A brief overview of the differences between high school and college, including specific considerations for students with disabilities and their families.

Welcome to the Wes family. As parents and families of a student with a disability, you may be concerned about your student’s transition to Wes and their access to all that Wes has to offer. We are here to help with that transition. When students enter college, they become their own self-advocates and take charge of their own educational experience, including reaching out for support and accommodations as needed.

Parent and family roles shift as well. You will no longer be directing the process, but rather will serve as a guide in supporting your student in their self-advocacy. We encourage you to familiarize yourself with the key differences between high school and college and prepare your student for the shift in role to self-advocate; by knowing what resources and supports are available, you can encourage your student to reach out and access the support when they need it.

For students with disabilities, there are additional differences to consider between modifications they may have received in high school and accommodations they may be eligible for in college. Every student in college is required to meet all course and graduation requirements as outlined, and students must advocate for themselves when they need assistance. While courses and requirements cannot be modified, students with disabilities can self-identify to Accessibility Services in order to request request reasonable accommodations necessary to ameliorate barriers which may exist.

Here is a chart which highlights some of the key differences between high school and college for students with disabilities:

Differences in Laws and Processes

High School


I.D.E.A. (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) A.D.A. (Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990)
Section 504, Rehabilitation Act of 1973 Section 504, Rehabilitation Act of 1973
Students with disabilities are “Otherwise Qualified” for public education by being the appropriate age to attend elementary through high school “Otherwise Qualified” for higher education means a student must meet all entrance, academic, and graduation requirements, regardless of disability status
I.E.P. (Individualized Education Plan) and/or 504 Plan High School I.E.P. and 504 plans are not sufficient. Documentation guidelines specify information needed for each category of disability.
The school is responsible for providing services such as physical or speech therapy and disability related medical/personal care The student is responsible for personal services such as individual assistants or coaches and personal medical devices and services
School provides evaluation at no cost to student Student must get evaluation at own expense
Documentation focuses on determining whether student is eligible for services based on specific disability categories in I.D.E.A. Current Documentation must provide information on specific nature of condition or disability, functional limitations, and demonstrate the need for specific accommodations
Everybody knows about a student’s placement for special education, and teachers are often expected to learn all they can about a student’s disability Students have a right to choose when and to whom they wish to disclose disability status, and professors only need to know the accommodation the student is requesting
The goal of services is about SUCCESS
---The school modifies the educational program to ensure student success
The goal of services is about ACCESS
---The college makes reasonable accommodations which do not alter essential course or graduation requirements to ensure equal access

Differences in Roles and Responsibilities

High School


Student is identified by the school and is supported by parents and teachers Student must self-identify to Accessibility Services
Primary responsibility for arranging accommodations belongs to the school Primary responsibility for self-advocacy and arranging accommodations belongs to the student
Teachers approach the student if they believe they need assistance Professors are usually open and helpful, but most expect the student to initiate contact if they need assistance
There is often regular contact and meetings with parents There is not parent contact without the student’s permission
Parent has access to student records and can participate in the accommodation process Parent does not have access to student records
Parent advocates for the student Student advocates for self

Differences in Academics

High School


I.E.P. or 504 plan may include modifications to test format and/or grading Grading and test format changes (i.e. multiple choice vs. essay) are generally not available. How tests are given (extended time) are appropriate academic accommodations when supported by disability documentation
Teachers may modify curriculum and/or alter pace of assignments Professors are not required to modify curriculum design or alter assignment deadlines
Tutoring and study support may be a service provided as part of an I.E.P. or 504 plan Tutoring does not fall under Accessibility Services and is not considered an accommodation. Students with disabilities can request a peer tutor at any time, as they are available to all students.
Teachers often provide notes and/or outlines of course material Students are expected to take note independently (with approved reasonable accommodations, as needed)
Teachers often take time to remind students of assignments and due dates Professors expect students to read, save, and consult the course syllabus (outline); the syllabus spells out exactly what is expected, when it is due, and how assignments are
Testing is frequent and covers small amounts of material Testing is usually infrequent and may be cumulative, covering large amounts of material
Makeup tests are often available Makeup tests are rarely an option
Students are expected to read short assignments that are then discussed, and often re-taught, in class Students are assigned substantial amounts of reading and writing which may not be directly addressed in class
Students seldom need to read anything more than once, and sometimes listening in class is enough Students need to review class notes and text material regularly
Student's time and assignments are structured by others Students manage their own time and complete assignments independently
Students may study outside of class as little as 0 to 2 hours a week, and this may be mostly last-minute test preparation Students need to study at least 2 to 3 hours outside of class for each hour in class

Adapted from AHEAD guidelines 2010

We understand navigating and understanding these differences may appear overwhelming for students. Parents and families can best support their student by encouraging them to connect with our office early. Students can contact Accessibility Services at any time, though we strongly encourage students to do so prior to their first semester.

Self-identifying to Accessibility Services is the first step to accessing accommodations at Wes, but even if the student is unsure of requesting accommodations, we encourage them to make an appointment to discuss their options and resources, as well as their rights and responsibilities. Accessibility Services is ready to help your student have the best possible experience at Wesleyan University, but it is incumbent upon the student to initiate the process.