VKC UCEDD co-director aims to expand inclusive higher education in the U.S. through accreditation committee work

Next Steps at Vanderbilt students at football game smiling

Vanderbilt Kennedy Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities (UCEDD) co-director Elise McMillan, J.D., recently served on a national workgroup of experts to develop model program accreditation standards for inclusive higher education (IHE) programs for students with intellectual disabilities. The 2021 Think College! National Coordinating Center Accreditation Workgroup wrapped up its work with the recent release of its latest five-year report.

McMillan, who maintains a leadership role within Vanderbilt University’s four-year IHE program Next Steps at Vanderbilt, was asked to join the 2016-2020 workgroup alongside another Tennessee IHE representative, ChrisAnn Schiro-Geist, Ph.D., faculty director of the University of Memphis TigerLIFE Program. TigerLIFE and Next Steps are two of six IHE programs in Tennessee that make up the Tennessee Inclusive Higher Education Alliance. The workgroup was chaired by Stephanie Lee Smith, senior policy advisor for the National Down Syndrome Congress.

Elise McMillan, J.D.

Elise McMillan, J.D.

“The overall goal of the Think College technical assistance center and this group that I served on has always been to create high-quality, affordable inclusive higher education options for students from all backgrounds across the country,” said McMillan. “While there are now more than 300 programs across the country serving over 6,500 students, this is still a relatively new area.”

The driving force behind of the Think College! National Coordinating Center Accreditation Workgroup is the thought that there should be accreditation just like there are for other college programs across the country. The first accreditation workgroup from 2011-2015 developed model accreditation standards. Taking the lead from their predecessors, the 2016-2020 workgroup conducted a field test of IHE model standards, held public input sessions, surveyed existing IHE programs in terms of their interest in becoming accredited, and conducted other outreach. The updated standards were developed and included in the most recent report submitted to the U.S. Congress and U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona.

“The goal of the report on the federal level is to continue to work to make sure there are standards to provide a roadmap as IHE programs are developing,” said McMillan. “The guidelines that had been developed were tested by a number of existing IHE programs across the country, including Vanderbilt. The long-range goal is that there will be a national accreditation for these programs.”

Closer to home, McMillan and the Tennessee IHE Alliance are working to provide more options for students with intellectual disabilities by increasing the number of IHE programs across the state of Tennessee.

“There are a number of two-year programs across the country, and we are working in Tennessee to support development of inclusive higher education programs at community colleges,” said McMillan.

“We’ve seen the amazing outcomes for students with intellectual disabilities who graduate from inclusive higher education programs. They are having the same opportunities and achievements as other college students. However, there are not nearly enough programs in our state or across the country. We must continue to work to develop more programs and to develop more scholarship funding so that the programs are truly accessible to all.”

Click here to view 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. You can also find an Executive Summary and the Model Standards. Learn more about the implications of these new publications here.

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