Parents and Family

Difference Between K-12 and Postsecondary Education

High School and College: What Are the Differences?

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

  • Legal Rights and Responsibilities for College Students
  • Summary of Legal Differences Between Secondary and Postsecondary Education
  • Increased Complexity and Unpredictability
  • Changes 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 The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is no longer applicable.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:

Letter from the Office of Civil Rights to Parents

Students with Disabilities Preparing for Post-secondary Education: Know Your Rights and Responsibilities from the Office of Civil Rights

Understanding the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA)

Summary of Legal Differences between Secondary and Post-secondary 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)
Eligibility 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 informing the 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

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, take a break, 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


Contact Information 

Rosa J. Liu, M.Ed.

Assistant Director, Veterans Services & Disability Resources for Students

  • Email:
  • Phone: 425-352-5307
  • Fax: 425-352-5114
  • Location: UW1, room 080

Alternative Testing

  • Email:
  • Phone: 425-352-5426
  • Location: UW1, Room 071