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High School vs. College Disability Supports

High School vs. College Disability Supports: What's the Difference?

Can students get an IEP or 504 Plan in college?

Let’s explore the changes in disability laws at post-secondary institutions. Before we embark on transitioning roles and expectations, let’s examine FERPA and how it directly impacts students and parents.


The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) of 1974 helps protect the privacy of student education records. It provides eligible students the right to review and inspect education records, seeks to amend those records, and limits the disclosure of information. The function of FERPA is to protect the rights of students and ensure the privacy and accuracy of education records. FERPA applies to all institutions that receive federal aid administered by the United States Secretary of Education.

Parochial and private schools at the elementary and secondary levels generally do not receive such funding and are, therefore, not subject to FERPA. However, Private post-secondary colleges generally receive such funding and are subject to FERPA.


Eligible Students

High School vs. College Disability Support

Once students reach 18 years old OR attend college, they become "eligible students." All rights previously given to parents under FERPA transfer to the student when they become adults. Eligible students can access their educational records, amend them, control disclosing personally identifiable information (except in certain circumstances), and file a complaint.


What this means

Parents cannot access educational records unless eligible students sign a FERPA waiver through their post-secondary institution authorizing the release. Unfortunately, this often comes as a shock to parents during the college application and enrollment process. To understand the complete picture, here are the top 15 areas parents can no longer access without a signed waiver:

  1. Transcripts
  2. Grades
  3. Educational progress
  4. Tuition
  5. Meal plans
  6. Financial aid
  7. Communication with post-secondary admins and professors
  8. Graduation status
  9. Class and college withdrawal
  10. Graduation Status
  11. Course scheduling
  12. Mental/reproductive health records
  13. Office visits and appointment-related inquiries
  14. Hospital admissions/records and test results
  15. Medication and prescription refills

Luckily, students and parents can talk about these options before they happen. This is why it’s imperative to inform families of the many changes before the transition starts.


Changes to the Law

In addition to FERPA, the laws in post-secondary institutions are different. In preschool through high school, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and Section 504 are at play. In post-secondary institutions, only Section 504 and ADA remain. Knowing students 18 and older are entirely in charge of their education plan, students must transition into the advocacy role for college and beyond.


Changes to Eligibility

For preschool through high school, a student is eligible for Section 504 if they have an actual, suspected, or record of a physical/mental impairment that substantially limits one or more “major life activities.” For an Individual Education Plan/Program (IEP), students are eligible if they have a qualifying condition that adversely impacts their academic performance AND require special education services to access the core curriculum. Additional state and local eligibility requirements may apply to IEPs and 504 Plans. Both involve Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE).

At post-secondary institutions, eligibility does not transfer as FAPE no longer applies. With IDEA no longer in effect, a child’s IEP essentially “expires” after they receive a high school diploma, certificate of completion, or age out of services. Colleges are not required to “Search and Serve” (e.g., Child Find) by locating, identifying, and evaluating post-secondary students. Adult students must disclose their disability, provide documentation to evidence the need for support, and apply for services. In essence, students become their own self-advocate.


Service Plans

Under preK12 IDEA support, schools are required to provide FAPE through Specially Designed Instruction (SDIs). Service plans could include education in regular classrooms, regular classes with supplementary services, and/or special education and related services such as transportation. Facilities must be comparable, and appropriate materials/equipment must be available.

Post-secondary institutions are different. They offer students with appropriate academic adjustments and auxiliary aids IF a student applies AND is accepted through their designated disability office. Through Section 504 and ADA, service plans provide the necessary support to afford an individual equal opportunity to participate in a school’s program. Disability services in college function to "level the playing field" vs. adapt/modify the curriculum. College recipients are not required to make adjustments or provide aids/services that would fundamentally alter a recipient’s program or impose an undue burden.


Levels of Support

Unlike K12 options, colleges and universities have the option to offer different levels of disability support. In a nutshell, there are three levels of support at most post-secondary institutions:

  1. Basic accommodations
  2. Enhanced services
  3. Fee-for-service programs

With thousands of colleges and universities nationwide, there are endless options and choices regarding disability support. This means students have great flexibility when it comes to choosing the right school for their unique learning needs. 


Changing Roles

Since eligible students are completely in charge of their education, parents must modify their role. They transition from actively supporting, planning, and monitoring to mentoring and guiding. What does this look like? Actively listen when your child calls home. Let your teen do the talking while you reflect on their ideas. You are now more of an assistant coach and no longer call the shots. Support your child, regardless of the outcome. Making mistakes and having setbacks is part of growing up.


Student Expectations

Students are expected to come to college ready to learn. Professors and school staff anticipate students will solve their challenges without having an email or phone call from home. Teens will learn to balance academic expectations with college life. They’ll be responsible for their academic schedule, studying for tests, and taking all necessary coursework. College life involves changes to housing, roommates, and social experiences. Let your teen take the lead when they don’t feel well, need to see the doctor, or get medication.


Let the Adventure Begin!

Embarking on the transition to college might feel like navigating uncharted waters. But remember, every great adventure begins with a single step. With the knowledge in hand, you're already on the path to success.

Be patient, stay positive, and celebrate each milestone along the way. These steps are just the beginning of a journey filled with growth, discovery, and empowerment.

Each student's path is unique, and it's essential to tailor the preparation process to their specific needs. Open communication, proactive planning, and collaboration between parents, educators, and the student themselves will contribute to a successful transition to college for your teen with a disability.


We’re here to help

You and your teen are not alone. There's a wealth of disability resources available to guide everyone through the transition to secondary education.

The journey may seem overwhelming, but with persistence, resilience, and the right support, your teen can overcome the obstacles that come their way.

At Rise Educational Advocacy, we provide expert-approved online training and workshops nationwide. We help families and teachers successfully navigate IEP and 504 Plans for K12 students and beyond. Learn how to Build a Better IEP™ today!


Want more information about going to college with a disability?

Click below to get our Preparing for College with an IEP or 504 Plan Guide!