For some students with autism, the idea of operating in the social environment of a college classroom can be so debilitating as to derail the pursuit of higher education at all. For those who do enroll, their condition can make it difficult to succeed in a traditional classroom setting.
But Dana Reinecke, in the department of applied behavior analysis at the Sage Colleges in Albany, N.Y., said she realized that through online learning, students with autism can overcome those barriers. “It allows them to learn from their most comfortable environment, whether it’s home, a library, a friend’s house, a treatment center, their psychiatrist’s office," she said. "It takes away that need to be in a room full of people that they might be uncomfortable with.”
In January, 15 of them won’t have to. They’ll begin courses for Sage’s new all-online bachelor’s degree program, the Achieve Degree , designed specifically for students with autism or learning disabilities. The program is the first of its kind. Many colleges offer programs for people with learning disabilities, but this is the first that has said it will focus on autism in particular (while not excluding students with other conditions) and that will award a bachelor's degree.
Besides the online format, the other key component to the Sage program is individualization. While the admissions standards and academic requirements for students pursuing the degree -- a bachelor of arts in liberal studies with an emphasis in computer science -- don't differ from those of the rest of the college, the program will be more flexible than others. For instance, students don't have to develop multiple ways of learning. They can opt for multiple-choice over essay exams, or choose their preferred form of content delivery – audio, video or text – and absorb the lectures that way. The program is also year-round, so students can take fewer courses per term and not drift off during summer break.
“There’s no reason that we can’t accommodate people with a range of differences or needs, or strengths or resources,” Reinecke said.
The Achieve Degree is similar in some ways to an associate degree program at Bellevue College  in Washington State. That program was an anomaly when it graduated its first class  in 2008, and it still is, said Marci Muhlestein, program manager of the college’s associate degree in occupational and life skills.
Reinecke was reluctant to speculate on demand for Sage’s degree after this first year, but Bellevue’s growth could bode well for Sage. The Bellevue program has slowly but steadily expanded – enrollment is up 12 percent, to 60 students. And this year the program graduated nine students, the first cohort to complete the entire program since it was accredited more than four years ago.
Muhlestein is certain that degree programs for students with disabilities will continue to spread – a handful of colleges always tell her at national conferences that they want one, she said. In fact, Bellevue is now trying to figure out how to “repackage” its program and apply it on other campuses.
There's certainly a market for it. Colleges recently reported  to the U.S. Department of Education that among their students with some form of disability, specific learning ones were by far the most common, affecting 31 percent of the population. In the same report, half of colleges cited financial barriers to training faculty and staff to accommodate disabilities and buying “appropriate technology” for students with impairments.
Sage is investing the necessary funding to provide that technology, individualization and mentoring, Reinecke said, but it does come at a price for the students. Tuition is $27,000 for the first year, followed by a “modest increase” the second year. The third year will cost $43,000 and be followed by another small increase. (Muhlestein’s program is similarly spendy – at $395 each, credits cost up to quadruple the price of others at Bellevue.)
“I hate the tuition issue, because I think it’s a big barrier,” Reinecke said. “But people with disabilities might also be able to access grants or other kinds of funding, so I’m hoping that it’s not something that’s insurmountable for too many people.”