First Accredited Program for Students With Intellectual Disabilities Finalized

Western Carolina University is the first U.S. institution approved for the program accreditation. Advocates and parents previously told BestColleges that accreditation is vital to show programs meet certain standards.
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  • There are over 300 programs within colleges and universities aimed at serving students with intellectual disabilities.
  • Until recently, however, these programs had no path to accreditation.
  • A new accreditation agency aims to ensure that these programs are high quality and lead to improved student outcomes.
  • Western Carolina University's University Participant program was the first to become accredited.

Western Carolina University (WCU) this week became the first college to earn accreditation for a program for students with intellectual disabilities.

WCU's accreditation is issued by the Inclusive Higher Education Accreditation Council (IHEAC), a newly formed nonprofit accrediting agency that specializes in these programs.

The Cullowhee, North Carolina, institution's University Participant (UP) program was launched in 2007, making it one of the country's longest-running programs for students with intellectual disabilities. UP serves up to 12 students at a time, and students receive a certificate upon completing the program.

"It is such an honor to be a part of a community that supports inclusive postsecondary education for individuals with intellectual disability having the same opportunities as everyone else at Western Carolina University," Kelly Kelley, professor and director of UP, said in a statement. "We are excited to be the first accredited program in the country."

The accreditation marks a new chapter in the decade-long push to ensure similar programs lead to good student outcomes.

Martha Mock, chair of the Think College National Coordinating Center's Accreditation Workgroup, previously told BestColleges the workgroup tried to identify an existing accrediting agency that could ensure these programs were high quality. However, finding no natural suitors, the group formed IHEAC in April to perform accrediting functions itself.

Advocates and parents of students with intellectual disabilities told BestColleges that accreditation is vital in legitimizing these programs.

Without accreditation, parents and students have no way of knowing if a program holds itself to any predefined standards. It makes choosing any program a leap of faith without any guardrails in place to keep programs focused on bettering student outcomes and a student's employability.

Mock told BestColleges her dream is for 75% of existing programs to be accredited 10-15 years from now.

Creating IHEAC and accreditation standards was a project that dates back to 2011.