Managing the Transition from High School to College

Students with diverse learning needs face a whole new set of challenges when transitioning to college. The schedule is different, the social landscape is different, and perhaps most importantly, the support structures are vastly different. Students with documented disabilities who qualify for services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in high school will now qualify for services under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in college. While both legislations offer support and protections for individuals with disabilities, there are distinct differences in these structures in regard to service qualification, roles and responsibilities, and classroom instruction and coursework.

Service Qualification

Under IDEA, the school is charged with identifying and evaluating students who require special education services. These evaluations are conducted at no cost to the student and family and students are reevaluated on a specified schedule to ensure adequate and appropriate service provision. The school then uses information gleaned from the evaluation to generate an Individualized Education Plan or Section 504 Plan which guides service delivery, goal setting, and evaluation. However, in college, the student may be required to get an evaluation of aptitude and achievement at their own expense in order to qualify for accommodations and is not typically reevaluated after the initial documentation is approved. Required documentation for college accommodations varies by disability and by college, and students are often required to provide disability documentation beyond the IEP or 504 Plan.

Roles and Responsibilities

The roles and responsibilities of each of the members of the student’s team shift between high school and college as well. Under IDEA, the school is responsible for identifying and supporting students with disabilities and the onus for ensuring that the student receives necessary support and accommodations is on the school. However, under ADA in college, students are required to self-identify with the accessibility services office on campus in order to receive relevant accommodations and the student bears the responsibility for ensuring that accommodations are in place for each class, each semester. This requires a level of self-advocacy and executive function to establish and maintain these accommodations that is not required in high school. The roles of families are also much different, as families have access to their student’s records under IDEA, advocate for their student, and are full participants in the process. Colleges, however, are required by FERPA to communicate only with the student unless the student provides written consent to communicate with their family. Even then, the communication between the college and the family is vastly different than the flow of information families are often accustomed to in high school.

Classroom Instruction and Coursework

Lastly, the instructional environment in college is markedly different than in high school, and even more so for diverse learners. Under IDEA, students may be eligible for both accommodations (i.e., changes to how the student learns the course content) and modifications (i.e., changes to what or how much content the student learns), whereas in college, students are eligible only for accommodations. Teachers in high school are required to teach in ways that promote student learning and engagement, often using a multi-sensory approach or strategies such as Universal Design for Learning (UDL), while much of college-level instruction still relies on traditional lecture formats. While UDL and other diverse approaches are making their way into college-level instruction, they are not as ubiquitous as they are in high school classrooms.

The vastly different service delivery structures in high school and college can often compound an already difficult transition. The onus is now on the student to advocate for what they need and ensure that their needs are met in each class, each semester. Virtual Hall can support students to develop the self-advocacy and executive function capacity necessary to navigate this complex transition, establish a relationship with the right service providers on campus, and ensure these support structures are maintained throughout their college journey.

Author:  Kyle Reardon

In addition to being a Virtual Hall Team Leader, Kyle is also a Ph.D. candidate in special education at the University of Oregon. Kyle’s scholarship emphasizes postsecondary accessibility for diverse learners and his work has been presented at numerous national and international conferences. He holds a B.A. in Music Education and an M.A. in Special Education, both from Northern Vermont University.