Mock Headshot

There are approximately 300 higher education programs for students with intellectual disabilities across the United States. But currently, there is a lack of standardized accreditation systems in place for those programs. 

In the latest episode, Dr. Martha Mock, professor and director of the Center for Disability and Education at the University of Rochester and chair of Think College National Coordinating Center Accreditation Workgroup, joins us to share what the workgroup has been doing to develop and launch accrediting processes for these students. 

Let’s take a deeper look into:

  • The development and launch of a new accreditation organization: the Inclusive Higher Education Accreditation Council (IHEAC)
  • The challenges and benefits of building an accreditation organization
  • The importance of accreditation, especially for students with intellectual disabilities

An amazing journey

The Think College National Coordinating Center (NCC) has been working with educators and higher learning institutions to create opportunities for students with intellectual disabilities for over 15 years.

In 2010, the organization received a grant from the U.S. Department of Education, dedicated in part to funding these efforts. 

“They’re the national leader,” Dr. Mock notes, “in terms of providing technical assistance to universities and colleges as well as for families and students.”

Think College’s first NCC accreditation workgroup focused on developing educational standards, while the second iteration concentrated on field testing and bringing together educational professionals, undergrads and their support networks.

Postsecondary education programs specifically designed for these pupils are crucial for promoting inclusivity in colleges and universities and helping more young people reach their full potential. 

Dr. Mock is thrilled to finally launch the Inclusive Higher Education Accreditation Council (IHEAC) after so many years of intense effort involving hundreds of stakeholders.

Access to quality programming

Some fields of study, such as nursing or architecture, have had set accreditation standards in place for many decades. 

The Higher Education Opportunity Act, passed in 2008, “put a real stake in the ground around accreditation and programs for students with intellectual disabilities” and ensured they receive access to federal financial aid.

“Looking at what was occurring in our comparatively new field, it’s trailblazing work,” Dr. Mock says. Getting this population fully involved in the college experience with accessible accredited programs will make it easier for them to enjoy every aspect of campus life.

Her team has gone through this process very intentionally — and they’re careful to utilize best practices to assure the highest quality in the programs seeking accreditation.

When deciding which standards to assess for, IHEAC took into consideration national standards and those outlined by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). CHEA assesses standards like mission, length and structure of the program, student complaints and information access — all for good reason. Ensuring the same standards were assessed was instrumental in developing a quality accreditation program.

The first of five pilot programs recently completed their self-study and they will be attending their first site-visit at Western Carolina University in March. IHEAC is looking forward to the opportunity to further refine the process and “have structures in place related to all the quality assurance measures.”

One of the biggest challenges was establishing effective communication channels between the pilot sites, peer reviewers and her colleagues. She is grateful to have experienced accreditors from other disciplines lending their invaluable support to her workgroup. 

“We’re really excited to get on the ground at the end of March and dig into the student experience, the alumni experience, interview family members who support students, talk with the staff and the leaders and see how the program is fully integrated to the campus and to college life.” — Dr. Martha Mock 

Policymaking for the future

The founding board members of IHEAC include renowned leaders in this field, such as policy expert and advocate Madeleine Will and past chair of the Think College National Coordinating Center Accreditation Workgroup, Stephanie Smith Lee.

Each founding member also has a familial connection to an individual with intellectual disabilities. 

The organization will soon apply for recognition from the U.S. Department of Education as a formal accreditation council. “Making sure that we meet the mark as it relates to being nationally recognized is essential,” Dr. Mock says.

“We made that strategic decision, in close partnership with Think College leadership, understanding that’s where we need to be in terms of both the students we’re serving as well as what it means to families” to offer transparency, universal standards and quality assurance.

She recommends Tell Me More by New York Times bestselling author Kelly Corrigan, who hosts an engaging series by the same name on PBS. The book encourages “thinking about listening,” and Dr. Mock considers that one of the most important aspects of her vital accreditation work.

Check out the resources we discussed in this episode:


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