High School and College: What Are the Differences?

While there are many differences between the K-12 and the postsecondary environment, the following underlying changes provide many of the challenges experienced by all students.

  1. Legal Rights and Responsibilities for College Students
  2. Summary of Legal Differences Between Secondary and Postsecondary Education
  3. Increase in Complexity and Unpredictability
  4. Change in Student Responsibilities

Legal Rights and Responsibilities for College Students

Accommodations in postsecondary education are governed by Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA). The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is no longer applicable. It is important to understand the differences between the laws and the new rights and responsibilities your student will have while attending a postsecondary institution. Additionally it will be important to understand the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) and how that applies to student records, including disability documentation records.

Section 504 and ADA

Institutions shall make modifications to its academic requirements as are necessary to ensure that such requirements do not discriminate or have the effect of discriminating, on the basis of handicap, against a qualified applicant or student.(104.44[a]).

The postsecondary education system is not covered by IDEA, but instead by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, and Subpart E of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (P.L. 93-112). These laws establish what colleges need to do to support equal opportunity for students with disabilities to participate in a college or postsecondary program or activity. Postsecondary programs or colleges are not required to lower academic standards to accommodate a student with a disability.

  • Students are eligible for academic adjustments, program modifications and auxiliary aids/services, but are not eligible for specially designed instruction offered under IDEA.
  • The college has no obligation to identify students with disabilities, but only to inform applicants of the availability of auxiliary aids/services, program modifications and academic adjustments.
  • Students must self-identify, provide documentation of their disability and the need for the academic adjustments, program modifications and auxiliary aids and services they request. The categories of disability, the type of documentation required and who is qualified to conduct the assessment(s) may be different than K-12.
  • Students only receive necessary supports (e.g., academic adjustments, program modifications, and auxiliary aids/services) that provide equal opportunity for them to access education.
  • Any alteration in course or program requirements (i.e., extended time to complete program, substitution or waiver of program requirements) usually requires the approval from the college and must be directly related to needs identified in a student's documentation of disability.

Additional Resources:

  1. Letter from the Office of Civil Rights to Parents
  2. Students with Disabilities Preparing for Postsecondary Education: Know Your Rights and Responsibilities from the Office of Civil Rights
  3. Understanding the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA).

Summary of Legal Differences Between Secondary and Postsecondary Education

Description Secondary Education Postsecondary Education
Federal Laws Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA); Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973; the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) Section 504 (particularly subpart E) of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973; the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA)
Purpose of Legislation To ensure that all eligible students with disabilities have available a free appropriate public education (FAPE), including special education and related services (IDEA). To ensure that no otherwise qualified person with a disability be denied access to, or the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination by any program or activity provided by any public institution or entity (504/ADA) To ensure that no otherwise qualified person with a disability be denied access to, or the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination by any program or activity provided by any public institution or entity (504/ADA)

For special education services

All infants, children, and youth (0 through 21 years) with disabilities (as defined by the state Administrative Rules for Special Education, and/or the ADA)

For disability services

Anyone who meets the entry level-age criteria of the college and who can document the existence of a disability as defined by Section 504 and ADA

Documentation School districts are responsible for providing trained personnel to assess eligibility and plan educational services Students are responsible for obtaining disability documentation from a professional who is qualified to assess their particular disability
Receiving Services School districts are responsible for identifying students with disabilities, designing special instruction, and/or providing accommodations Students are responsible for telling Disability Services staff that they have a disability, and for requesting accommodations for each class. Accommodations (not special education) are provided so students with disabilities can access the educational programs or courses used by other students
Self-Advocacy Students with disabilities learn about their disability, the importance of self-advocacy, the accommodations they need, and how to be a competent self-advocate Students must be able to describe their disability, identify strengths and weaknesses, and identify any accommodations needed and how to be a competent self-advocate

25-30 hours a week in the classroom

Emphasis on in class learning is primary, while independent reading and study is limited

Learning is teacher focused

Teachers may modify or alter curriculum and/or pace of assignments

Reading assignments are short

Teachers direct students step by step with frequent reminders

Expectation of limited volume of writing while still learning writing process

12-15 hours a week in the classroom

Emphasis on independent reading and study time

Learning is student centered

Instructors not required to modify design or alter assignment deadlines

Substantial reading assignments and out of research/study

Expectation of frequent independent review of class notes, text and research

Expectation of substantial volume of proficient writing


IEP or 504 plan may include modifications to test format and/or grading

Testing is frequent and covers small quantity of material

Teachers often take time to remind you of due dates and assignments

Grading and test format changes are generally not available. Accommodations to HOW tests are given are available (extended time, reader, breaks w/o study)

Testing often infrequent covers large amounts of material and may be cumulative

Makeup tests frequently not an option


Many assignments and tests are offered and no one assignment carries major course weight

Teachers frequently go over grades, due dates and expectations

There may be very few assignments and each assignment may carry significant weight in the final grade

Long term assignments common

Students expected to read, save and consult the course syllabus; Faculty give very little in the way of reminders

Study Responsibilities and Student Expectations

Tutoring and study support may be a service provided as part of an IEP or 504 plan

Time and assignments are structured by others

Daily schedule generally follows a consistent routine

Study expectations may be as little as 0-2 hours a week and is generally last minute test preparation

Students are not expected to learn or study information beyond what is covered in class and assigned

Assimilation of information is generally provided by the teacher and often provided in a consolidated review or study guide

Function with tremendous structure, guidance and specific proscribed direction

Tutoring DOES NOT fall under Disability Services. All students have a variety of academic tutoring opportunities available. Individual tutoring is not provided.

Students must manage their own time and complete assignments independently

Daily schedule is not consistent and may have large blocks of time with no classes/labs

Study expectations are 2-3 hours outside of class for each hour spent in class

Pursuit of inquiry and research is expected

Assimilation of information (notes, reading, research) is the student's responsibility

Function autonomously (independence and self-sufficiency expected)

*Some information provided in table adopted from the University of Lynchburg.

Increase in Complexity and Unpredictability

The typical college environment is more complex and unpredictable than the high school environment in terms of daily schedules, course selection, course expectations, and access to resources.

Daily Schedule

  • Classes vary in length and number of days. e.g., 2 days for 90 minutes or 3 days a week for an hour.
  • There are no bells. Students must know when they need to be at class and monitor the time.
  • One class might be right after the other as in high school, or students may have a block of time between classes.
  • Students choose when they stop for coffee, use the restrooms, smoke, and when to go to class, or study.
  • Classes may be in multiple buildings.
  • All classrooms may not be accessible, so students may need to register early to request an accessible classroom location.

Course selection and expectations

  • College course format, instructional strategies and expectations may be different than in high school courses.
  • There are more choices of instructors, courses and course requirements.
  • Students need to know how they learn best, what type of instructional formats and styles work best for them, and how to use this information in selecting courses.
  • There is no one person who ensures students complete the right courses and are on the path for earning credits toward graduation; students need to do this themselves or seek advice from academic or department advisors.
  • Instructors rarely teach directly from the text and often lecture for the entire class period.
  • Instructors often plan their courses so that students do a lot of their learning outside of class including acquiring knowledge and facts from outside reading and library research.
  • Most successful students expect to spend 2-3 hours of studying for each hour they are in class, and students with disabilities may need to plan on a few more hours.


  • Students need to identify and access any necessary support services.
  • Services on a college campus are often more expansive than in K-12 system (e.g., health center, bookstores, women's centers, and mental health counseling).
  • Students need to know what supports they require and in what office they might find them.
  • Services are located in different buildings and often have different names than in high school.

Change in Student Responsibilities

The type of high school a student attended, the expectations that their families placed on them, and the type of postsecondary program they choose to attend, may influence the differences the student will experience. Consider the following areas:

Student freedom

  • Students are expected to be responsible for their choices and, thus, need to have good problem solving, self-advocacy, decision making, and communication skills.
  • Faculty often will assist students if the student initiates the contact.
  • Support systems are available in college (e.g., academic advising, supplemental instruction, academic learning centers, resident assistant, disability services staff), but the student must seek those out, ask for the help, and follow through.

Life skills

  • Students who begin college after high school may not only be adjusting to a new learning environment but very possibly, even a new city and friends.
  • It may be the first time they are living on their own. They may need to learn to budget their money, cook, maintain an apartment, and learn how to live with a roommate.

Peer network

  • If peers do not attend the same college, students may be without a support system of friends.
  • During high school students often depend on their family and peers for support in problem solving, decision making and day-to-day activities, thus they may need a new support network.
  • College activities, organizations, and support groups can help to build new networks.

Source: The University of Oregon, Information - High School and College: What are the Differences?

Updated: February 2023