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College programs for students with disabilities are growing in Western PA, but some have faced challenges

Duquesne University students Catherine Becker (left) and Ben Guthrie review course assignments. Becker is a peer mentor to Guthrie, a junior within Duquesne’s Compass program. (Photo by Lindsay Dill/PublicSource)

When Nick Sciullo turned 18, he told his mother, Regina, that he wasn’t going back to his high school.

Nick, who has Down syndrome, could remain in high school until he turned 21, like some other students with disabilities.

But his friends had graduated, and he wanted to go to college.

At first, Regina wasn’t sure how she could help her son have a college experience. Then, she thought of Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, where other high schoolers in Nick’s district sometimes took classes. She called, and she was put in touch with Father Phillip Kanfush, a professor.

She proposed that Nick visit campus in the mornings for tutoring in reading and math. Regina, though, wondered if more could be done in the future. “I said, ‘Now after this year, what are we going to do?’”

A year later, in 2015, Kanfush launched Bearcat B.E.S.T., a transition program for high school students with intellectual and developmental disabilities. The program aims to provide an inclusive college experience with a focus on academics and social, vocational and independent living skills. Nick was one of the first to attend the program.

“Nick wanted to go to college,” Regina said. “He wanted to go be part of the sports. He wanted to go in the cafeteria and eat lunch — anything that a typical college student would do.”

The number of inclusive post-secondary education programs like Bearcat B.E.S.T. has continued to grow in Pennsylvania since 2015, rising to an estimated 19. As their peers without disabilities graduate high school and embark on college journeys, students in these programs are able to follow a similar path, with some offerings spurring personal growth and reporting improved employment outcomes, according to parents, advocates and program directors.

Still, they are complicated programs to offer, and some in Western Pennsylvania have faced instability in recent years. Mercyhurst University in Erie closed its 13-year-old program in 2020. And Slippery Rock University is restructuring its program and phasing out the current curriculum to become more financially sustainable, according to university leadership.

Bearcat B.E.S.T., though, is continuing to serve students, and the region gained one program at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, which brought in its first cohort of students in 2019.

Personal growth and programmatic changes

Stephanie Messer has seen her daughter, Annie, grow by “leaps and bounds” since enrolling in Slippery Rock’s Rock Life program about two years ago. Despite attending virtually her first year, Annie has joined clubs, managed her schedule and learned to take notes for class — something she was never asked to do in high school. Though she doesn’t take courses for credit, she’s taken finals just to have the experience.

The family lives in McCandless Township, and this spring was Annie’s first in-person semester at Slippery Rock. Stephanie has continued to see her daughter become more independent.

“She’s getting the opportunity to mature in ways that typical young adults do her age, in an environment with other adults, making mistakes, sleeping through classes, you know, things like that,” she said.

Ben Guthrie sits in Duquesne’s Mary Pappert School of Music. (Photo by Lindsay Dill/ PublicSource)

In November, Slippery Rock announced that the current Rock Life curriculum would be phased out in spring 2023, and admissions would be suspended for a year while external consultants evaluate the program. The news sparked concerns over the program’s future, and an online petition to save the program garnered almost 13,000 signatures, according to TribLIVE.

“The Rock Life program can’t survive solely on grants and donations. We need to determine a structure that allows us to fund the program with a combination of tuition, fees, grants, and federal and state funding,” President William Behre said in the announcement.

In an interview with PublicSource, Behre said the university will ensure that current students are able to complete the existing program, and he’s committed to seeing a new one ushered in. What he said he can’t guarantee, though, is that the program will exist in 10 years or under future administrations. Behre plans to retire in June 2023.

“It’s not in any imminent risk,” Behre said. “Future administrations can look at it like they would look at anything else, and say, ‘Do we want to continue doing this?’”

As part of the review, the consultants will make suggestions regarding Rock Life’s financial model. Behre also expects they’ll recommend that Rock Life grow from a two-year program to four and add coursework surrounding self-advocacy and determination.

“We’re teaching out Rock Life as it exists today and then replacing it with Rock Life as it will exist tomorrow,” he said.

‘Higher education can become higher quality’

When Nancy Murray and Karen Oosterhous talk to colleges about developing inclusive post-secondary education programs, they’re looking for a champion, a person who will rally support for students with intellectual disabilities on a campus. They tailor their pitch, too.

For mission-driven colleges, they emphasize that these programs are a matter of diversity, equity and inclusion. For those more interested in the business fundamentals, they acknowledge that many families may be willing to pay a sticker price for their students to attend. But beyond that, the two suggest that these students can contribute as much, if not more, to the college community as their peers without disabilities.

“Nontraditional students have the ability to enhance their college communities in really untold ways,” said Oosterhous, who works with Murray at Achieva, a local nonprofit serving individuals with intellectual disabilities and autism.

Karen Oosterhous (left) and Nancy Murray talk to colleges about developing inclusive post-secondary education programs through their work at Achieva. (Photo by Lucas Zheng/PublicSource)

Amy Guthrie’s son, Ben, is finishing his third year at Duquesne, where he plans to graduate from the university’s Compass program next year. The program has integrated him into campus well, his mother said. He’s taken classes in public speaking and environmental justice, connected with friends through the program’s peer mentors and was a member of the swim team his first year.

At Saint Vincent, Nick felt included on campus, too. He enjoyed his professors, and as part of a powerlifting class he audited, Nick worked out with his peers and took tests. “He really aced that course,” Regina said.

“Their confidence, the maturity that they got, I mean, he would not have gotten that anywhere else,” she said. “You see that with a typical college student. They go in as freshmen, and when they come home, like, they’re a totally different kid.”

There are now an estimated 314 inclusive post-secondary education programs nationwide, up from 266 in 2018, according to Think College, a national research and information center at the University of Massachusetts Boston’s Institute for Community Inclusion.

Meg Grigal, the center’s co-director, has sought to build this field since 1998. She remembers that, 20 years ago, some feared that making higher education accessible to students with intellectual and developmental disabilities would be harmful to the colleges and their classmates. The opposite has happened, she said.

“It has enhanced the learning of their peers. It has enhanced the teaching of their professors,” Grigal said. “I think we’ve really just scratched the surface of how, by being responsive and welcoming and supportive to yet another type of diverse learner, higher education can become higher quality.”

Ben Guthrie carries his guitar across campus at Duquesne University. (Photo by Lindsay Dill/PublicSource)
Seeking support

Though some time has passed since she had to actively advocate for these programs, Katie Huba can say exactly why they matter. Parents often have to fight for their children with intellectual disabilities to be included in K-12 education, and then they have to figure out what comes next while grappling with waning supports, said Huba, a former director of Mercyhurst University’s OASIS program.

The program, created in 2007, grew from about five to about 20 students under her leadership. But in August 2019, Mercyhurst announced that it would shutter its North East campus, where OASIS was offered, and transfer its academic programs to its Erie campus.

Huba said she and the program’s assistant director fought for OASIS to be offered at the main campus, submitting a “detailed” program plan for the provost’s office to review, but the program’s suspension was announced shortly after the pandemic struck. Huba was crushed.

“I felt that OASIS really gave a population that didn’t really have a lot of opportunities to have a voice, to actually have it, and that was heartbreaking to know that they took it away,” she said. Mercyhurst has since sold the North East campus.

Debbie Morton, a university spokesperson, wrote in an email that the decision to not offer OASIS at the Erie campus was based on academic programming needs, fiscal responsibility and the availability of appropriate facilities, among other considerations. “This is not to say that the program, or some variation thereof, may not be reconsidered in the future,” Morton said.

Mercyhurst continues to offer a program for students with autism, and Morton said the university “has pioneered programs for students with disabilities well before the Americans with Disabilities Act.”

Sara Kitchen, Huba’s predecessor at OASIS, was devastated by the loss of the program, too. She’d like programs at other schools to receive greater financial support to help them remain sustainable and secure in the future.

“I understand that colleges are a business, but I think when colleges do have a mission of supporting all students, the money talks. And the money has to be allotted to support these programs,” Kitchen said.

At Slippery Rock, Behre hopes to receive the consultants’ report around May and have the new curriculum sorted out by early fall. At that point, the university will begin advertising and recruiting for the updated program, he said.

“We are committed to making this the best possible program it can be, and we will, but there are always skeptics out there who think that this hiatus is a soft closure,” Behre said. “I would just ask them to watch us, and hold us to it. Because we will do it. But we need the time to do the work.”

Post-graduation outcomes

Nick graduated from Bearcat B.E.S.T in spring 2017, and he walked across the stage just like his peers. “It was just amazing that we could do that, you know, that he could do that, that Father Phillip and his team was able to make that happen,” Regina said.

He was hired after graduation at the college cafeteria where he interned, and he later volunteered three days a week at Achieva, working with young children getting ready for preschool. In 2018, he got a job at a daycare. He’s been employed there ever since.

Nick, 27, loves his job. “I love kids. They love me,” he said.

Regina Sciullo and her son, Nick, a graduate of the Bearcat B.E.S.T. program. (Courtesy of Regina Sciullo)

Regina wanted the Bearcat B.E.S.T. program to help Nick secure competitive employment, where he wouldn’t be a “token employee” — if he called off work, the employer would need to find a replacement. Nick has found that.

“It is a success,” Regina said. “He would not be here today, like in the place he is now, if it had not been for Saint Vincent.”

Kitchen feels similarly about the value that the former OASIS program at Mercyhurst brought to students. She now works at a nonprofit in Erie that serves adults with autism.

A former student in the OASIS program is one of her clients, and Kitchen sometimes visits her. The walls of the former student’s apartment are empty, she said, except for one thing: her certificate from OASIS.

“That is the only thing she has displayed, and so I always think, like, ‘This means something,’” Kitchen said. “For a lot of these students, college was never presented as an option. It just, it wasn’t. And so, to know that there are those options out there, I think it’s really important.”

This story was fact-checked by Sophia Levin.

Emma Folts covers higher education for PublicSource, in partnership with Open Campus.

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