Ipswich resident Matthew Cullen said he knew he wanted to go to college since his early teens.
"My friends and brother and sister went off to college, and I said, 'Why can’t I?' " Cullen told lawmakers in a recent public hearing for the Massachusetts Joint Committee on Higher Education.
Cullen has Down Syndrome. At first it didn’t seem like college would be in the cards for him. In Massachusetts, high school students typically must pass the state standardized test, called the MCAS, and get a regular high school diploma in order to enroll in higher education institutions.
But Cullen caught a break. His school told him about a grant program offered at several state colleges, known as the Massachusetts Inclusive Concurrent Enrollment Initiative (MAICEI), that allows students with intellectual disabilities to take college courses until they’re 22. Cullen jumped at the chance and spent three semesters at Salem State University. He took classes in public speaking, nutrition, sports injury and rock climbing.
Cullen took the most pride, though, in the skills he learned in mobility and travel training class. It taught him how to navigate the commuter rail on his own and use Uber, both of which he can use to get to work now.
"That’s my favorite, the independence," he said. "And it’s definitely fun being on the train."
Because of success stories like Cullen's, lawmakers and disability rights advocates hope to expand the MAICEI program, this time through legislation.
If House Bill 1331 passes, it would open up experiences like Cullen’s to a lot more students. The legislation would make it so that people with a documented intellectual disability, autism, or other developmental disability could attend college as a non-degree-seeking student, without passing the MCAS. The legislation would also lift the current program’s age restriction.
"It's going to be one of the tools that a district should look at in order to serve that population well," said Representative Patricia Haddad, a democrat who represents the Massachusetts Fifth Bristol House District and one of the bill's sponsor.
She and many supporters of the bill argue access to higher education is a civil rights issue, which is why the legislation includes a provision that would add people with intellectual disabilities to the state higher education system's mission statement.
According to data from the University of Massachusetts Institute for Community Inclusion, 64% of people with intellectual disabilities who attend these programs nationally have paid employment, compared to just 18% in the general population.
"But it’s not that black and white," Haddad explains. "There are a lot of things to be considered."
The bill has failed to pass the house during the last five legislative sessions, mostly because of questions about funding. This programming is considered an approved special education service by the state, meaning school districts would carry the cost.
"We’ve generally taken the position that anything that’s an unfunded mandate we have serious reservations about," said Tom Scott, the executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents. "We don’t start incurring more costs to an already somewhat more challenged budget process for schools."
Scott said his members strongly support the idea behind the bill, but were concerned about previous versions of the legislation because it didn’t specify exactly how much districts would be responsible for covering. This latest version, however, spells out that schools would only be on the hook for what state special education law already requires. State and federal grant funding could be used to cover additional costs. Funding for students older than 22 would have to come from sources outside the district, like private payments.
College leaders also negotiated some assurances. The bill now has specific language clarifying that students involved in the MAICEI program won’t get special enrollment priority in high-demand classes. They'd have to qualify with pre-requisites, like the general student body.
Supporters of the legislation, like the Li family in Southborough, say they're optimistic that this version might actually pass this session, because it would open up the opportunity for 27 year-old Stephanie, who has autism, to take college classes. Under the current rules of the MAICIE program, she's too old to qualify.
"I just want [my sister] to be able to fulfill all of her potential," said Katelyn Li of her sister Stephanie. "Because I know there is a lot of potential that has not been unlocked because of not being able to have opportunities to do that in education."
Ipswich resident Matthew Cullen said he’s hopeful the law will pass this year. He’s too old now to continue participating in the MAICIE program, but if the legislation passes, Cullen wants to go back to Salem State and take more science classes.
"I would love to go back because my dream is to work in the medical field," he said.
He hopes to eventually be qualified for his dream job — a position at the Beverly Hospital.
This segment aired on September 3, 2021.