NJ Colleges, Universities Offer Increasingly Inclusive Campus Cultures

A growing number of schools provide expanded opportunities to students with developmental disabilities.

More schools are offering programs for students with disabilities. Photo: Courtesy of Ramapo College of NJ

It’s not unusual for Lisa Ford, senior director of the Arc of New Jersey, to see parents crying while touring college campuses with their children. They shed tears because, a few years ago, college was unimaginable for their children, who have autism and/or other developmental disabilities. 

“One mom told me that, because of these programs, her daughter, who has autism, can now attend college like her [neurotypical] brother,” Ford says. “Some of the earlier support programs for students with autism have been around for almost 10 years, but families are unaware these programs exist.”

She points to programs at Raritan Valley Community College and Mercer County Community College as two of the first to offer extended services and support to students with special needs. Broader supports at Rowan University, the College of New Jersey, Ramapo College of New Jersey, Fairleigh Dickinson University, Rutgers University and Stockton University are among the newer programs. 

While all higher-education campuses have disability offices, what sets these newer programs apart are the weekly counseling sessions, the meetings with graduate students, the social get-togethers, and programs that teach self-advocacy and organizational and time-management skills.

“It’s a game-changer for many of these students,” Ford says. “Families want these programs.”

Julie Gerber, 19, who hails from Chester, is in her sophomore year at Rowan University. 

“I don’t think I would have made it this far at a different school,” she says. “The support systems, as long as you use them, are plentiful and helpful.”

Rowan University’s PATH (Preparation and Achievement in the Transition to Hire) program originally focused on students with autism. 

“We’ve listened to a lot of parents and students who want to go to college,” says Chiara Jean Latimer, PATH program coordinator at Rowan University and codirector of the Center for Neurodiversity, says. “We expanded PATH to students with ADD, ADHD, and other learning disabilities. Our program was designed to teach good study habits so our students stay on track.”

Counseling sessions take place once or twice a week and cover everything from mental health to making sure students keep up with their course loads. 

“For many of these students, this is the first time they’re away from home. College is a time when students start to see themselves as adults, and we treat them as adults,” says Latimer.

Latimer adds: “It’s exciting and, at times, overwhelming. We tailor PATH to the individual student, and we offer guidance so our students can be successful and have fun.”

Gerber says she chose Rowan for three reasons: “The disability support, the engineering program, and the vibe of the campus.” 

“Plus it’s only a couple of hours from home,” she says. 

“Navigating all the issues I’ve run into with my disabilities has been the biggest way PATH has helped me,” says Gerber. “In addition to autism, I have anxiety and nasty migraines. PATH has helped me with speaking to teachers about the accommodations I need, with finding medical resources—both physical and mental—and with managing classwork and life.”

Rumson native Noah Mazzeo, who graduated from Ramapo College’s ENHANCE program in 2021, wanted a marketing job covering sports. After graduating from Ramapo, he worked with the Jersey Shore Blue Claws, a minor league baseball team, studying sports business. 

“Not only did Ramapo’s ENHANCE support my academic and social success, it provided me with the necessary resources and tools to flourish well beyond life on campus,” he says.

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