Transitioning to College

A Guide for Students with Disabilities

Going from high school to college is an exciting and important time for all students, and for students with disabilities, it may come with some unique challenges and considerations. The information on this site should help you as you navigate this journey, but never hesitate to reach out to our office if you need any assistance or guidance. 

Get to know your disability.

We consider students to be the experts on their own disability, but maybe you have never been given much information about your disability and have not had a chance to practice talking about how it impacts them in school.  We recommend that you: 

  • Review your documentation, like your IEP and 504 plans from high school, and ask your parents, teachers, and other school staff if you have any questions.
  • Review the list of accommodations you have used and how they helped or did not help.
  • Reflect on your strengths and what has best helped you succeed in school.

Make a transition plan.

As early as your junior year, you can request a meeting with your high school team to create a transition plan that outlines your goals and the support you'll need in college. A transition plan should include:

  • Identifying which accommodations or supports you currently receive that you will not be able to get in college
  • Discussing skill building and alternatives to those accommodations that can be put in place in high school 
  • Information on when and how to request all your disability and intervention related paperwork and documentation  
  • Outreach to potential colleges to understand what is needed to request accommodations
  • A list of accommodations you plan to request when you go to college

Develop self-advocacy skills.

  • Learn about your rights as a student with a disability in both public and private colleges and universities. A good resource is available through the US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights website.
  • Practice communicating about your disability and what it is like when you experience barriers in preparation for your accommodation request meeting for college.
  • Build confidence in explaining your disability and how specific accommodations can support your academic success.  
  • If available within your school, connect with other students with disabilities through clubs, organizations, or online communities. 

Request accommodations.

After you have been accepted to your college or university, contact their access or disability services office to understand how and when to apply for accommodations. Be sure to ask about academic as well as housing, dining, and parking accommodations if needed.  

Identify academic support services.

Most colleges and universities provide services to students like academic tutoring, supplemental instruction, writing and math labs, and other academic supports. We know that students who do well in school seek out and use these services early and often, before problems start. Meet with and get to know your academic advisor. 

Identify social and emotional supports.

Attend welcome activities on campus and in your residence hall. Join a student club or organization, and be sure to speak with your Access Coordinator or disability office if you need accommodations to participate. If applicable, find and connect with identity or cultural centers on campus. Find the counseling center and student health and wellness centers so you know where they are if you need them. 

How are accommodations different in college?

Students with disabilities have the right to receive support and adjustments that ensure equal access to education from preschool through every level of post-secondary education, including undergraduate and graduate school. While the right to access is the same throughout, there are important differences between K-12/high school accommodations and support and those available in college, due to the different educational environments and legal frameworks. 

Legal Framework

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act both protect students with disabilities across all ages and academic environments. 

Elementary and high schools also fall under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) for students with disabilities, which drives most of the support that students receive. IDEA does not apply to colleges. The ADA and Section 504 still apply, prohibiting discrimination based on disabilities and requiring that schools provide reasonable accommodations upon request, to ensure equal access.

What do those differences look like?

This translates into some notable differences for students with disabilities between high school and college. Those include: 

Responsibility to initiate services
  • High schools must identify students with disabilities and the responsibility for providing accommodations falls largely on the school.
  • College students must self-disclose their disability and request accommodations. The student individually notifies their faculty each semester if they plan to use their accommodations. 
Types of accommodations available
  • High schools offer accommodations and individualized education plans (IEPs) that promote student success and might modify assignments or activities. For example, a student might receive an accommodation to have fewer multiple choice options for tests, or the ability to complete assignments over long periods of time with the help of an intervention specialist.
  • College accommodations are focused on access and will not lower the academic standards or fundamentally alter any aspect of the curriculum. Rather, they make minor adjustments to policies, processes or course plans to remove disability related barriers. For example, a student will take the same test as the rest of their class, but they may be provided additional time to complete it and the option to take the test in a smaller group setting. 
Parent and family involvment
  • In high school, parents or guardians play a significant role in the accommodation process, participate in IEP meetings and make decisions 
  • In college, students are considered adults, and the accommodation process is directly between the student and the accessibility resource staff. The parent or guardian role is one of support, encouragement, guidance, and education for the student. 
Ongoing evaluation
  • In high schools, students and families regularly assess IEPs and accommodations, adjusting as needed throughout the school year.
  • In college, accommodations are generally maintained once approved, and are not changed or altered unless the student requests them to be.
Intervention and support
  • High school students have access to intervention specialists and other learning specialists that provide support, skill building, and assistance in the academic environment. Students may also receive one on one support from a dedicated specialist or aide. 
  • College students do not receive assigned support from intervention or learning specialists. Their Access Coordinator will be a resource for exploring accommodations and practicing self-advocacy skills. Students who need additional academic support will utilize campus resources available for all students, like the Learning Commons, peer tutoring, and working directly with their faculty if course material is challenging.