Information for Parents

How is a college or university different from high school?

College life poses different challenges for students with disabilities. When students enroll in college, they are considered responsible adults by faculty and staff. The expectation is that they will assume responsibilities for meeting their class requirements.

This added responsibility is coupled with a change in environment. High school is a teaching environment in which students acquire knowledge and skills. College is a learning environment in which students take responsibility for thinking through and applying what they have learned.

Another student responsibility is that of self-advocacy. Students must become adept at realistically assessing and understanding their strengths, weaknesses, needs, and preferences. Also, they must become experts at communicating this information to other adults including instructors and service providers. Although services will be available to students through an office specializing in services to students with disabilities, students will be responsible for seeking these services and supports. Good communication skills and knowledge about oneself become crucial to success in college.

Understanding some of the important differences allows parents to help their son or daughter achieve a smoother transition.

High School College
School 6 hours per day, 5 days per week Students are typically in class 12-18 hours per week, depending on course load
The school year is about 9 months long The academic year is two 16-week semesters
Time is structured by others, and teachers closely monitor student’s attendance Students arrange their own schedule with an advisor or counselor and manage their own time
Students are not responsible for knowing what it takes to graduate Students are expected to know the graduation requirements for their particular program
Teachers check students completed homework Instructors don’t always check student’s homework
Teachers might remind students of missed work and often provide students with information they missed when they were absent Instructors don’t remind students of missed work, and they expect students to get notes from classmates for any classes they’ve missed
Case manager acts as advocate Students must advocate for themselves
Services result from Individualized Educational Plan (IEP) Services are designed on class by class basis and individual needs
Regular parent contact Parent contact limited by privacy laws
High Schools are required to identify students with disabilities and determine what is needed for the student to be successful Colleges are restricted from seeking out students with disabilities due to privacy laws
Educational and psychological testing is provided Students are responsible for providing documentation to the college, if required
Entitlement law (IDEA) Civil Rights - Anti-discrimination law (ADA, Rehabilitation Act, Section 504 and the MN Human Rights Act)

See also the Postsecondary Resource Guide and Transition Webinars in the Resources and Links section.

How can I help my son or daughter prepare for college?
Preparing for a successful college experience begins early in school. Statistically, students with disabilities are less likely to enter higher education, and those who do attend are less likely to graduate than their peers without disabilities. If your son or daughter is going to beat these odds, you have to plan and support the decisions that can lead to college success. Use the following list to help your son or daughter plan for college:

Encourage your son or daughter to lead all of the following discussions.

  • Recognize that your son or daughter with a disability will go through the same experiences as their non-disabled peers.
  • Preparation for higher education needs to start early in your son or daughter’s high school years. Ask the high school staff for information regarding appropriate postsecondary choices, such as technical college, community college, or university.
  • Explore the benefits of extending the high school graduation date to take advantage of transition programs.
  • Work with your son or daughter’s high school teachers and support staff, and community agencies to identify transition activities that will prepare your son or daughter for college.
  • Contact the admissions office of several colleges or universities. Ask to speak with the service provider for students with disabilities. Talk with the service provider about the admissions process for students with disabilities, how students must document their disability, and what services the college or university offers to students with disabilities.
  • Ensure that your son or daughter will have the necessary testing that a college may require to document a disability. This includes but is not limited to learning disabilities. This testing can be done during the senior year of high school, but schedule it early. Have these reports and copies of your son or daughter’s most recent disability assessment, IEP (Individualized Education Plan), Section 504 Plan, and transition plan available for college or university staff.
  • Encourage your son or daughter to contact Vocational Rehabilitation Services to determine eligibility for services. They can help with financial and equipment support for students with disabilities.
  • If your son or daughter’s college or university requires placement testing, learn the process for requesting test accommodations. If your son or daughter needs test accommodations, documentation of that need may be required.
  • Ensure that your son or daughter learns to use appropriate accommodations.  These accommodations are determined based on need and may include but are not limited to test taking accommodations, notetaking assistance, alternate text format, and use of adaptive technology.
  • Remember your son or daughter has the responsibility to notify the college or university that she or he has a disability, to identify his/her needs, and if required, to provide appropriate documentation of those needs. The college has the responsibility to provide accommodations based on procedures for determining what is appropriate.

How can I help my son or daughter have a successful college experience?

As first-year students arrive at a college or university and begin to venture forth they experience different reactions and thoughts. Some students will adjust to life with little difficulty, while others may find that the transition stretches beyond the first year. Parents can help by understanding the developmental process that their students will journey through as they enter a college or university and recognize that this process is part of the higher education learning environment.

  • Upon arrival, many students enjoy a period where the newness and excitement leads to strong positive feelings about college life.
  • A few weeks into the semester, students begin to realize that higher education is not all glamour and fun – there is hard work, and there can be frustration and disappointment as well. Students may receive their first low grades.
  • About mid-semester, students may begin wondering if college life is better at another school. They might believe that transferring to another institution will solve the problems they are experiencing. Or they may wonder if they would be better off out in the work world.

If students have left home to go to school, they may learn that things at home have changed. Life has gone on without them. At the same time, first year students learn that they have changed, and because of this, their relationships with family and high school friends may be different from what they remember. Like college, home suddenly feels like a new and changing place.

As students progress through the semester they refine their academic and study skills, engage in their first deep conversations with classmates and enjoy expanding their circle of friends. It is often at this time that true intellectual fulfillment begins and meaningful relationships with classmates and faculty develop.

With the end of the semester near, students face large amounts of work. No matter how well students have been doing academically and socially, they may have anxiety about whether they will survive the papers and exams and if they will actually make it to the second semester. They may question again whether they really belong in college.

Sometime during the second semester, most students begin to view college as a total experience. They come to see the classes, casual discussions with new friends, parties, and other elements of their college life are related and part of an interrelated whole. First year students come to understand that the choices and commitment that they make have a tremendous impact on the shape of their college experience and future.

As a parent what information is available to me from my son or daughter’s educational records?

In general, under federal and state privacy laws, students at colleges or universities have the legal right to control access to information about themselves. Some information called “directory data” is public and available to anyone, even parents. Almost all other information such as grades or class schedules is private and, in most cases, a student’s written authorization is required to release to a third party private information held by a college or university.

Parents are legally considered to be “third parties” and need their child’s written permission to access private data about them.