For Families: College is Different from High School

Think College Learn

In K–12 education, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) outlines how educational supports are provided. When students go to college, that all changes. There are two major laws, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Rehabilitation Act, that outline the way students with disabilities are accommodated at the college level. Under the ADA and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, colleges are required to provide equal access to their programs and activities. These laws are civil rights legislation that prohibit discrimination, unlike IDEA which establishes special education as an entitlement.

In college, there are no Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) to support student success as there are in high school. IEPs are not used to document the student's disability and do not dictate accommodations or services at the college level. Even for those students who are attending a transition program on a college campus, the ADA and Section 504, not IDEA, dictate access to college courses.  These expectations established at colleges both by law and by culture can be difficult to adjust to. But they are also one of the reasons parents want their kids to go to college—so they can continue to grow in an environment that protects students, while still providing opportunities to develop into more mature, self-confident, and capable adults.


High School College
Parents are actively involved in advocating for appropriate services and supports for their children. Schools reach out to parents and their participation is required. Parents talk directly to their child’s teachers on a regular basis. Students are expected to advocate for themselves. Parent involvement is not always actively sought, and may be discouraged at times. College faculty and staff do not typically communicate with parents directly.
Impact on Students with ID
This difference highlights the importance of self-advocacy skills. Students should be actively participating in their IEPs while in high school. They should be learning to speak for themselves and to advocate for their own needs. It also reminds parents that as their sons and daughters grow up, their role of parent becomes one of supporter and coach; no longer are they able to coordinate their child’s educational services. One successful strategy that has been used to assist the student to make this big leap into self advocacy is the use of forms or letters that a student can use to introduce himself or herself to a faculty member and explain their learning needs.
High School College
The IEP Team, which includes the student and school district develops Individual Education Plans (IEPs) and must follow this legal document in the provision of educational services. Core modifications of classes and materials are required. The School, with student and family input, is responsible for arranging for accommodations and modifications There are no IEPs in college. The Disability Services Office will develop an accommodation plan based on documentation of disability that is provided by the student. Modifications are not required- only accommodations. Student must request accommodations from the college Disability Services Office.
Impact on Students with ID

Students with intellectual disabilities may have had course modifications in their IEPs. In college courses taken for credit, modifications are not allowed. Some colleges work with faculty or a facilitator to identify course modifications or to create an individualized set of expectations for the course. In these cases, students would not receive a college credit. Accommodations are provided to students with disabilities, typically through the disability services office. While it is expected that college students meet with the DSO to arrange for these accommodations themselves, there may be some support to help students with intellectual disabilities become familiar with these services or there might be a separate or additional service coordinator or coach to guide/mentor the student. Some students might still have an IEP, if they are participating in college classes while still in high school. The college is not expected to enforce or provide modifications or accommodations included in the IEP. These remain the responsibility of the IEP team.


Documenting Disability

When students with disabilities, including intellectual disabilities, go to college, they document their disability in order to help the college understand how the disability impacts them and to assist in determining accommodations. For students to have such supports as an interpreter, large print books, extra time for tests, or audio books, colleges will ask for “proof” that the accommodation will provide equal access for the student. Recently, new guidelines for documentation of disability have been developed by the Association of Higher Education and Disability (AHEAD) that state that primary documentation should include

  • Primarily, a student report of their disability and how it affects them
  • Followed by observation and interaction
  • And finally, information from a third party.

This approach deemphasizes formal testing and defers to what the students themselves report. For more about documentation guidelines, read Supporting Accommodation Requests: Guidance on Documentation Practices (AHEAD, 2012). You can find it in To Learn More.

This is different from high school, where a disability is proven through testing and educators and parents discuss the best ways to accommodate and support. In college, students are asked to speak up for themselves and to share how their disability impacts them and what accommodations work for them.

To Learn More: 

In this video, two parents share how their kids learned about, and adjusted to, the difference between high school and college.Read more

In this video, college faculty talk about their experience with college students with intellectual disability in their classrooms.Read more

The Association on Higher Education And Disability (AHEAD) presents this conceptual framework to support appropriate practices in providing seamless access through equal treatment and the provision of accommodations. This revised guidance is necessitated by changes in society’s understanding of disability,...Read more