For the first time, accreditation standards are in place that are intended to be used as a baseline to assess the hundreds of postsecondary programs across the nation serving students with intellectual disabilities.

The standards, which are years in the making, are outlined in a report sent to the U.S. secretary of education and federal lawmakers in May and are designed to offer a way to judge the quality of the programs that have cropped up at colleges and universities across the country.

In recent years, the number of postsecondary programs for students with intellectual disabilities has exploded, with more than 300 now available. However, the offerings are far from identical, differing in everything from their focus to their length, level of campus integration and more. With price tags that can rival traditional college tuition, families have been left on their own to determine whether programs are up to snuff.

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The new standards are an effort to clarify what every program should provide, setting minimum expectations for the mission, curriculum, student achievement, faculty, fiscal capacity and other aspects of postsecondary programs. They are the result of a requirement in the federal Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008.

The report calls on lawmakers to fund an accreditation agency that would use the new standards to formally certify programs that meet or exceed the baseline. Already, a panel of experts is at work determining how to create such an entity.

In the meantime, Think College — a national organization that promotes higher education options for people with intellectual disabilities — is creating tools to help programs become accreditation ready.

“Parents and students may start using the standards as benchmarks when considering applying to programs,” said Stephanie Smith Lee, past chair of the National Coordinating Center Accreditation Workgroup, which established the standards and issued the report. “Programs meeting the standards will assure families that the programs meet a certain level of quality.”

Though programs will not be required to become accredited if a process for doing so is put in place, a 2019 survey of more than 100 postsecondary program directors found that 82% were “highly likely” or “likely” to participate.

Lee indicated that a number of programs are already using the standards for “continuous quality improvement.”