How do the rights and responsibilities of high school students with disabilities change as they enter college?

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The rights and responsibilities of high school students with disabilities are different from those of college students with disabilities. Understanding the legal and practical issues involved can help students with disabilities successfully transition from high school to college.

All students should be prepared to face an increased level of academic competition and have less contact with instructors as they transition from high school to college. The college learning environment is less supervised and requires that students apply more self-determination skills than they needed in high school. In college, they must make more decisions for themselves and take responsibility for their own actions, learning, successes, and failures.

Students with disabilities face these same changes and must deal with a new and more complex process of external support than ever before. As reported by McGuire (1991), "Often college-bound students with learning disabilities fail to understand that they will face a different set of demands within a postsecondary setting. They soon become overwhelmed by the amount of assigned material as well as the fast pace of instruction. Many lack the skills and strategies that are necessary for managing and self-monitoring their learning in a variety of contexts." It is vital that students equip themselves with a well-thought-out plan and strategies for success long before that first day of class.

It is critical that students with disabilities fully understand the impact of their disabilities and how their disabilities affect their ability to learn and participate in specific college courses. Understanding their rights and, equally important, their responsibilities as college students with disabilities is also critical for success. The disabled student services office at the college can help students reach these goals. This office can play a key role in success and also refer students to other offices on campus where support services are available.

The college student is responsible for making requests for accommodations in advance and must often assume more responsibility for the accommodations themselves (e.g., finding note takers and getting textbooks in advance). The student may also need to interact more extensively with instructors to explain the disability and campus accommodation procedures. The student must advocate for accommodations. The student should keep in mind that it may take longer to get some accommodation issues resolved than it did in high school, so it is important to plan ahead.

Although no two people learn in exactly the same manner and need the same accommodations, the following list may be useful to a student with a disability. It includes tips offered by successful college students with disabilities involved in DO-IT:

  • Select an appropriate set of classes, and talk to your academic advisor, disabled student services personnel, faculty members, and other students about classes you are considering.
  • Complete classes required for graduation early in your program so you don't get stuck with scheduling conflicts or full classes in your final year.
  • Try to get a copy of the class syllabus so you can see exactly what the requirements will be for a specific class.
  • Purchase your textbooks early, if possible.
  • Be organized and manage your time wisely; keep track of important due dates and exams.
  • Schedule a specific time each day for studying (make sure you are "alert" at these times, not sleepy or hungry).
  • Remember to take study breaks; avoid marathon study sessions and cramming.
  • The environment in which you study is important. Choose a location where you feel comfortable, where it is quiet, and where you will be free from distractions.

For information on how disability services differ between high school and college consult Differences Between High School and College, Transitioning to College, and Accommodation Differences Between High School and College.

For more tips and suggestions for success and information on the rights and responsibilities of high school students entering college, consult College Survival Skills. For a list of similar resources, go to College Preparation Resources for Students.

Last update or review: September 27, 2012