Northeastern Illinois University has earned a five-year U.S. Rehabilitation Services Administration Long-Term Training Grant totaling $975,175 that will support students in the Department of Counselor Education’s Rehabilitation Counseling graduate program. This is the fourth time Northeastern has received this grant.
“The Rehabilitation Act of 1971 saw people flood into the field of rehabilitation services,” Program Director Craig Johnston said. “What’s happening now is a lot of those people have retired or are retiring. At the same time, there are a lot more people who are recognized as having disabilities than ever before. The government has such a need for professionals to work with persons with disabilities that they’re willing to offer students free schooling in exchange for them to work in the state and federal government.”
Students who earn the grant have all tuition and fees covered in addition to a yearly stipend to help cover the cost of textbooks. For every year a student gets a grant, they are required to complete two years of service with approved State-Federal Vocational Rehabilitation programs, which include the Illinois Division of Rehabilitation Services and Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services. As they work, graduates earn a salary that they get to keep. The costs of their education need to be paid back to the government only if a student decides to work in the private sector instead of an approved government agency. When funding allows, the grant also helps fund the cost for students to attend national conferences.
“It’s a win-win-win situation,” Johnston said. “It’s a win for the students because they get free tuition and it will help them get a job in a field where they can have a long, satisfying career. It’s a win for the government because they get to employ qualified people to fill vacancies and meet the demand for these services. It’s a win for the consumers because they’re able to have trained individuals to provide services to them.”
Rehabilitation counseling provides services to those with any type of disability—be it physical or mental. Johnston says Northeastern tends to place a lot of students in the program in the Division of Rehabilitation Services and in the Veteran’s Administration because the grant is specifically intended to help consumers who need assistance with entering or re-entering the workforce. Johnston says that the demand for professionals in this field is so high that Northeastern’s program regularly receives outreach from at least 15 different states to help them fill vacancies.
“There is a nationwide need for trained rehabilitation counselors,” Johnston said. “With the number of people with disabilities continuing to increase each year, I do not anticipate the need for people in this field to go away any time soon.”
Johnston said most students who begin the program successfully complete it within two years and nearly all have gone on to find “acceptable employment,” meaning their employment meets the conditions of the grant and they will not have to pay funds back so long as they stay with their employer for the allotted amount of time. However, some choose to go into the private sector and have had to pay back the loan.
Northeastern’s rate of students who’ve taken the national rehabilitation counselor exam and passed is higher than the national average, Johnston said. Additionally, graduates of Northeastern’s program tend to be highly sought after due to the University’s diversity.
“We’re achieving great success,” Johnston said. “Because Chicago is so diverse, we’re graduating very diverse, multilingual counselors. In Chicago, with our multicultural population, there is an even greater need for counselors who are multilingual.”
Johnston, who was a recipient of this grant when he was a master’s and doctoral student, said the grant is currently funding 20 students and anticipates being able to fund about that many students each year for the entirety of the grant cycle.
“It’s a really rewarding field,” Johnston said. “It’s working with individuals with all kinds of physical, cognitive and mental limitations. It’s a place where you can work a long time and a field that has so many things you can do in it. I’ve taught now for 16 years and I still hear from some of my first students working in the field.”
Those interested in applying for this grant must complete a graduate admission application for the M.A. Rehabilitation Counseling program. There is a separate application for grant funding that students may complete after they’ve been admitted. New applicants can begin their course of study as soon as Summer 2021.