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How High School and College Differ for Students with Disabilities

By August 26, 2019NESCA Notes 2019

By: Dina DiGregorio Karlon, M.A.
Transition Specialist, NESCA

Today, more students with disabilities are opting to attend college. As students plan to pursue college, it’s important for them to understand the increased expectations in college in the areas of academics, independence and social environments. For example, while in high school, the responsibility to get the students the services needed to be successful fell on parents and teachers; however, college students must advocate for themselves in post-secondary education. Below are some important ways in which the college and high school settings differ for students with disabilities, as well as some suggested strategies to prepare them.

Applicable Laws – In high school, students with disabilities are covered under the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA), which mandates a free, appropriate public education for students with a disability (3-22 years of age). Some students in high school are covered under Section 504. In college, schools must comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 – both laws are based on civil rights and prevent discrimination for people with disabilities. In short, IDEA is about success; ADA is about access.

Required Documentation – In high school, the school district is responsible for providing an evaluation at no cost to the student; this documentation focuses on whether a student is eligible for services under specific disability categories. Colleges are not responsible for the documentation. Students must get an evaluation at their own expense (if documentation is not current). Most colleges will accept current testing (within three years). This documentation must provide information about how the disability impacts the student and demonstrate the need for accommodations. Colleges will list on their website the type of documentation needed.

Modifications vs. Accommodations – In high school, if necessary, classes and materials may be modified, and the school is responsible for those accommodations and modifications. Some modifications may include reduced assignments or readings, adjusted grading to weigh a student’s daily work equal to semester tests. However, in college, there are no modifications to assignments or the curriculum; there are only accommodations. School is no longer responsible for arranging accommodations; rather students must advocate and arrange accommodations  for themselves.

Self-disclosure and Self-advocacy – In high school, teachers and parents support the student’s needs, with teachers approaching students if they believe assistance is needed. In college, the student is primarily responsible for arranging accommodations and advocating for their own needs. This is a significant shift—not just for the student, but for the parents, too. Parents no longer have access to the student’s records. The high school cannot disclose to a college a student’s disability—only the student can choose to disclose.

Disclose or Not to Disclose…That is the Question – Choosing to disclose that a student has a disability to a college is a deeply personal decision. As discussed, it is up to the student to disclose. If the student decides to disclose a disability, they need to understand not only the name of the disability, but also be able to communicate and describe how the disability impacts them and their learning. This is critical in determining what types of accommodations will be written into their 504 plan. While in high school, the student should be honest and realistic about the types of accommodations actually used and which of those were helpful. Helping your child practice discussing their disability and how it impacts them is very useful in preparing them to meet with the Office of Disability to share their needs. If a student decides not to disclose, they will not receive accommodations. However, all colleges have some type of tutoring and/or writing center to help students improve their academic skills. If a student chooses not to disclose and does not do well, they can still meet with the Office of Disability at any time to look into a 504 plan. However, their 504 plan will not be retroactive for the semester. Instead, accommodations will start from the date of the plan.

What Can Parents Do?

Preparing your child with a disability is critical to helping them be successful. Specifically, they will need self-determination skills. Self-determination is the understanding of one’s strengths and limitations together with a belief in oneself as capable and effective. These skills enable a person to participate in goal-directed, self-regulated, independent behavior. A person with self-determination skills is more likely to be independent and successful in work and training. Some suggested activities to help build self-determination skills include: Teaching your child how to make phone calls to make appointments, write emails with a professional tone and speak directly to people in stores or restaurants. Parents may need to start with a script to help a child practice, then fade support so the child is speaking as independently as possible in various settings. Other activities include having your child plan and prepare a weekly family meal (including making the grocery list, shopping for items, etc.), playing financial literacy games and activities (, or talking with your child about how to begin to interact more independently with healthcare providers.

As parents, it is important to know that as your children become more independent, such as going to college, while they are now holding onto the reins, they are likely to need your help with the steering.

While these differences may seem daunting, self-advocacy, executive functioning and independent living skills taught throughout an individual’s transition to adulthood (starting as early as possible) can help to ease the jump to post-secondary education and its accompanying expectations. If you would like to discuss this topic in greater detail as it relates to you/your student, please complete our online intake form and note that your inquiry is for Transition Services.



Center on Community Living and Careers, Indiana Institute on Disability and Community, Indiana University

National Council on Disability 

Santa Clara University

Think College

Life After IEPs

Financial Education for Everyone: Practical Money Skills



About the Author: 

Dina DiGregorio Karlon, M.A., is a seasoned counselor who has worked as both a school counselor and vocational rehabilitation counselor, guiding and coaching students and adults through transitions toward independence in both college and the working world. With NESCA, she offers transition assessment services in Londonderry, New Hampshire as well as transition planning consultation and coaching to students and families throughout New England.


To book Transition Services at NESCA or an evaluation with one of our expert neuropsychologists, complete NESCA’s online intake form. To book Transition Services in N.H., ask for Dina Karlon. 


Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton and Plainville, Massachusetts, and Londonderry, New Hampshire, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email or call 617-658-9800.