$1 million grant to fund counselor education master's scholarships

December 19, 2019

People who want to work as rehabilitation counselors in the state vocational rehabilitation (VR) system can get help financing the master's degree education they need to prepare for that role. That's because Penn State College of Education faculty members Allison Fleming, Wendy Coduti and Amber O'Shea recently received a $1 million Long-Term Training Grant Award from the Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA) that will create scholarships for master's students in that field. The grant, which has been available to the college since 1990, is awarded in five-year increments.

RSA’s mission, according to its website, is “to provide leadership and resources to assist state and other agencies in providing vocational rehabilitation and other services to individuals with disabilities to maximize their employment, independence and integration into the community and the competitive labor market.”

“These funds can significantly reduce the cost of pursuing our program while also providing immediate job placement following completion of the internship,” said Liza Conyers, professor of education (rehabilitation and human services) in the Department of Educational Psychology, Counseling, and Special Education (EPCSE).

The RSA award spans five years and covers approximately $22,000 for tuition per academic year for each recipient. The grant has a work requirement consisting of two years of working in the VR field for every year of support received, said Fleming, assistant professor of education in the EPCSE department. The last five-year grant trained about 40 counselors, some of whom otherwise might not have been able to afford graduate school.

“Students benefit because they get assistance toward funding a master’s degree and to work at this level,” Fleming said. “But it also means for every counselor who’s trained, they work with somewhere in the order of 100 to 200 people with disabilities at any one time in the community they serve,” which is a great benefit to that community.

Based on the funding priorities of the granting agency, the first choice for payback, Fleming said, is employment within a state VR agency such as the Pennsylvania Office of Vocational Rehabilitation. Counselors also can work with community agencies that serve VR clients as well as state correctional facilities and other settings.

There is an immense need for qualified vocational rehabilitation counselors, Fleming said, in large part because of the high unemployment rate and other problems that disproportionately impact people with disabilities. She said that as of July 2019, there were 72 counselor vacancies in state VR agencies in Delaware, Washington, D.C., Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia, with 234 projected vacancies in the next five years. Meanwhile, according to a news release on the U.S. Department of Labor’s website, the unemployment rate for people with disabilities was 8% in 2018, more than twice the rate of those with no disability, 3.7%.

“For people with disabilities, employment rates are not where they should be,” Fleming said. “So, any effort to try and help people who want to get to work and earn a living wage is important I think, in terms of statewide impact.”

According to Coduti, associate professor of education in rehabilitation and human services, vocational rehabilitation counseling doesn’t focus on only work-related issues but also includes all aspects of an individuals' life and how they may be impacted by disability.

“Rehabilitation counseling includes the whole life course of individuals as well,” she said. “It focuses on work but it’s everything else that’s involved to get the person work-ready, which can be a lot of other socioeconomic and psychosocial issues around disability.”

General requirements for scholarship applicants include having been accepted into the EPCSE master’s program; a desire to work in the vocational rehabilitation field; and a minimum 3.0 GPA. Students also can apply for a paid internship with the PA Office of Vocational Rehabilitation in their last semester. Since these are federal funds, international students must hold legal work authorization to pursue employment within the state vocational rehabilitation services system.

For more information, contact Fleming at apf5208@psu.edu or Conyers at lmc11@psu.edu.

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated December 19, 2019