Skip to Content    Skip to Footer

High School vs. College

Differences in the Accommodations Process

The responsibilities of postsecondary institutions differ significantly from those of public school districts. There is no "special education" program at the college level, however, colleges cannot discriminate on the basis of disability and are required to ensure equal access for otherwise qualified students with disabilities. "Equal access" includes providing students with reasonable accommodations. Making the transition from high school to college involves developing an understanding of the different laws that are applicable to each setting, the ways those laws impact the rights and responsibilities of students with disabilities, and the types of accommodations that are reasonable at the postsecondary level. You can review those differences in the question/answer format below and also in the quick-look comparison chart.

What are the laws?
High school: Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and ADA Section 504
College: Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 (Subpart E)

What is the intent of the law?
High school: To provide a free, appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment to students with disabilities. To ensure that no otherwise qualified person with a disability is denied access to, benefits of, or is subjected to discrimination in any program or activity provided by any public institution or entity.
College: To ensure that no otherwise qualified person with a disability will be denied access to, the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination by any program or activity provided by any public institution or entity.

Who is covered under the law?
High School: All infants, children and youth requiring special education services until age 21 or graduation from high school.
College: All qualified individuals with disabilities who meet the entry age level criteria or particular program entry criteria of the college and who can document the existence of a disability as defined by the ADA.

Who is responsible for identifying and documenting accommodation needs?
High School: School districts are responsible for identifying, evaluating and planning educational services at no expense to the parent or individual.
College: Students are responsible for self-identification and for obtaining disability documentation from a professional who is qualified to assess their particular disability. The student, not the institution, assumes the cost of the evaluation.

Who is responsible for initiating service delivery?
High School: School districts are responsible for identifying students with disabilities and providing special instruction, individualized education plans, and/or accommodations.
College: Students are responsible for notifying the college that they have a disability (most colleges have a department that oversees disability services) and of their need for accommodations. Accommodations (not special education) are provided on a term-by-term basis in order for students with disabilities to have equal access to the institution’s programs, services and activities.

Who is responsible for enforcing the law?
High School: IDEA is basically a funding statute, enforced by the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services in the U.S. Department of Education. ADA/504 are civil rights statues, enforced by the Office for Civil Rights (OCR), U.S. Department of Justice and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
College: Section 504 (Subpart E) is a civil rights statute enforced by the Office for Civil Rights (OCR), U.S. Department of Education. The ADA is also a civil rights statute enforced by the U.S. Department of Justice, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

What about self-advocacy?
High School: The parent or guardian is the primary advocate. Students with disabilities should learn about their disability, the importance of self-advocacy, the accommodation(s) they need and ways to become a self-advocate.
College: Students must advocate for themselves and be able to communicate what their disability is, their strengths, weaknesses and how the disability impacts and functionally limits major life activities. They must be able to identify and justify any requested accommodations.

High School: Accommodations and modifications in high school are designed to help students “succeed” and can include modified curriculum, modified tests and different grading standards.
College: Colleges are not required by law to make adjustments that would fundamentally alter the nature of a service, program or activity, or that would result in an undue financial or administrative burden. Further, your postsecondary school does not have to provide personal attendants, individually prescribed devices, readers for personal use or study, or other devices or services of a personal nature, such as tutoring or typing. In College, the requirement is the provision of accommodations that are considered “reasonable.” Students only receive necessary supports that provide equal opportunity and access.

For more information, see the article provided by the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) on the U.S. Department of Education website: Students with Disabilities Preparing for Postsecondary Education: Know Your Rights and Responsibilities

Comparison of Services

Service Comparison
High School College
The school identifies students and services are delivered based on the school’s interaction and involvement with the student. Students must self-identify to the disability center, seek out services, and provide appropriate documentation that verifies the student’s disability.
Services are based on a menu of choices Services are based on situational/individual needs
Parent acts as advocate Student advocates for self
Regular parent contact No parent contact
Parent has access to student records and can participate in the accommodation process Parent does not have access to student records without the student’s written consent
Annual review & IEP No IEP or annual review
Entitlement law (IDEA) Anti-discrimination law (ADA)
IDEA focuses on student SUCCESS ADA focuses on student ACCESS
Documentation focuses on determining whether a student is eligible for services based on specific disability categories in IDEA. Documentation must provide information on specific functional limitations and demonstrate the need for specific accommodations.
Tutoring and study support may be a service provided as part of a student’s IEP or 504 plan. Tutoring does not fall under college disability services.  Students with disabilities must seek out the tutoring resources that are available to all students at their college.
School provides evaluations and re-evaluations at no cost to the student or family If needed, students must arrange for external evaluations at their own expense. (Many colleges can provide a list of available community providers)