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When it comes to accessing accommodations, there are big differences between high school and college. Most importantly, college students are expected to take on more personal responsibility and advocate for themselves. This can be a difficult change for students whose accommodations were handled by others in the past.

Please don’t be intimidated by the amount of information on this topic. A good place to start is this open letter to parents of students with disabilities about to enter college, written by Jane Jarrow, founder and president of Disability Access Information and Support and a parent of a child with a disability who attended college.

Major Differences Between High School and College

The intent of the law. The accommodation process in high school was largely governed by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). However, IDEA does not apply in college, where the accommodation process is governed by:

  • Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act
  • Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)


Section 504 and the ADA aim to ensure equal access — not guarantee success — to students with disabilities who are otherwise qualified to meet the essential demands of the program.


Identification. Colleges are not obliged to identify students with disabilities, only to inform them of available accommodations. Students with disabilities must self-identify and register to make accommodation requests.


Evaluation. Colleges are not responsible for evaluating students with perceived disabilities. Students must present documentation of their conditions for consideration of accommodations.


Documentation. Colleges may ask for documentation of students’ diagnoses, functional limitations and need for accommodations.


Reasonable accommodations. Accommodations are designed to ensure equal access — not guarantee academic success. Students are eligible for academic adjustments, program modifications etc. but not specially designed instruction.


Self-advocacy. Students in college are expected to advocate for themselves, not rely on parents or guardians. All accommodation requests must come from students. Because of FERPA, information about a student’s accommodations can be shared with their family only if the student permits it.


Partnership. Identifying reasonable accommodations is an interactive process. The student shares information about how their disability affects them and which accommodations have worked in the past. The Disability Center works with the student and their instructors to identify barriers and recommend reasonable accommodations. The instructor shares their knowledge of the essential elements of the course or program and to let the Disability Center know if the recommended accommodations compromise or fundamentally alter a course or program.


Complexity. The college environment is more complex and unpredictable than high school in terms of daily schedules, course selection, course expectations and access to resources. College students typically experience more freedom, need more life skills, and should expect changes in their peer networks.