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What Are the Differences Between High School and College Special Education Services?

A student with ADHD recently published an article relating part of his journey to secure college accommodations. He described the struggles he encountered and the larger systemic issues of accessibility for disabled students from low-income backgrounds and who are first-generation college students. Unfortunately, the author's journey is echoed in the experiences of many New Jersey college students, and it highlights why it is vital to understand the legal and procedural differences between being a high school student with a disability and being a college student with a disability. A New Jersey college accommodations attorney can help clarify these differences.

  1. There is no "special education" in college. The term special education means individualized education provided to students aged 3-21 with a disability that negatively impacts their education. It is a protection provided under the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Improvement Act of 2004 ("IDEA"), and only applies to students who have not graduated from high school with a diploma. In college, students with disabilities may seek academic adjustments and college accommodations that will allow them equal access to the educational environment. These accommodations are legal protections available under federal and state anti-discrimination laws, the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA") and the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination.
  2. Medical documentation is required. Whereas high schools focus on educational disability categories defined by the IDEA and New Jersey Administrative Code, most colleges require students to provide medical documentation of their disability, often from their diagnosing or treating physician. High school 504 Plans and Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) are generally not sufficient to secure college accommodations.
  3. Evaluations and diagnoses are the student's responsibility. Colleges are not required to conduct evaluations to diagnose disabilities or provide recommendations for appropriate accommodations. If a college student seeking accommodations does not have the necessary medical documentation, it is the student's responsibility to get themselves evaluated or diagnosed. This applies equally to students receiving financial aid and to students without the private means to access in-demand specialists. In contrast, New Jersey public school districts are obligated to identify, evaluate, and assist students with disabilities without any expense to the family.
  4. There are no set deadlines by which college accommodations must be provided. Whereas the IDEA and New Jersey special education law require high schools to complete evaluations and develop an IEP within a specified timeframe, colleges do not have to abide by any standardized deadline for providing academic accommodations to students with disabilities. For example, a student with a disability who is eligible for special education in New Jersey can expect that once they are identified as needing evaluations, those assessments will be completed, and an IEP developed within 90 calendar days. A college student seeking their own evaluations or diagnosis will have to navigate private providers' waitlists, and in some parts of New Jersey, will have to wait several months to be seen, and then weeks longer to receive the necessary documentation of their disability. While they wait, college students with disabilities must continue their coursework without academic accommodations.
  5. College students must self-advocate in a way that high school students are not expected to. New Jersey public school districts have an affirmative legal obligation to identify students with disabilities and get them help, while college students have an obligation to disclose their disability if they need academic accommodations. The burden is on the student to know to whom, when, and what they need to disclose and to be able to support their request for college accommodations.
  6. The institution's compliance is separate from the student's success. Student progress toward clearly defined educational goals is the primary way to determine whether a New Jersey public school has met its obligations under the IDEA. In contrast, colleges have no obligation to ensure that students are successful. Colleges must ensure equal access to the educational environment, but growth and progress remain the student's responsibility.

These differences can have a stronger negative impact on students with disabilities from under-resourced New Jersey public school districts who are less likely to have access to medical resources, comprehensive insurance coverage, and legal knowledge than their peers in wealthier school districts. If you need assistance understanding your right to college accommodations, call one of our New Jersey education law attorneys for a consultation.

DISCLAIMER: The information you obtain at this site is not, nor is it intended to be, legal advice. You should consult an attorney for individual advice regarding your own situation.
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