WCU’s University Participant Program taking national steps 

WCU’s University Participant Program (UP) has high chances of being the first inclusive postsecondary education program (IPSE) to gain accreditation in the country.  

 The UP Program is a two-year, on-campus living and learning experience for college-aged students with intellectual disabilities. UP students audit college classes, have an internship or job leading to competitive integrated employment and have support for individualized goals while having fun at college with peers.  

 Accreditation is an official evaluation that a school or educational organization has met standards based on an external peer review process. In the summer of 2022, the National Coordinating Center (NCC) asked the UP Program if they would be the first pilot IPSE to go through the accreditation process.  

 “That’s the Western way, right? We take pride in being the first at everything, so this is no different,” said UP Program director, Kelly Kelley.  

 The accreditation processes 

 Having accreditation would ensure that the UP Program has a standardized system in place to support UP students.  

 To gain accreditation, the UP Program must meet 10 standards and submit 38 pieces of evidence to support those standards into a software called Weave for NCC peer reviewers. 

 In the last week of March, the peer reviewers will visit the UP Program at WCU to learn from their operations and apply it to other inclusive post-secondary education programs.  

 “I think they picked us because we’ve been around a long time, but I also think they know we add value to the inclusive part of the standards, so during the process, we are not looking at changing the standards. We are looking at how to apply these standards and what the process will look like for other programs,” said Kelley.  

 The NCC peer reviewers will give the UP Program the results from the March site visit in the summer of 2023. If accreditation is met and once the accrediting agency awards official accreditation to UP Program, it will remain on a seven-year accreditation review cycle. 

 Kelley anticipates that when people know that the UP Program is the only accredited ISPE in the country, applications will increase. The NCC Accreditation Workgroup is seeking to give accreditation to five sites by 2025.  

 Always first 

 The UP Program serves as a model demonstration site for North Carolina.  

 Currently, UNC Chapel Hill is developing an IPSE program based on UP’s model called Heels UP. 

 The UP Program helped develop Appalachian State University’s Scholars with Diverse Abilities Program (SDAP). The UP Program provided technical assistance and used its initial grant money to help start SDAP. 

 Apart from helping their neighbors, the UP Program has also gone international with the BLuE Program from Austria visiting in April.  

 As a grad student, Kelley co-founded a pilot program of UP in 2007 when the need was seen for people with intellectual disabilities because there wasn’t an inclusive educational experience for them after high school.  

 In 2008, the Higher Education Opportunity Act was reauthorized and allowed funding support for some of these programs to get started across the country. 

 The NCC developed the standards for accreditation from 2011 to 2015.  

 “We’re one of the first programs ever. They didn’t have these standards or quality indicators when we first started. We were kind of building the airplane as we were flying,” said Kelley. 

 The UP program had the same concepts just different terms, and once those standards and indicators were established the UP Program was able to follow them.  

 UP Program values 

 The UP Program serves 12 students to stay proportional with the campus population of 12,000. This is based on the general proportion of people with intellectual disabilities which is .1% of the population. Kelley states that the goal is to maximize opportunities at different colleges rather than overloading WCU with people with disabilities.  

 The UP Program has over 200 ‘natural supports’ who are WCU students. Natural supports must have a 3.0 or higher GPA and good attendance. Natural supports aid UP students with their classes and socialize at campus events and meals or leisure times. To serve as a class support, it is preferred that the natural support is enrolled in a class with the UP student so that inclusivity is increased.  

 Kelley wants to show the uniqueness of the program and have more people know about it. She hopes that with more outreach, people will see the UP Program as something beneficial and worth giving to. 

UP Program Supports, photo by Kelly Kelley.