Protections and Services in High School vs. College

Student in class listening to a lecture.One of the most important things that students with disabilities and their families need to be aware of during the transition to college is the significant change in legal rights and protections that the student will be afforded as a person with a disability in college. Some high school students with disabilities receive special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 2004 (IDEA) and the special education laws in the state in which they reside. The IDEA requires that local schools provide a Free Appropriate Public Education to eligible students. This means that the student must receive an educational program that is tailored to their individual needs, at no cost to the student or the family. The student’s program is outlined in an Individualized Education Program, or IEP, that outlines specific goals for the student and needed modifications and accommodations that help the student to meet those goals. Other high school students with disabilities don’t require special education services but do need reasonable accommodations to help them access their education (including both physical and instructional access). These students are placed on a Section 504 plan, based on Subpart D of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Under IDEA and Section 504, a team of adults, including school-based professionals and the student’s parents, make decisions about the student’s educational program and work to put it in place. These decisions are typically made on the basis of assessment and evaluation data that is collected by the team and paid for by the local school district.

Once the student graduates from high school, the protections and services offered by the IDEA end, as do any services provided under Subpart D of Section 504. In the adult world, including postsecondary education, people with disabilities might be protected by two civil rights laws: Subpart E of Section 504 and the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act of 2008. Because these are civil rights acts, the person must be considered “otherwise qualified.” This means that a student must be accepted into a college, or a program within a college, as are students without disabilities. The impact of the disability need not be considered in these decisions. It is very important to understand that IDEA-based special education services are not required at the college level, and even services provided under Subpart D of Section 504 might not be provided under Subpart E of Section 504 at the college level. In addition, modifications to courses or plans of study are highly unlikely; instead, reasonable accommodations must be provided.

In college, the student will be required to provide documentation that verifies that they are a person with a disability that significantly limits a major life function (for example, but not limited to, learning, walking, hearing, or communicating). The student and/or the family are responsible for providing, and if necessary, paying for this documentation. Students and families in the transition planning process can search the websites of disability services offices at the colleges of interest to learn more about the documentation requirements, as each college can set different guidelines. 

The student is also required to self-disclose the disability to the college, and if accommodations are needed in a particular course, to the course instructor. This is the student’s choice, and it is important to understand that if they chose to not self-disclose, they are not eligible for accommodations and services. Moreover, accommodations that the student thinks might be needed, might not be considered reasonable. The college and the student will engage in what is called an interactive process to make these decisions.  Although self-disclosure can occur later in the student’s plan of study, retroactive accommodations are not possible. It is also very important for students and parents to understand that the student is responsible not only self-disclosure, but also monitoring progress. Parents, who may have been a key player in these decisions and monitoring in the past, must now take a back seat and let the student take the lead. Student self-determination is key! Click here for an article that has more details about the transition maze, and here for an article that describes the differences between Section 504 coverage at the high school level and the college level.