Differences Between K-12 and College

The transition from high school to college is a significant one for all students, especially those with disabilities.  Not only are the services for student with disabilities different, but the laws which protect their rights are different also.  Students with disabilities in college courses are treated as adults (whether they have turned 18 yet or not), which means they will be expected to take on more responsibility. 

Below are some of the key differences between K-12 and college:


Student records are accessible to student and parents 

Student records are accessible to student and parents  Any enrolled college student's records are only accessible to the student. Information cannot be released to anyone, including the parent, without a written release by the student 
Special consideration for behavior problems  Students must follow high school behavior code  Students are held to the Student Code of Conduct; no special consideration 
District identifies disability  Parent provides documentation of disability Student is responsible to provide documentation of disability and need for reasonable accommodations 
Success is more of a right  No guarantee for student success  There is no guarantee for student academic success; student is responsible for own academic success
Special education classes are provided Regular class curriculum with modification No special education classes; disability support office's role is to accommodate student in college level classes 
Free evaluation of disability  Parent is responsible for providing evaluation of disability  Student is responsible for disability evaluation 
District develops Individual Education Plan (IEP)  Services determined by 504 Plan  Student initiates request for reasonable accommodations. There are no IEPs or 504s in postsecondary education 
District ensures that the IEP is implemented  District/parent/student responsible  Student is responsible for own academic progress 
Entitled services identified on the IEP Services determined by 504 Plan  Providing reasonable accommodations is not an automatic process; each college determines eligibility and what reasonable accommodations will be provided based on the disability documentation provided 
Fundamental modifications to program of study permitted as identified on IEP  Fundamental modifications to program of study permitted as identified in 504 Plan  No fundamental modifications allowed: Accommodations may not result in a fundamental alteration to a course or academic program; nor impose an undue burden on an institution 
Teacher can advocate for student  Parent/student advocate  Student must advocate for oneself; parents have no contact with instructors
Personal services provided: e.g., transportation, personal attendant, nurse, in class aide  No personal services provided No personal services provided 


Transition to College

As students make the transition from K-12 to college, it's crucial to recognize the shift in how support is provided through the academic journey. In college, the focus pivots towards empowering students to independently navigate services and take charge of their academic and career paths.

K-12: Building Foundations for Success

Focus on Student Success: K-12 education is centered around ensuring student success in a highly structured environment.
IDEA and Section 504: These laws guarantee Free and Appropriate Education (FAPE) for students with disabilities, leading to modification of instruction and curriculum.
Individualized Plans: Individualized plans guide student instruction and services, with coordination between teachers and parents.
School-Based Services: Services are provided by the school district, including personal aide services arranged by the school.
Highly Regimented Schedule: High school schedules are highly regimented, with routine communication between parents and teachers.

College: Transition to Independence

Focus on Providing Student Access: College focuses on providing equal access through ADA and Section 504, without modifying course objectives.
Student-Initiated Accommodations: Students initiate and request accommodations independently with documentation.
No Comparable Individual Education Plans: There are no comparable individual education plans, and students are responsible for arranging accommodations.
Independent Responsibility: Students independently plan and manage their workload, facing unstructured schedules, challenging homework, and heavy reading.
Limited Parent Contact: Limited parent contact with instructors is allowed, requiring FERPA consent, as students must self-advocate and pursue campus resources independently.

  • 504 Plan: A plan outlining accommodations and services for K-12 students with disabilities outside the special education process.
  • IEP (Individual with Disabilities Education Act of 2004): Defines individualized objectives for K-12 students with disabilities and is reviewed annually.
  • IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 2004): Federal legislation outlining the civil rights of K-12 students with disabilities.
  • FERPA (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974): FERPA gives parents certain rights with respect to their children's education records. When a student reaches 18 years of age OR attends an institution of postsecondary education at any age, the student becomes an “eligible student,” and all rights under FERPA transfer from the parent to the student. transferred are "eligible students."