Breaking Ground 106 - Tennessee’s Inclusive Higher Education Alliance Leads the Charge

By Elise McMillan, Co-Director, Vanderbilt Kennedy Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities
Next Steps at Vanderbilt and shows 5 students on their graduation day, dressed in formal clothes and wearing academic sashes with the Vanderbilt logo around their necks. There are three young Black men, one young white woman, one young Black woman and one young white man. Two of the grads have Down syndrome.

The Tennessee Inclusive Higher Education Alliance has worked since 2007 to develop inclusive education for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) at Tennessee’s two- and four-year colleges and universities.

The Alliance began its work before any inclusive higher education programs existed in Tennessee. Now, our state has six inclusive programs on college campuses!

The mission of the Alliance is to keep growing inclusive higher education options for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities across the state. Our meetings, website, and other activities are led by the Vanderbilt Kennedy University Center for Excellence on Developmental Disabilities (UCEDD).

Tammy Day is the Next Steps Program Director and Chair of the Alliance. “In the early days of the Alliance, we would share information about programs in other parts of the country,” she says. “Today, it is so wonderful to be able to share about the six programs in Tennessee. Of course, that’s not nearly enough! So, one of our main goals is to continue to grow this movement in Tennessee.”

Alliance meetings are all open to the public. The group is made up of:

  • Representatives from each of Tennessee’s inclusive higher education programs.
  • More than 20 state and local agencies.
  • Self-advocates and family members.
  • Representatives from colleges and universities in Tennessee.
  • Members of Tennessee’s Developmental Disabilities Network (the Tennessee Council on Developmental Disabilities, the VKC UCEDD, the University of Tennessee UCEDD, and Disability Rights Tennessee).

The Alliance offers technical assistance to help inclusive higher ed programs get started or grow. I am a founding member of the Alliance, and Co-Director of the Vanderbilt University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities. I have seen that the Alliance is a very giving network. Chances are, through our experiences over the past 14 years, there’s someone who has faced the same issues another program is facing. We also work closely with national groups who are great sources of expertise. (Tennessee has leadership positions with the Southeastern Postsecondary Education Alliance – SEPSEA – and Think College, the national Coordinating Center for inclusive higher education programs.)

In addition to our focus on growth, the Alliance also offers a place to share in several areas, including:

  • Spreading awareness of college opportunities, especially to students with disabilities and their families.
  • Educating legislators and policymakers about the benefits of inclusive higher education.
  • Helping develop funding and scholarships for students and for programs.
  • Promoting research across the state to help develop evidence-based best practices.
Lipscomb IDEAL program and shows 5 white college students, two boys and three girls with and without intellectual disabilities. 4 are in matching T-shirts that say “A-Team” and the other young man is wearing Lipscomb sports colors of purple and gold. They are all holding up 1 finger in a kind of salute and smiling

For more information about the Inclusive Higher Education Alliance:

Visit  The website includes:

  • Information and links for each of Tennessee’s six inclusive higher ed programs.
  • Information on Alliance meetings, which are open to the public. The next meeting will be July 16. It will be hosted by our newest program, Access ETSU at East Tennessee State University. Every Alliance meeting offers a choice of attending in person or virtually.

To be added to the Alliance listserve, contact Laurie Fleming at

group photo of a class of students learning and listening.