As more individuals with severe disabilities look for postsecondary opportunities, institutions everywhere are stepping up to meet their needs. That’s certainly the case for Bellevue College. It has created a two-year degree program to help such individuals become more independent and employable.

Marci Muhlestein is the program director of the institution’s associate degree in occupational and life skills. It’s a professional, technical degree accredited by the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities.

“We’re hitting a population that isn’t being served by higher education, either because they think they have tried and failed at college or because they simply think they can’t do it,” she said. “They are hired at low-paying jobs with no chance of advancement or end up losing job after job because they don’t have the soft skills needed to succeed in the workplace.”

The program began after a group of parents whose children graduated from a private, Catholic school with no transition program for them approached administrators. They wanted their children to have some sort of postsecondary experience.

Making it degree gives program more value

The program began as an enrichment experience, but as it grew, administrators decided to turn it into a full degree program.

“Offering it as an associate’s degree gives the program much more credibility and provides our graduates more leverage when they are looking to get hired,” Muhlestein said.

Initially, some people on campus were concerned that the program wouldn’t mean anything. Others felt that the students who would be served by the program didn’t have the capacity to learn at the college level.

But the program was accredited in 2006, and over time, respect for it grew on campus. Then it underwent some improvements when Muhlestein took over six years ago. Today, it has support from the president all the way down to the faculty.

Self-funded model means more supports

Offered through the institution’s continuing education unit, the program is entirely self-supported. The CE unit was a logical home for the program, not just because many students are older and come with some life experience, but also because it is workforce-centered.

Typical students come with potential, past failures

Students admitted to the program typically have multiple disabilities and cognitive conditions such as nonverbal learning disabilities, generalized learning disabilities, attention disorders, traumatic brain injury, and autism-spectrum disorder. Despite that, these are individuals who have expressed a desire to obtain a college education. They may have attended college classes in the past but failed. Some bring work or volunteer experience, but most have difficulty with the kinds of soft skills that employers look for.

However, these students have the capacity to think critically and problem-solve, participate in group activities, make personal decisions on their own, and communicate their knowledge and opinions. And in many instances, they are also technology-savvy. The goal of the program is to develop those skills to make students more employable by focusing on occupational, life, soft and self-determination skills.

In fact, the program leads to post-graduation employment rates well above the national average, according to Muhlestein. Individuals with cognitive disabilities have an employment rate of 26.4 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, whereas 85 percent of OLS program alumni are currently employed, she said. And many program graduates earn significantly more than minimum wage.

There is a selective admission process. After attending an informational meeting, prospective students must complete an application and short essays. Their application must be accompanied by two recommendations and current testing results.

Course focus on independent living, job skills

The program consists of 90 credits, with a total of 52 courses, with 43 required to graduate. Those courses are open to OLS students only, who take classes in cohorts of 12 starting in the fall. In addition to providing specialized instruction, the courses incorporate the principles of universal design.

Courses that prepare students to live more independently include Personal Finance, Human Sexuality, Nutrition, Healthy Relationships and Citizenship. Those that help students prepare for the workplace include Office Procedures, Customer Service and Computer Applications. All classes incorporate soft-skills training, teaching students things such as punctuality, time management, prioritization and collaboration.

“Everything we teach is specifically related to life,” Muhlestein said. “For example, if we’re teaching evolution, we’re also teaching students how to be open-minded to opinions other than their own and work with others who may not share those opinions in a group setting.”

Classes are intentionally kept small, with the program currently enrolling between 12 and 24 new students each year. That way, students receive the individualized attention and support they need to succeed. While some instructors are college faculty, most have been specifically hired for the program based on their understanding of students with disabilities.

Internship prepares students for work

Also incorporated into the program are service-learning opportunities through local employers. That gives students the opportunity to apply their newly acquired know-how and skills in real-world settings.

Students create a career pathway during their first three years. In their last two quarters, they complete 200 internship hours. So when they graduate, they have had real workplace experience in their areas of interest. Plus, some of those internships translate into jobs.

Program costlier than normal classes but still affordable

The cost of the program is $425 per credit. That’s a bit higher than tuition for other traditional college programs. But charging more allows the program to employ its own support staff, so OLS students don’t get lost in bureaucracy and red tape.

And because OLS students are eligible for state and federal financial aid, it’s actually affordable. Plus, the institution offers students in the lowest income brackets a special discount, so they pay no more than $650 a quarter to attend, whereas otherwise they would pay about $2,000 a quarter.

For more information on the program, go to You may contact Marci Muhlestein at