Making the Shift from High School to College When Your Student Has Learning Differences

This is the first article by new College Parent Central contributor Lynn Abrahams.  Lynn specializes in college transition and success for students with learning differences.

When I think of the transition from parenting high school students to parenting college students, I am reminded of the Sunday when I first began to teach my son how to drive. The instant we arrived at the huge, vacant parking lot, the momentous shift occurred.  He clamored into the driver’s seat and I moved over to the passenger’s seat. All of a sudden, I knew that he had control of the car and I did not. I was terrified.

When your child first goes to college, you are no longer the conductor of his journey. You are a passenger – one with a very important role, to be sure, but no longer occupying the driver’s seat.

If your child has a diagnosis of learning differences, that shift may feel particularly challenging.

During high school, you needed to be involved in order to make sure your student got the services and accommodations they needed. The message in high school was, “be involved”. In high school, parents have access to student records and participate in the Individual Educational Plan (IEP) process.  In contrast, as soon as your child goes to college you may be hearing the opposite message.  In college, parents do not have access to student records, without a written consent from the student. In college, there are no IEP’s and it is up to the student to self-disclose to the Office for Disability Services. The message can feel like, “back off”.

How do the laws differ?

Having worked with families of students with learning differences over the past 30 years, I know that one of the most challenging and important steps for both parents and students is to look at how the laws apply to college students.  Knowing that different laws protect high school and college students with learning differences will help both you and your student navigate these new waters.

  • At the high school level, the relevant laws are Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.
  • The purpose of these laws is to provide special education services to eligible students outlined in an Individualized Education Program or Section 504 plan. The laws are intended to guarantee that each student with learning differences will have a free and appropriate public education.
  • These laws are designed to establish an environment where the child will have the opportunity for a successful academic experience, even if that means the school must modify curriculum or tailor its academic expectations.
  • The school is responsible to provide psycho-educational evaluations at no cost to the student.
  • Documentation focuses on determining whether the student is eligible for services.
  • At the college level, the relevant laws are the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), as amended in 2008, and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.
  • The ADA is a civil rights law prohibiting discrimination against individuals with disabilities.
  • Unlike the IDEA, the ADA is not about success; it is about access. College students must have an equal chance, but what they make of it is up to them.
  • The college is not responsible for conducting psycho-educational evaluations.
  • Documentation must demonstrate the need for reasonable accommodations.
  • Professors are not required to modify curriculum or academic expectations.

What should you and your student consider?

The shift in applicable laws between high school and college has a direct impact on your student’s role and the role of the educational institution. For example, in high school, if a student with learning differences is overwhelmed by the amount of material, it is likely that he will be on an IEP that may require teachers to modify the amount of work. In college, if a student with learning differences is overwhelmed by the amount of material, he cannot expect the professor to modify the requirements. He may ask to take exams extended time or choose to withdraw from a class to lessen the work load. The key here is that your student will need to understand his own challenges and be able to come up with possible the solutions.

Even though your student is in the driver’s seat and you are in the passenger seat, you still have a very important role to play. Have a conversation about how the laws change between high school and college. Have an honest conversation about how your student will take more responsibility in college. Finally, this is an opportunity to begin the conversation about what role you will play in supporting your student in the transition to college.

Related articles:

Does Your College Student Know How to Advocate for What She Needs?

College Parents Can Help Students Understand the Differences Between High School and College

How the Americans With Disabilities Act May Affect Your College Student

Helping Your College Student Find Support on Campus


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