IDEA, ADA, IEP's and Section 504 Plans: K-12 versus Higher Education 


Students and their families may find it difficult to understand exactly how disability laws apply to higher education. The following highlights the significant differences between K-12 and higher education services available to students with documented disabilities.


The Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) addresses the federally governed special education services required for schoolchildren aged 3-21 (or high school graduation). The IDEA ensures that all students are successful in the school system, and is the law under which Individualized Education Plans (IEP's) are put into place. IDEA is not under effect in higher education, and thus colleges and universities are not required to fulfill accommodations outlined in a student's IEP plan.

Section 504

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 is a law that protects individuals from discrimination based on their disability. The law provides accommodations for students in need of modifications to the physical space or specific learning environment. It does not address special education needs, but rather allows all students to learn in equal environments.


The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) is a federal civil rights law providing equal opportunities for all persons with disabilities.  The ADA ensures equal access and opportunity and also protects individuals with disabilities from discrimination.


High School vs. Higher Education

It is vital that both students and their families are aware that 504 and IEP documents are not applicable in higher education - colleges and universities are not legally bound by these documents. An IEP may be a helpful accompaniment to the student with entering into the higher education system, but they do not suffice. Students must take responsibility for their learning and to ensure that reasonable accommodations are received.

At the high school level, school systems are required to identify and provide services to students with documented disabilities. In higher education, it is the student's responsibility to identify and request available services. More specifically, it is the responsibility of the student to seek out available services, self-identify to the appropriate accommodations office, provide updated and appropriate disability documentation, request accommodations, arrange accommodations (including scheduling each test individually), follow all procedures and protocols of the accommodation office, schedule and attend all support meetings, and be an active participant in all meetings. If documentation is outdated, it is the sole responsibility of the student to schedule a professional psychological assessment to obtain updated documents. The university is not responsible for providing psycho-educational assessment and/or documentation services.

Additionally, it is the responsibility of the students to contact professors and advocate for themselves regarding their accommodations. Therefore, it is the student's duty to notify professors of absences or provide an explanation of tardiness to professors. Providing these communications is not the role of the university, as they are not available as accommodations. It is the role of university staff to provide support and guidance in developing these advocacy skills. Staff is available to students who would like to arrange meetings and discuss specific skills, but it is the responsibility of the student to then take action.

In high school, students are often provided with the necessary learning environment and specialized staff to ensure success. In higher education, there is very limited access to staff trained in special education services. Students do have equal access to tutoring and academic services that are available to all members of the student body.

In high school, 504 and IEP documents place responsibility on the school to identify and provide clearly defined services. In higher education, it is the student's responsibility to request services each and every time they are needed. This includes requesting services at the start of each academic semester. Students must initiate contact with the accommodations office.

In high school, services are provided to ensure the student's success and highest level of achievement. In higher education, services are provided to ensure equal access to learning. Although accommodations are determined on a case-by-case basis, colleges and universities are not mandated to alter coursework or graduation/degree requirements. Examples of curriculum modifications that are include: extended time on assignments, professor-generated study guides, materials presented in alternate visual/verbal/written form, or written exam responses with opportunity to verbally clarify. Students with documented disabilities must meet the same expectations as outlined in the institution's handbook and by individual instructors.

It is also important to note that in higher education, parents cannot be contacted without consent from the student. This is mandated by law. Parents wishing to receive updates on their child's academic progress must have the student contact the institution directly to request permission. Again, by law, university staff cannot consult with parents without student authorization.


What is Required of Higher Education Institutions?

Under the ADA, higher institutions of learning are required to make reasonable accommodations for students who are able to provide documentation of their disability. These accommodations are made to provide equal access to learning opportunities.


How Can Students and Educators Prepare?

The differences between ADA and IDEA outlined above make it clear that adequate transition planning on the part of students, families, and educators is necessary for higher educational success. Students must be taught self-advocacy and assertiveness skills to ensure that the appropriate services are accessed once enrolled at an institution. Student's should also have adequate information on and experience using technological resources such as an assistive listening system before starting at a college or university.