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Post-Secondary Services Definition

The Differences between K-12 and Post-Secondary Services for Students with Disabilities

The Laws

K-12 schools are subject to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  Post-secondary schools, however, are not subject to IDEA.

The IDEA is an entitlement statute that is about providing a free appropriate public education and enabling success in K-12.

On the other hand, Section 504 and the ADA are about equal access, the opportunity to compete.  Both are civil rights laws to prevent discrimination.  They apply in any setting (Section 504 only when an organization receives federal funding).  Though Section 504 applies in K-12 settings, the application of Section 504 differs in post-secondary settings in that the emphasis is on equal opportunity to compete, not on succeeding or the position of a free public education (FAPE).

Definition of Disability

The definition of disability differs in post-secondary education.  While the IDEA lists specific categories of disability, disability under Section 504 and the ADA is defined only as a significant limitation to a life function (such as hearing, speaking, breathing, walking, seeing, performing manual tasks, caring for oneself, working or learning).  Therefore, it may be that a student who was eligible for special education services in a K-12 setting may not be eligible for disability services in a post-secondary setting, and a student needing services in the post-secondary setting would not have received special education in a K-12 setting.

For example, students having behavioral problems that cause learning disabilities might be eligible for special education in K-12, but they may not qualify for disability services or accommodation in a post-secondary setting.  Students in wheelchairs could be considered eligible for accommodations in a post-secondary setting even if they never received special education during K-12 because they didn’t need it.

In the post-secondary setting, students must be “eligible” for disability services under Section 504 and IDEA.  They must be “otherwise qualified” for the educational program and meet eligibility standards for disability assistance.  In the post-secondary setting, the laws are about access, not success.

Areas of Confusion

How one obtains services in college

Because the IDEA is an entitlement statue, in K-12 schools, it is the school’s responsibility to identify children with disabilities and provide appropriate services to help them achieve a free appropriate public education.  However, at the post-secondary level, it is the student’s responsibility to “self-identify” in order to receive services.  Indeed, the student must request services each semester s/he is enrolled in the institution if s/he desires services.  If the student does not request services, no services will be provided.  The post-secondary institution does not come to the student as in K-12 and does not provide an individualized education program (IEP) similar to those received in high school.

Documentation of a Disability

At the K-12 level, the school evaluates and documents a disability, and if it is obvious that the student has a disability, no further testing is done because the disability is “obvious”, and the student qualifies for an IEP throughout the rest of her/his schooling, even if that testing is done in the second grade.  At the college level, however, documentation must be current because the student must prove that s/he has a significant limitation to a major life activity to qualify for disability services.

For example, a student who was diagnosed with dyslexia in second grade and never was re-evaluated may have learned coping strategies that would make her/him ineligible for services at the college level.  The student must provide documentation that s/he continues to have a significant limitation to a major life function to be considered for disability services.  It is the student’s responsibility to provide that evaluation or testing, not the institution’s responsibility.  Please reference Documentation Guidelines for a Specific Learning Disability if there are questions or concerns.

Academic Standards

The laws do not require colleges to lower academic standards.  Providing services and appropriate /reasonable accommodations to students with disabilities does not mean excusing a student with a disability from responsibilities or lowering expectation in the classroom, but rather allowing the student to use her/his abilities to assimilate information or perform class work in a manner that allows fair completion with other students. Therefore, do not expect classes or class requirements to be waived because they were waived at the high school level. This may not be the case at the post-secondary level.  Each case is considered individually.  For example, waiving the math requirement for a student desiring to major in architecture or engineering would not be approved because math classes are an essential element of the program.  Without math classes, the student would not be considered “otherwise” qualified for the educational program.


High school students are not usually encouraged to learn to self-advocate for themselves, but they must learn to do so in college.  The student will be treated as an adult; the disability service provider deals with the student, not the parent(s).

Parents and high school should encourage students transitioning to college to develop self-advocacy skills before coming to college.  Students, whether disabled or not, who arrive at college without these skills often struggle.  The independence of the college experience alone can be the biggest obstacle students have to overcome.  Self-advocacy means being able to make decisions, to make one’s own appointments, to follow through, to plan ahead, and to take responsibility for one’s actions (or lack of action).

It is the student’s responsibility to contact the Office of Disability Services and request services, to make arrangements to know when and where tutorial sessions take place, to talk to a professor about her/his accommodations, to remember to take medications, to complete assignments on time, to develop good study habits, and to attend class.

Students should be mentored by their parents and teachers to develop these skills long before they begin college.  A student’s success in college is her/his responsibility, not the parents, former teachers, the college’s instructors, or the college itself.  A post-secondary institution’s mission is access to programs, whereas, the K-12 institution’s missions was success.