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Know Before You Go: Key Differences

High School to Higher Education Transition Series, Part 1  

By: Emily Helft, Assistant Director of Professional Development, Landmark College 

More Disabled high school students than ever are opting into post-secondary education, whether a trade school, community college, or 4-year institution. Students with disabilities are still legally protected and entitled to an accessible education once they leave the K12 system. However, there are key differences within higher education that are important to know for students, parents, and educators alike as students take this next step in their educational journey.

Five of these differences are highlighted, below.

  1. *IDEA* IDEA (The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act)—the law that entitles all children to a free and appropriate education—does not “follow” students once they transition out of the K12 system. IDEA is tied to special education services (i.e. the services that are outlined in a student’s IEP, or Individualized Education Plan, such as speech and language support or direct instruction from a reading specialist). This means that post-secondary institutions are not obligated to provide direct services a student may have had in high school, though they may be offered indirectly through other campus resources, such as tutoring, student health services, or counseling centers. It also means that students, rather than authority figures such as a teacher, are responsible for making use of these resources on their own.
  2. *Laws in Higher Education* The main laws that cover disability rights in the post-secondary setting are the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) and Section 504 (of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973). These are both civil rights laws that prohibit discrimination against Disabled persons in all aspects of public life, in addition to guaranteeing that Disabled folks have the same opportunities as persons who are not Disabled. These laws are also applicable in the K12 system, though IDEA tends to get more of the spotlight. It may be hard to believe, but prior to the ADA being signed into law roughly 30 years ago, legal recourse for disability-based discrimination was challenging, and prior to 1973 (less than 50 years ago) it was essentially impossible. Some families are already familiar with these laws, especially if their child had a 504 Plan (which is tied to Section 504, as opposed to IDEA) prior to transitioning out of the K12 system.
  3. *Access vs. Success* The result of the change in legal drive related to disability in the higher education setting can be boiled down to one simple difference: in K12, which is often driven by IDEA, the goal is success (and why services are a part of this process); in the post-secondary setting, which is solely driven by the ADA and Section 504, the goal is access. While the spelling of these words is similar, the reality of how they function is extremely different. Essentially, institutions of higher education may not discriminate against students with disabilities, but they are also not obligated to guarantee the success of their students. While a student may be used to lots of check ins, double-checking, or follow ups from teachers in K12 to help ensure success, students must be much more independent in the post-secondary setting on their journey to success.
  4. *Accommodations* While special education services end with high school graduation, accommodations do not necessarily disappear, though they may look different than what a student is used to. Unlike services, which provide direct instruction or support of some kind (i.e. “success”), accommodations level the playing field (i.e. provide “access”), and are therefore still frequently approved outside of the K12 setting (and in the workplace too!). Because the goals and requirements for earning a degree are different in the post-secondary environment, accommodations that were appropriate in high school may or may not be appropriate once a student enrolls in higher education. This does not automatically mean a student will not be approved for accommodations that they had previously, however, it is possible they will not be approved or that the accommodation may be modified in some way. This is determined by an interactive process between the student and their campus’s Disability Resource Office.
  5. *A Student-Driven Process* When a student is in the K12 setting, parents are typically solely in charge of decisions, though students are encouraged to become a part of their disability planning as early as possible, such as attending and adding their voice to IEP or 504 Plan meetings. Once a student exits K12, however, the script is flipped: students are 100% in control of their own advocacy, and parents are typically only involved with explicit student permission. This means the student is in charge of all accessibility-related steps, including disclosing to their campus’s Disability Resource Office (should they choose to do so), sharing their approved accommodations with their instructors (again, if they choose to do so), and sometimes arranging for accommodations to be utilized (such as using a campus Testing Center to take a quiz/test, for example). This is an exciting change, though it can be a bit daunting at first. Making contact with the institution’s Disability Resource Office early on to learn about the disclosure and application process at that specific institution is strongly encouraged to help this process go smoothly.

The transition from K12 to higher education is an exciting one, but it is important to learn the ins and outs of this process to help pave a smooth path. With knowledge in hand, students and families can be confident and prepared rather than confused or scared!

To learn more about recommended steps for college transition, See Part 2 of our High School to Higher Ed transition series, Actions to Take in High School.

*Please note: this article intentionally uses both person-first and identity-first language throughout in order to respect both language choices.*

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