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Transitioning from High School to College

DSS Information Night
To facilitate the transition from high school to college each year, DSS hosts an Information Night for MCPS Juniors, Seniors, and their families. The 2020 event has been cancelled.

Negotiating the Transition From High School to College

The transition from high school to college can be challenging for any student. However, students with disabilities have additional issues to face due to the change in the laws that guide educational practices from infancy through high school versus those that impact students at the college level. Up through high school, students with disabilities are primarily protected by the federal special education statute, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act 2004 (IDEA). IDEA 2004 ensures children receive a free and appropriate education (FAPE) that is designed to meet each and every child’s specific needs with the legal and financial burden falling on the school system.

However, educational rights covered by IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Act) do not apply to postsecondary education or follow students into employment. In other words, there is no Special Education at the college level. Colleges must comply with Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504) and the Americans with Disability Act of 1990 (ADA). The difference between pre-college and college can be seen as college students having civil rights, but no “education” rights. Another way to look at it is that IDEA is about SUCCESS; whereas, ADA is about ACCESS.

The contrast between the high level of assistance that students received under IDEA and the lower level of assistance provided in the postsecondary setting may lead to inaccurate expectations of students and their parents regarding how their educational needs related to their disability will be met as they begin college. The following can be used as a guide in understanding the difference in services between the two educational settings in order to assist in a successful college experience for students with disabilities.

Differences Between High School and College 

Legal Differences Between High School and College

High School (IDEA 2004) College (ADA& Section 504)

The law that guides the K-12 school system can be likened to affirmative action in that it guarantees special programming to boost positive educational outcomes for students. IDEA 2004 is about SUCCESS.

Laws that guide colleges are often seen as civil rights laws that level the playing field by removing obstacles that can prevent students with disabilities from participating in a program or activity. ADA and Section 504 are about ACCESS.

All students must be provided a Free and Appropriate Education (FAPE). The premise is that no child is too disabled to learn and will be provided with educational services.

Students must be “otherwise qualified” which refers to the fact the individual must meet the essential eligibility requirements of the program with or without reasonable accommodations, regardless of disability.

The primary responsibility for identifying students with disabilities, developing an Individualized Education Program (IEP) and arranging accommodation belongs to the school.

The primary responsibility for initiating the accommodation process in college belongs to the student who must self- identify and arrange reasonable accommodations for classes.

The school will make academic modifications to the curriculum that change course outcomes based on the IEP.

Professors do not make academic modifications if these modifications would fundamentally alter the nature of the course or program.

The school must provide the assessment of disability at no cost to the parents, classify disability, and involve parents.

The student must provide documentation of his/her disability at his/her own expense, to the designated disability support service office on campus.

The school must coordinate the provision of all services, monitor progress, and evaluate results.

The college must provide reasonable accommodations for students who qualify.


Differences in Accommodations

High School (IDEA 2004) College (ADA& Section 504)

Accommodations & services include individually designed instruction and accommodations based on the IEP.

Colleges do not provide individually designed instruction based on a student’s disability. Reasonable accommodations are made to provide equal access and participation.

The school may make academic modifications to the curriculum that change course outcomes based on the IEP. 

Academic modifications are made when they do not fundamentally alter the nature of the course or program or place undue burden on the institution.

Appropriate accommodations are determined by the student’s IEP. 

Appropriate accommodations are made based on a documented disability and resulting functional limitations.

The school must coordinate the provision of all services, monitor progress, and evaluate results. 

The college must provide reasonable accommodations for students who qualify.

School must provide auxiliary aids and appropriate equipment. 

Colleges must provide reasonable auxiliary aids unless an undue burden on the institution would result. These include interpreters, large print materials, assistive listening devices, etc.

The school must provide supportive services that can include transportation, speech/language therapy, OT/PT, tutoring, personal attendants, etc. 

Colleges do not provide supportive services such as transportation, speech/language therapy, OT/PT, tutoring, personal attendants, or tutoring as accommodations.

There is often pressure on special and general education teachers to do whatever is necessary to help students move to the next level (e.g., students allowed to learn only major concepts of a unit; may be able to take shortened tests; may be exempt from certain assignments, etc.).

 All students, regardless of disability, must meet the essential requirements of the course or program.


Differences in Parent’s or Legal Guardian’s Role

High School (IDEA 2004) College (ADA& Section 504)

Parents must ensure that their child attends school until the age of 16. 

Parents are not required to send their child to college.

Periodic progress reports are given to parents. 

No progress reports will be given to parents.

The parent is the student’s legal guardian. 

In college the student (over 18 years of age) is considered to be his/her own legal guardian unless there is a court order to the contrary.

The parent advocates for the student. 

Students are expected to advocate on their own behalf.

School staff will discuss academic progress with parents or legal guardians and the parent has access to the student’s record. 

The student is considered an adult with confidentiality protections. Staff/faculty cannot talk with parents or legal guardians about the student’s academic progress or access the student’s record without the student’s consent.


Differences in College Courses (for all students)

High School (IDEA 2004) College (ADA& Section 504)

Class attendance is mandatory and monitored carefully. 

Students are expected to follow the college’s and/or instructors attendance policy as stated in the syllabus.

Students are expected to read short assignments that are then discuss and often re-taught in class.

Students are assigned substantial amounts of reading and writing which may not be addressed in class.

Students seldom read anything more than once and sometimes listening in class is enough. 

Students need to review class notes and text materials regularly and independently.

Teachers remind students of assignment due dates for projects, assignments, and test dates. 

Professors do not remind students of assignment due dates; students are responsible for keeping track of their projects, assignments, and tests dates by consulting the course syllabus.

Teachers will provide students with missed information when they are absent, often accept missed assignments, allow make-up tests and may accept late assignments without question. 

Students must approach their professors for information they missed when absent. Professors may not accept late assignments and/or be allowed to make up missed tests and homework.

Teachers often will provide extra credit assignments to help students raise their grades. 

Professors typically do not give extra credit assignments.

Testing is frequent and covers small amounts of material. 

Testing is usually infrequent and may be cumulative, covering large amounts of material.