Oklahoma Legislation Proposes Tuition Awards for Students with Intellectual Disabilities

In Oklahoma City, Lori Wathen expressed her desire for her son to pursue education beyond high school.

Reis, who is 21 and has an intellectual disability, faces challenges due to the high costs associated with college programs tailored to his needs.

Oklahoma has seen a rise in educational opportunities for students with intellectual or developmental disabilities, with four universities introducing programs that offer degrees or certificates while aiding in independent living on campus.

Despite the benefits of these programs, their costs often surpass what typical students have to pay.

Legislation proposed by state lawmakers this week could make a significant impact on families like the Wathens, enabling students with intellectual disabilities up to age 26 to tap into Oklahoma’s Promise scholarship fund.

The proposed bills received unanimous approval in House and Senate committee votes this week and are projected to cost $400,000.

Under the legislation, families with a household income of $100,000 or less would qualify, with the limit rising to $200,000 for adopted students.

The existing financial strains faced by families dealing with the therapy and medical expenses related to intellectual disabilities make it challenging to save for higher education.

Julie Lackey, director of the Oklahoma Inclusive Post Secondary Education Alliance, emphasized the limited scholarships available for these students, who typically face annual program costs ranging from $23,500 to $30,000.

To address this issue, Lackey’s organization, Lead, Learn, Live, is fundraising to provide financial assistance to current program enrollees.

The comprehensive transition programs supported by Lead, Learn, Live at institutions like Oklahoma State University and Northeastern State University could immensely benefit from the proposed legislation, potentially transforming the lives of students for the better.

As per statistics, 59% of students with intellectual disabilities who complete postsecondary programs secure employment within 90 days, outperforming the average employment rate of 34% for adults with intellectual disabilities.

Senator Ally Seifried, the author of the Senate bill, is optimistic that the state can cover the costs without necessitating an increase in Oklahoma’s Promise funding.

Currently, 75 students are enrolled in eligible programs, offering promising prospects for gainful employment upon graduation.

Representative Ellyn Hefner, reflecting on her son’s challenges with intellectual disability, introduced a similar bill in the House to provide more families with the opportunity to pursue college education.

Several of her son’s peers are part of OSU’s Orange Opportunity Scholars program, enjoying a college experience that includes activities like joining Greek life and participating in intramural sports.

Hefner’s bill aims to expand these opportunities to a wider student population, empowering families with greater financial flexibility in making educational choices.

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