• Elizabeth Hamblet

Misunderstandings About IEPs, 504s, and College Accommodations For LD, ADHD: Clarifying Vocabulary

Whether I am online looking at posts people are sharing or talking to parents or professionals at my presentations, I find that there is (understandably) a lot of misunderstanding and misinterpretation of what does and doesn’t happen for students with learning disabilities (LD) and ADHD at college.

Based on what I've seen and heard, it seems some people either believe:

  • there are no disability accommodations available at college (or that they’re only for people with visual, hearing, or physical disabilities, not those with LD and ADHD)

or

  • that colleges have to follow students’ high school plan and provide all of the same accommodations they received in the past

Neither of these statements is true, but I understand why people believe them.

One central fact is important to understand - IEPs or 504 plans are not valid once students either graduate from high school or age out of the system, and those plans don’t “transfer” to college. IDEA doesn't cover colleges, so IEPs essentially "expire" once students are out of high school.


What interesting is that I’ve spoken to people who are aware of this and told me that - because their district knows IEPs aren't valid after students graduate - their district moves everyone who has an IEP to a 504 plan in their senior year of high school. The believe that 504s are valid at college because Section 504 covers colleges.

It’s understandable that people believe this, but it is incorrect. What they don’t realize is that while colleges are covered by 504, they come under a different subpart than K-12 schools do. That subpart doesn't require colleges to honor 504 plans from high school or create new ones. (Don't worry - colleges do provide accommodations.) On my main site, I have a post that explains this in more detail.

This is where I think vocabulary becomes important, as it can lead to unintentional misunderstandings. The difference in the terms used at the college level may help to point to the differences in the two systems.

“Letter of Accommodation” vs. “Plans”

In my presentations, I state that there are no “plans” at college, meaning that students’ IEPs and 504 plans aren’t valid there, and colleges aren’t required to create a similar document – they simply have to provide accommodations. Sometimes, an audience member will say that their or their friend's student attends X college and has a 504 plan .


I can't be sure how offices at every college in the country operate, and some may indeed put together a true plan. But I suspect that in some of these situations, there may be a misunderstanding about what these documents are and what they do.

Typically, when they approve students for accommodations, disability services offices will write what is commonly called a Letter (or email) of Accommodation (called a “LOA” or “EOA”) that students have to deliver to their professors. (Processes can vary from college to college.) I think that some offices call these documents a “504 plan” even though they don’t actually lay out a “plan.” (Of course, I may be wrong.)


To me, the word “plan” implies that someone will help students set goals, identify steps to achieve those goals, and assess whether or not students have met them. I suspect that most of these college “504 plans” look much more like LOAs and don’t function as true “plans." I think it's important to make this distinction so that students know what to expect.

It doesn't really matter what these colleges call the documents they write for students, as long as students know what they mean (or don't) and can expect (or can't). And school districts and parents should be aware that high school plans won't be valid at college.

“Eligible” vs. “Entitled”

This brings up another point – college students with LD and ADHD are not entitled to receive accommodations simply because they had an IEP or 504 plan previously. They have to be found eligible for accommodations at their college, and even if that happens, this doesn’t mean that they are entitled to the same accommodations they received in high school. Disability services offices are allowed to decide who is eligible and what accommodations are appropriate. Don't worry - most students will be found eligible with no problem, and if they are using basic accommodations in high school, they'll likely receive the same ones in college.

Eligibility is also an important idea, and vocabulary can matter here, too. While most students with LD and ADHD who have received accommodations in high school will also be found eligible for them in college, this not guaranteed. For example, students whose reports say that they have a “learning difference” (rather than a disability) and whose documentation also does not reflect a substantial limitation to learning, or who have only test anxiety (which is not generally accepted as a disability) may not be found eligible for accommodation when they attend college.


“Coordinator” vs. “Case Manager”

At some colleges, the person who serves as students’ contact and helps to arrange their accommodations is called a “coordinator,” rather than a “case manager.” The former term conveys the idea that these individuals only “coordinate” accommodations, and not that they will do things that students' case managers did in high school, such as asking faculty about students’ progress or even checking in regularly with students. Some might, but many coordinators don’t perform these functions. (Students are actually responsible for starting the accommodation process by registering with the appropriate office or contact person.)

Not Really Disability “Services,” and Not Really a “Program”

What may lead to misunderstandings, too, is the name of some colleges’ disability “services” office. These offices provide accommodations for all kinds of disabilities, including LD and ADHD. But most don’t provide what might be considered the kinds of “services” for students with LD and ADHD that people might expect based on what some high schools provide (such as tutoring by a learning disabilities specialist) because the laws in place don’t require this. Colleges have different mandates than high schools and are not subject to IDEA.

Another source of confusion may be that some offices may have titles like the “Disabled Students’ Program.” I think the word “program” can be confusing, as I think it implies a certain level of coordination and that students will have access to “case managers” who will create a “plan,” which could include access to special “services” rather than that students will have a “coordinator” who arranges their “accommodations.” In some cases, this title refers simply to the office that provides the required basic accommodations, not to a special program.

Some colleges do offer separate programs for students with LD and/or ADHD. These are truly coordinated programs, and they typically charge an additional fee to provide a real plan, access to learning specialists, etc.. However, students don't have to sign up for these programs in order to get basic accommodations, though, and the accommodations that students receive through the disability services office are free.

It is important for everyone involved in students’ college transition to have an accurate sense of the environment, so that students’ preparation for college can be based on correct information. I hope that these explanations will help to clarify what students with LD and ADHD should expect at college.

To see more posts on these topics, click here:

College preparation and readiness

College accommodations


To see other topics I've covered in the blog, browse the categories at the right of the page or click on the magnifying glass at the top of the page to use the search feature.


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Learn much more about college accommodations and how the system works. Read my book, From High School To College: Steps to Success for Students with Disabilities.



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©2017-2020 Elizabeth C. Hamblet