University's four-year LIFE program, which teaches students living and vocational skills, costs $19,750 for in-state students and $25,500 for out-of-state students—not including on-campus housing. A nondisabled GMU student, meanwhile, pays $10,657 in-state and $30,235 out-of-state. And Mason LIFE students don't earn a Bachelor's degree, but rather a Certificate of Completion.

The benefit of such programs is significant. A study published on January 7 in the Journal of Intellectual Disabilities found that people with intellectual disabilities who attend postsecondary education programs—with modified courses and without—have greater success in the job market than those who don’t. As those with disabilities live longer, it will become increasingly important that they have the necessary skills to contribute to, and feel a part of, our society.

Obama's proposal is admirable. But if he really wants to make education more accessible to everyone, he should find room in his plan for people with disabilities.