Feature Issue on Inclusive Higher Education for People with Intellectual, Developmental, and Other Disabilities

Accreditation Moves Forward


Stephanie Smith Lee is the past chair of the NCC Accreditation Workgroup and Senior Policy Advisor for the National Down Syndrome Congress. She may be reached at stephaniesmithlee@gmail.com.

Martha Mock is the chair of the NCC Accreditation Workgroup and clinical professor in the Center for Disability and Education at the Warner School of Education at the University of Rochester. She may be reached at mmock@warner.rochester.edu.

Beginning with this issue, Overview articles will include a clear-language summary for readers who prefer a concise description of the article's main points. We value your feedback and welcome any questions at stew0390@umn.edu

College programs go through a process called accreditation to prove they are doing a good job for their students. To be accredited, programs have to show their students are learning important skills that will help them in life and in getting jobs.

Under federal law, college programs for students with intellectual disability (ID) will soon be able to become accredited, too. Through accreditation, they will show they are giving their students a quality education and social experiences that lead to independent living and jobs in the community. This is important for students and families, because they want to know they are getting a good education for their money and time spent on the programs.

A group called the National Coordinating Center Accreditation Workgroup has written a set of rules for programs to follow, called standards. College programs are using these standards to make sure they are on the right track to become accredited.

The concept of accreditation for inclusive higher education programs was first written into federal law in the 2008 Higher Education Opportunity Act (HEOA). At that time only a few colleges and universities served students with intellectual disability (ID), but there was great interest from students and families in these higher education options.Advocates successfully encouraged Congress to include provisions in the HEOA that allowed students with ID to access certain types of financial aid and authorized model programs and a National Coordinating Center (NCC). In recognition of the importance of accreditation to these students and programs, the law required the NCC to convene a workgroup to develop model accreditation standards.

According to the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, “‘Accreditation’ is (a) review of the quality of higher education institutions and programs. In the United States, accreditation is a major way that students, families, government officials, and the press know that an institution or program provides a quality education.” (CHEA, 2022). Accreditation assures students, families, and institutions of higher education that a program meets an acceptable level of quality.

College students with and without disabilities sit in a classroom. Some students have open laptop computers on their desks. One student wearing a red and blue pullover and sitting in a wheelchair peers over his glasses to look toward the front of the room.

Accreditation in inclusive higher education will help prospective students and their families measure programs’ quality.

In 2010, the federally funded National Coordinating Center convened an Accreditation Workgroup comprised of experts in higher education, special education, and representatives of disability organizations, including policy advisors, content experts, family members, faculty, and program staff. This group consulted with experts, researched federal law and regulations, obtained public input, created model program accreditation standards, and reported to Congress. In 2016 the second workgroup was formed. They held sessions to gather further public input, surveyed programs about their interest in becoming accredited, and conducted field tests on the model standards developed by the first workgroup. These efforts culminated in the May 2021 release of the Report on Model Accreditation Standards for Higher Education Programs for Students with Intellectual Disability: Progress on the Path to Education, Employment, and Community Living (Think College, 2021). This groundbreaking publication outlines standards and provides guidance for college and university programs as they consider accreditation.

Accreditation demonstrates that the program meets a certain level of quality

The 2021-2025 NCC Accreditation Workgroup has begun the process of developing the accreditation processes, practices, and guidelines needed for an agency to begin accrediting programs that enroll students with intellectual disability. The NCC is developing training modules and materials to assist programs in meeting the standards once accreditation is available.   

Is accreditation worth it for programs?

College and university programs frequently seek out programmatic accreditation to demonstrate their ability to a) provide students with quality programming, b) ensure students make satisfactory academic progress, c) produce graduates, and d) display the ability to produce graduates who become employed. While there is an investment of time and effort involved in undergoing accreditation, the process itself has value as the program undertakes a self-study, peer review, and makes needed improvements. Once obtained, accreditation demonstrates to the IHE, potential students and their families, donors, and employers that the program meets a certain level of quality. 

What does accreditation mean to students and families?

This quality assurance enables potential students and their families to have confidence that a program offers the inclusive academics, career preparation, social engagement, and independent living support that is likely to lead to competitive integrated employment and community living. Already, TPSID data show 59% of students who responded to a survey one year after completing their inclusive higher education program remained employed (Grigal et al., 2021). This is a rate of employment that is three times higher than adults with developmental disabilities (19%) who did not attend such a program (National Core Indicators, 2019.) While the number of programs has expanded since 2008, to more than 300 today, there are far more students seeking admission than there are spots available. Identifying the right fit, applying to, and being accepted at an inclusive higher education program is a challenge. Once accreditation is available, it will provide critically important information about program quality for these families and students. Current students and graduates will have the benefit of attendance at an accredited program when applying for employment. 


During this period while the current Accreditation Workgroup is developing a structure for accreditation, new programs are using the model standards as a framework for program development. Current programs are using the standards for continuous improvement purposes and to be accreditation-ready when an accrediting agency is identified or created. The NCC is developing training modules and materials to assist programs in meeting the standards. Information about accreditation activities and resources is available on the NCC website .  

Accreditation is an exciting pathway to a better future for students with intellectual disability and the institutions of higher education that serve them.

Progress on the Pathway to Accreditation | In this 2021 presentation PDF , the authors discuss the importance of accreditation, lessons learned through field tests of early model standards, and how to use the standards now as the field prepares for full accreditation.


Council for Higher Education Accreditation (2022). About accreditation. Washington, DC: CHEA. Retrieved from https://www.chea.org/about-accreditation 

Grigal, M., Hart, D., Papay, C., Wu, X., Lazo, R., Smith, F., & Domin, D. (2021). Annual Report of the Cohort 2 TPSID Model Demonstration Projects (Year 5, 2019–2020). Boston, MA: University of Massachusetts Boston, Institute for Community Inclusion.

Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008, P.L. 110-315, 122 Stat. 378, 20 U.S.C. §§1001 et seq. (2008).

National Core Indicators (2019). 2018–2019 In-person survey: Work. National Association of State Directors of Developmental Disabilities Services and Human Services Research Institute. Retrieved from www.nationalcoreindicators.org/upload/core-indicators/Employment_4_16.pdf