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Transitioning from High School to College

While there are many differences between the K-12 and the postsecondary environment, the following underlying changes provide many of the challenges experienced by all students.

Legal Rights and Responsibilities for College Students

Accommodations in postsecondary education are governed by Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA). The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is no longer applicable. It is important to understand the differences between the laws and the new rights and responsibilities your student will have while attending a postsecondary institution. Additionally it will be important to understand the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) and how that applies to student records, including disability documentation records.

Section 504 and ADA

Institutions shall make modifications to its academic requirements as are necessary to ensure that such requirements do not discriminate or have the effect of discriminating, on the basis of handicap, against a qualified applicant or student.(104.44[a]).

The postsecondary education system is not covered by IDEA, but instead by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, and Subpart E of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (P.L. 93-112). These laws establish what colleges need to do to support equal opportunity for students with disabilities to participate in a college or postsecondary program or activity. Postsecondary programs or colleges are not required to lower academic standards to accommodate a student with a disability.

  • Students are eligible for academic adjustments, program modifications and auxiliary aids/services, but are not eligible for specially designed instruction offered under IDEA.
  • The college has no obligation to identify students with disabilities, but only to inform applicants of the availability of auxiliary aids/services, program modifications and academic adjustments.
  • Students must self-identify, provide documentation of their disability and the need for the academic adjustments, program modifications and auxiliary aids and services they request. The categories of disability, the type of documentation required and who is qualified to conduct the assessment(s) may be different than K-12.
  • Students only receive necessary supports (e.g., academic adjustments, program modifications, and auxiliary aids/services) that provide equal opportunity for them to access education.
  • Any alteration in course or program requirements (i.e., extended time to complete program, substitution or waiver of program requirements) usually requires the approval from the college and must be directly related to needs identified in a student's documentation of disability.

Increase in Complexity and Unpredictability

The typical college environment is more complex and unpredictable than the high school environment in terms of daily schedules, course selection, course expectations, and access to resources.

Daily Schedule

  • Classes vary in length and number of days. e.g., 2 days for 90 minutes or 3 days a week for an hour.
  • There are no bells. Students must know when they need to be at class and monitor the time.
  • One class might be right after the other as in high school, or students may have a block of time between classes.
  • Students choose when they stop for coffee, use the restrooms, smoke, and when to go to class, or study.
  • Classes may be in multiple buildings.
  • All classrooms may not be accessible, so students may need to register early to request an accessible classroom location.

Course selection and expectations

  • College course format, instructional strategies and expectations may be different than in high school courses.
  • There are more choices of instructors, courses and course requirements.
  • Students need to know how they learn best, what type of instructional formats and styles work best for them, and how to use this information in selecting courses.
  • There is no one person who ensures students complete the right courses and are on the path for earning credits toward graduation; students need to do this themselves or seek advice from academic or department advisors.
  • Instructors rarely teach directly from the text and often lecture for the entire class period.
  • Instructors often plan their courses so that students do a lot of their learning outside of class including acquiring knowledge and facts from outside reading and library research.
  • Most successful students expect to spend 2-3 hours of studying for each hour they are in class, and students with disabilities may need to plan on a few more hours.


  • Students need to identify and access any necessary support services.
  • Services on a college campus are often more expansive than in K-12 system (e.g., health center, bookstores, women's centers, and mental health counseling).
  • Students need to know what supports they require and in what office they might find them.
  • Services are located in different buildings and often have different names than in high school.

Change in Student Responsibilities

The type of high school a student attended, the expectations that their families placed on them, and the type of postsecondary program they choose to attend, may influence the differences the student will experience. Consider the following areas:

Student freedom

  • Students are expected to be responsible for their choices and, thus, need to have good problem solving, self-advocacy, decision making, and communication skills.
  • Faculty often will assist students if the student initiates the contact.
  • Support systems are available in college (e.g., academic advising, supplemental instruction, academic learning centers, resident assistant, disability services staff), but the student must seek those out, ask for the help, and follow through.

Life skills

  • Students who begin college after high school may not only be adjusting to a new learning environment but very possibly, even a new city and friends.
  • It may be the first time they are living on their own. They may need to learn to budget their money, cook, maintain an apartment, and learn how to live with a roommate.

Peer network

  • If peers do not attend the same college, students may be without a support system of friends.
  • During high school students often depend on their family and peers for support in problem solving, decision making and day-to-day activities, thus they may need a new support network.
  • College activities, organizations, and support groups can help to build new networks.

Contact Information:

Justin Hiniker, Director

LARC 169
Phone: 719.549.2648

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