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As demand continues to grow for colleges and universities to serve students with intellectual disabilities, a recently formed accreditation council is focused on ensuring that programs meet quality standards.

Programs can be choosy in which students they enroll, often bringing only small numbers of students to campus. Typically, students can earn a credential but not a degree. A federal definition used with some programs describes students with intellectual disabilities as having “significant limitations” in cognitive functioning, as well as with social, practical and conceptual adaptive skills.

Leaders of programs say they see potential advantages to showing they’ve met certain accreditation standards. Martha Mock, a clinical education professor and executive director for the accreditation council, said the evaluation of programs can work “in tandem” with expanding college access and providing helpful information to students and their families “about what they’re going to get and what they’re going to experience” before a student decides to enroll.

Programs for this population of students, which vary in length and scope, have grown dramatically since 2004, when an informal survey found about 25 programs nationally, according to the Think College National Coordinating Center, which offers support to postsecondary programs for students with intellectual disabilities. The center now counts about 315 such programs, though that amounts to a presence at less than 10 percent of colleges and universities.

Proponents of expanding the number of programs point to research showing greatly improved employment outcomes for students, who also learn skills to help them live independently and be less reliant on family.

The Inclusive Higher Education Accreditation Council is set to make its first campus accreditation visit this week at Western Carolina University. The council, a group of volunteers, launched this month and is registered as a corporation in Massachusetts for the purpose of serving as an accreditor, although it still has a long road to petition to being a nationally recognized program accreditor by the U.S. Department of Education.

The Western Carolina visit is the first of five scheduled “pilot” visits that are meant to demonstrate the council’s effectiveness as an accreditor to the federal agency, with a goal to gain national recognition in the 2025—26 academic year, according to Mock, a clinical professor at the University of Rochester’s Warner School of Education and chair of the workgroup established by the Think College center, which launched the new accreditation council.

Accreditation comes with costs, both financial and in terms of time for those participating, said Mock.

But it’s “a way for programs to demonstrate and share how they are providing a high-quality program to students,” Mock said in an email, adding that programs that “invest the time and energy to complete the program accreditation process” are “interested in ensuring that students’ experiences meet the standards of the field.”

The Think College National Coordinating Center, based at the University of Massachusetts at Boston’s Institute for Community Inclusion, in 2020 announced it would receive a five-year, $10 million Education Department grant to continue assisting postsecondary programs. The center previously received two five-year grants, with a portion of the grants going to efforts to study accreditation.

Mock said in an interview that representatives of several college programs have approached the workgroup about taking part in the pilot phase. Accreditation could help create more uniformity and boost public perceptions of the programs, some program directors said.

“Accreditation is, a lot of times, a tough pill to swallow at the university level, because it’s a lot of work,” said Mary Breaud, co-creator of a program that serves intellectually disabled students at Nicholls State University in Louisiana. But while it’s hard work, “a lot of good comes out of it, and we want programs to be following the same guidelines.”

Christine Price, program coordinator for the Skills, Training and Education for Personal Success (STEPS) program at Austin Community College in Texas, said she gets phone calls from people wanting to know if STEPS is a “real college” program.

Accreditation “would create that validation for parents and students in the community,” Price said. “I also think it would help with students getting a job. If it’s an accredited program, then the chances of getting hired would go through the roof.”

The federal Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 opened the doors for the growth of such programs when it made federal grants available for students enrolled in what are known as Comprehensive Transition Postsecondary Programs. Students in these programs are eligible for Pell Grants, though not federal student loan aid. The programs must provide inclusive education opportunities for participants, such as access to classes with nondisabled students.

A young Black woman sits on a dorm room bed with a brighty colored duvet. She has a blue laptop computer on her lap.Since 2010, the federal government has funded model demonstration programs known as Transition and Postsecondary Programs for Students with Intellectual Disability, or TPSID, sites.

One study found that 59 percent of students who completed such a program had a paid job a year later, compared to a 19 percent employment rate for adults with intellectual disabilities in the general population, according to Cate Weir, project coordinator for Think College.

Not all programs serving intellectually disabled students have such a federal designation. The STEPS program at Austin Community College is applying for Comprehensive Transition Postsecondary designation to help students access financial aid, said Price, who also serves on a higher education advisory board in Texas that, in a report last October, called for more Comprehensive Transition Postsecondary programs as well as financial help to attend.

An earlier workgroup that developed standards for such programs listed more than 30 standards in such areas as curriculum, student achievement and student services in a 2021 report to Congress.

A part of the federal Higher Education Opportunity Act included authorization for work studying the accreditation of programs and stipulated a requirement to report workgroup recommendations.

“It does go a little beyond, perhaps, what some program accreditors do,” Mock said of the criteria included in the 75-page report, describing the importance of ensuring that programs offer individualized support for students, for example.

A light-skinned female student working on a laptop in a crowded classroom.Kelly Kelley, who co-founded the University Participant (UP) program at Western Carolina in 2007, said it launched at a time before standards and benchmarks were established.

“I didn’t have the benchmarks. Our program actually started with practicing teachers who were frustrated with the lack of inclusive opportunities after high school” for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities, Kelley said. Even so, she said, the program is in high demand, with many more applicants than it can take.

She welcomes having clear standards in place and said it’s important for programs to do a “mirror check” to see what’s working or not.

Mock, in an email, said accreditation does cost money, given training expenses and travel to sites.

“In terms of deciding how much it will cost in the future—the IHEA Council as a nonprofit will work to make the cost affordable to programs and universities,” she said in an email.

The visit to Western Carolina involves three peer reviewers, two liaisons and three observers, and includes alumni interviews.

Kelley said she has taken extra steps to help her current students understand why they will be asked questions about the program and to make clear that they’re not in trouble. “I don’t want to start a process without including them in that process,” she said.

Perhaps the accreditation process will one day evolve to include a reviewer with an intellectual or developmental disability, she added.

Breaud, of Nicholls State, said, “I get calls and emails every single day” from people wanting to enroll in the Bridge to Independence program. “We typically have a waiting list of up to three years for our certificate program.”

Louisiana state legislators last year created an advisory council that includes Breaud to help guide $1 million in state dollars to help expand programs or start new ones to serve students with intellectual disabilities.

Vocal demands from families in states such as Oregon and elsewhere for more programs has led to expansion of specialized college access for students with intellectual disabilities.

Carson Mitchell, 21, is in his first year in a program for students with intellectual disabilities at Portland State University, in Oregon. He spoke to lawmakers earlier this month about the importance of having more college programs for students with disabilities like him.

“I really want to help get this plan into action, so we can start building onto other community colleges,” Mitchell said in a phone interview, adding that, for students like him, college would “brighten their future.”

He said he sat in on a class last year and knew that he wanted to try college.

“I said sign me up, because if I didn’t, I would be home in bed all day,” Mitchell said.

With the accreditation standards at least now published as part of the 2021 federal report, Mock said she hopes they can aid in the start-up of new programs.

“The goal is that colleges and universities and advocates themselves can take this book … and say, ‘Here are the standards for the field right now, and let’s build the program from the ground up based on this,’” Mock said.

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