Leaving high school

Do Colleges Look Less Favorably on Students With IEPs Than 504 Plans?

By Elizabeth C. Hamblet

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?

Elizabeth C. Hamblet

Learning Specialist for College Students

I’m so glad you asked this because I hear this kind of misunderstanding all the time. Many parents assume that colleges know whether applicants have IEPs or 504 plans. But the truth is that colleges will only know this if a student decides to share this information.

Pretty surprising, right? I think parents may assume that colleges ask applicants about disabilities. They may also assume that high schools forward this information as part of students’ files. Neither of these things is true.

Colleges aren’t allowed to ask students whether they have a disability. High schools won’t forward IEPs or 504 plans to colleges. And transcripts don’t indicate whether students received services. (The one exception is if the name of a special education class somehow makes this clear.)

SAT and ACT score reports don’t flag which students received accommodations on those tests. So the decision truly is up to applicants. They get to decide whether they want to let colleges know about their disability.

What happens when students decide to reveal this info? Do kids who say they have IEPs have a tougher time getting in than kids who say they have 504s? I don’t know of any surveys that have tried to tackle this question.

It would also be really hard to try to piece the answer together from different data sources. That’s because some students may choose to reveal their disability in their application. Some students may wait until they get into college. And some students may never tell their college they have a disability.

So, to recap: Students don’t have to tell colleges about their disability. And if they don’t mention it, then the kind of plan they have won’t matter!

Over the years I have spoken with families whose concerns about college made them think about dropping their child’s plan or switching from an IEP to a 504. I tell them not to do either one.

The only big debate is whether your child wants to mention her disability when she applies to college. This is something she can discuss with her college guidance counselor.

In the meantime, there are some things your child’s plan can start to do now to prepare her for college. If she has an IEP, make sure it focuses on independent learning strategies. These will be essential in college. Self-advocacy skills will be very important too.

Is she getting supports that might not be available at college? If so, you might want to consider phasing out some of these supports as your child gets closer to completing high school.

This will help ease your child’s transition to college. But don’t start tapering anything off too soon. You want your child’s plan to help her learn the strategies she’ll need to be successful without these supports.

About the Author

Portrait of Elizabeth Hamblet

Elizabeth C. Hamblet

Elizabeth C. Hamblet is a learning specialist who divides her time between working with students at Columbia University and writing about and giving presentations on how to help high school students with disabilities make a successful transition to college.

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