Thursday, June 2, 2016

Should Down Syndrome Kids Be Going To College?

According to a front page Denver Post story from May 31 ('Bill Would Find A Path'), a bill is now awaiting Governor John Hickenlooper's signature to enable Down syndrome kids to attend college in Colorado. According to the Post:

"A bill that passed both chambers in May, awaiting Gov. John Hickenlooper's signature, would fund a pilot program in three state colleges for student's with intellectual disabilities such as Down syndrome or autism who still want a college education and experience."

Reference is then made to Colorado being a state "for 140 years"  and "all that time there has been one demographic excluded from getting a college education - people with intellectual disabilities"

But could there, in fact, be a sound reason for this? Indeed, a sound reason why most people - despite their illusions - are not really college qualified. As I noted in a prior post, e.g.

"by the late 19th century the university would arrive in the U.S. as a center of inquiry wherein specialized published research set the modern educational institution apart from mere public opinion, religion and government, But even at this time, university students were mostly wealthy and white. A university education was viewed as the privilege of the few not the right of the multitudes.  The masses, indeed, were believed to be incapable of exercising the intellectual heft needed to pursue research of any kind."

This exclusion was done for several reasons: 1) Those in the unprivileged, mainly working classes, could not afford to learn philosophy, advanced math or literature (the extent of college offerings then) when they often had extended families to support, 2) the academic standards for admission were highly selective and demanded proof of intellectual attainment as well as achievement, and 3) the intensity and demands of the typical college curriculum militated against all but the most intellectually equipped students.

These stipulations and limitations began to alter with the dawn of the 20th century and especially after the launch of the Russian Sputnik on Oct. 4, 1957. See e.g.

The Russian space feat sent shock waves through the American higher education establishment, as well as secondary education. Almost overnight much more emphasis was placed on physics, advanced algebra and other courses geared toward space science and engineering. At the same time the once careful academic gate keepers realized they had to open their doors to more students. However, this didn't mean a college "free for all". Most universities still demanded evidence to do college work based on either ACT or SAT test results - when both of those were valid aptitude tests, not achievement tests (as they are now).

Many kids were excited by the notion of space studies, or astronomy and being at the cutting edge of such learning. However, once they entered the relevant college courses - say for astronomy - they realized they were in over their heads. They were initially 'star struck' but then realized they were unable to do celestial mechanics or even introductory astrophysics. See e.g.


This is also applicable now, despite the fact many universities have watered their curricula down, as well as the quality of their courses via grade inflation, e.g.

Despite this, millions of entering college students require remedial courses in math, English to become college ready - indicating the secondary schools aren't doing their jobs, or that the students are graduating without being held to account.  It stands to reason that a Down syndrome kid to even be ready for the most basic college course, would have even greater need of remedial courses at much greater cost than its promoters believe.

According to Mac Mascovits (ibid.):

"As a society we're OK saying everybody else but them"

But this glosses over the immense hurdles these kids will face. And why do they even want to attend college at all?   One of the prospective students, Connor Long (who graduated from Boulder's Fairview High in 2012) "hopes to get enrolled in one of the pilot programs so he can explore chemistry and theater arts."

Explore? What does that even mean? A college chemistry lab is definitely no place to "explore" - with all the dangerous chemicals around including nitric acid, HCl (hydrochloric acid) and other reagents.  When Connor has to do a titration with HCl will he be properly prepared? Will he know what he's doing? Or just want to "explore" around the lab? 

What about the actual coursework for the Chemistry classes? Balancing chemical equations, performing chemical computations, and even - lo and behold - getting into the basics of quantum mechanics as it pertains to the atom? Does Connor even have a faint clue what he's in for and how much will be demanded of him? I doubt it.

We are also informed (p. 8A):

"The bill's funding would give $75,000 a year for four years toward the pilot programs. The money will be used to hire mentors to help the students choose classes, acclimate to dormitory life and guide them through the ins and outs of academia......the initiative will raise an extra $25,000 a year to help get the program running. Students will be expected to pay standard tuition."

What about dorm life? From my own recollections (e.g. at Loyola, USF)  it was difficult enough for non-intellectually challenged students to deal with residents coming in all hours drunk and puking into trash cans. Will these Down syndrome kids handle that, or freak out?  It's one thing to say they will be helped to "acclimate" to dorm life, it's another for them to actually experience it first hand.

The Post article does add:

"The students will live in dorms with a 'typical' roommate and a dorm mentor will be around for extra supervision."

Well, he or she better be!  I also question the wisdom putting a Down student in with a "typical"  roommate.. Are these geniuses running the program even aware of what typical roommates are like these days?  Even if the Down syndrome kid is blessed to have a totally sympathetic, 'all in' roommate at his side, how long will it be before the latter grows impatient by the constant need for 'hand holding' to answer the Down syndrome kid's questions that his mentors didn't address?

The idea, obviously, is noble but it may not work out in practice unless the roomie is extraordinary as opposed to "typical".

At nearly the end of the Post piece we finally learn that:

"The students will audit two classes per semester with the hope of developing a certificate program they can take. The classes will be modified for the students by a volunteer or staff member so the instructor is not responsible for doing so."

One of the advocates for the Colorado Initiative for Inclusive Higher Education also adds (ibid.):

"Even though they are auditing we want them to be active participants in the class so they will participate in the discussions and do a lot of work so they can learn the content."

Still there will be a 'bail out' alternative available in case these kids find that they're out of their depth even in terms of course modification and auditing. This entails "coordinating with educators and parents at the K-12 level to let them know this is an option."

The motivation behind the whole initiative and pilot program?

"So when they get done they have a job so they can be financially on their own and get their own apartments".

But there are more practical methods than this to open employment doors for these kids. I already noted this in a previous post, e.g.

Wherein I pointed out:

""Is there an alternative that is rational and practical? Yes, and it requires people - students and parents- not to look at a four year college as the only solution for high school grads. As reported in the Denver Post, Colorado now needs 47 percent more  workers to fill "middle skill" jobs: RNs, airplane mechanics, auto mechanics, electricians, plumbers etc. Colorado, also, is not unique in such mid-level skill job needs - one can find them across the country."

This alternative would be a trade school or a community college that offers a trade certificate, e.g. in automotive repair.

Something to consider.

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