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Do colleges view 504 plans as better than IEPs when students apply to college?

By Elizabeth C. Hamblet, MAT, MSEd

Question: My ninth grader has an IEP. Someone told me that selective colleges look less favorably on applicants with IEPs than they do on applicants with 504 plans. Is this true?

Answer:

I’m so glad you asked, because I hear this kind of misunderstanding all the time.

Colleges don’t know whether a student applicant has an IEP  or a 504 plan . They will only know if the student shares this information.

In fact, colleges aren’t allowed to ask students who apply whether they have a disability. Nor can a college ask what kind of plan a student has, because that’s simply a different way of asking if the student has a disability.

High schools won’t forward IEPs or 504 plans to colleges, either. Sometimes, information about a disability could be revealed in other ways. For example, when a student applies to college, their high school provides a school profile. If the high school specializes in learning differences, the profile may reveal that.

The question about whether a 504 plan looks “better” suggests that disclosing a disability is bad or hurts a student’s chance to get into college. Unfortunately, there’s no data on how many students who disclose their disability are or aren’t admitted to any college. So we shouldn’t make any assumptions about how disclosure could affect students’ admissions chances.

What we do know from data is that colleges enroll many students who learn and think differently. A study by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) found that more 700,000 students identified themselves to their college as having a disability after they enrolled (for example, by registering with the school’s disability services office). The NCES study was done more than 10 years ago, so the numbers are probably higher today.

Of course, we don’t know how many of these enrolled students disclosed their disability when applying. But it’s safe to say some did. (Read about how three students disclosed when applying .)

Here’s my advice: The decision to disclose belongs to the student. If it’s something the student wants colleges to know, then adults shouldn’t discourage them from disclosing.

A student can disclose in many ways — for example, in an essay or in the section of the application that asks if there’s anything else the student wants the college to know. The student could also ask teachers writing recommendations to mention it.

If students don’t want to disclose for any reason, they don’t have to. Even if they don’t disclose, they can still apply for accommodations at college when admitted.

So, to recap: Colleges won’t ask for any information about what kind of plan — IEP or 504 — a student has in high school. You don’t need to switch plans or drop your student’s services and accommodations because you worry it might affect college options.

Let your child decide if they want to mention their disability when applying to college. If your child wants to disclose, encourage your child to seek guidance about how best to do this. And whatever the decision, remember that to get accommodations in college, students must still register with the disability services office .


Learn more about the decision of whether or not to disclose in college

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