7 things to know about college disability services

A young adult sits in a classroom with other students.

At a glance

  • Colleges provide accommodations under civil rights laws.

  • They typically coordinate supports through a disability services office.

  • Students must register with that office to get accommodations.

If your child has had an or a  in high school, you’ve been able to play a role in the process. You’ve had access to the people who are providing supports and services. And you’ve been able to monitor how well those supports are being implemented.

College is a different story — starting with the fact that there are no IEPs or special education in college. For some parents, that can be hard to adjust to at first. Still, almost all colleges have a disability services office for students with learning and thinking differences.

Here are seven things to know about college disability services, and how they differ from high school.

Colleges don’t fall under the . That’s why there are no IEPs.

This means colleges don’t have to provide the same level of supports and services a student might have gotten in high school. For instance, they don’t have to provide specialized instruction or tutoring.

They do have to follow federal civil rights laws, however. That includes Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the (ADA).

These laws have a different goal than IDEA. Their purpose is to ensure equal access for people with disabilities and to protect them against discrimination.

Colleges provide accommodations to students who are eligible under ADA. (Some may also provide support services like tutoring or coaching for a fee.) They don’t typically provide 504 plans the same way high schools do, though.

Colleges also don’t have to give students the same types of academic support they had in high school. But if students can provide evidence that they need a specific accommodation, they may be eligible to get it in college.

They’re not likely to find more personalized help, however. That includes things like having someone make them a study guide or reframe study questions.

2. Your child must register as a student with disabilities to get accommodations.

The process of applying for happens separately from the college application process. It usually begins after your child has been accepted and has enrolled in the college.

In order to get accommodations in college, students need to register as a student with disabilities. This happens with the disability services office, not the admissions office.

Watch as Anya describes her experience with accommodations in college.

Simply writing about any issues in a college application doesn’t guarantee that a student will get accommodations. Neither does providing a copy of an IEP or evaluation during the application process.

Admissions offices typically won’t look at these things before admitting a student. Under ADA, they’re not allowed to accept or request any information about a student’s disabilities.

Colleges usually have instructions for how to register for disability services on their website. Your child should look for the instructions on the page for the school’s disability services office. (The name of the office might not have the word disability in it. Your child can also look for words like access, equity, or accommodations.)

The process typically involves completing a registration or application form. Students may have to log into the school’s system with student ID to do that, or they may be able to print the form. Someone from the office will sit down with your child for a one-on-one intake. This is a good time for your child to speak about specific needs for accommodations and support services.

3. The requirements for documentation in college are changing.

Your child will need to provide evidence of a disability to get accommodations. Colleges have typically required the most recent high school evaluation report. But lately, some have moved away from that.

Many colleges also have a requirement for how recent the evidence must be. Often, the requirement is three years or less. But that’s also changing at some colleges.

When it comes to documentation, your child should check with the disability services office at the college.

4. There are no “case managers” in college.

Your child may have a dedicated contact person at the disability services office. That will continue for as long as your child is seeking accommodations. But this person doesn’t function in the same way as a high school case manager.

First, this person will work with your child to determine “reasonable” accommodations. These might be academic, such as the use of a note-taker for lectures. Or they might be non-academic, like having a single dorm room.

This person will write an “accommodation letter” listing the ones your child is entitled to get. The letter will be addressed to the faculty in your child’s courses for that semester.

The process for informing professors about a student’s accommodations varies. At some colleges, the disability services officer will email them. But it’s more typical for students to give the letter to professors and also explain their accommodation needs.

No matter how the message is delivered, it will only say that the student has been approved for accommodations. It won’t say what the disability is. This protects the student’s privacy. But if the student wants to tell professors about it, that’s OK.

5. Different schools offer different levels of support.

All colleges that get federal funds must ensure equal access to students with disabilities. That means they have to provide reasonable accommodations.

Accommodations aren’t the same as modifications. A student wouldn’t be allowed to bring a list of formulas into a statistics test, for instance. That would be a modification. Giving extra time for the test is an example of an accommodation.

Here are some other typical accommodations in college:

  • Having a note-taker for class lectures

  • Making audio recordings of lectures

  • Using a laptop computer in the classroom

  • Taking exams in a distraction-reduced room

Some colleges go beyond that and provide a greater range of supports. (That’s not counting schools with specific programs for students with learning and thinking differences.)

Some colleges may have professional tutors with a background in learning and thinking differences, for instance. Or they might run study skills and time management workshops. The difference is, none of these services are required by law in college.

It’s a good idea to visit with the disability services office or the person who coordinates services at the colleges your child is interested in attending. Both you and your child can ask questions about potential supports and services.

One area to ask about is . Find out what might be available for your child.

6. You’re no longer automatically in the loop.

When your child was in high school, you were legally entitled to be part of the process. That’s not true when your child is in college. The law protects your child’s privacy. So if you want to talk to the disability services officer or anyone else involved with your child’s accommodations, you’ll need permission from both your child and the school.

7. Colleges don’t provide evaluations for learning and thinking differences.

After high school, students have to go for a private evaluation if they want updated test results, or if they suspect they may have an undiagnosed learning or thinking difference.

There are big differences between supports in high school and in college for students with learning and thinking differences. But while parents can’t play a direct role when their kids are in college, there are still things they can do to help them succeed. For instance, parents and students can work together to create a time management system.

Hear from an expert on why it’s important to let your child take the lead in finding a college. Get suggestions for making the application process less stressful. And learn how to tell if your child is emotionally ready to go away to college.

Key takeaways

  • Students get a contact person at disability services for as long as they’re seeking accommodations.

  • The contact person will write a letter explaining your child’s accommodations to professors.

  • Documentation policies may differ between schools. Ask the disability services office what’s required.


Explore related topics

Read next