504 Distinctions Explained

What are the distinctions between applying Section 504 at the public K-12 level versus applying it at the post-secondary level?

Federal regulations pertaining to the application of Section 504 at the K-12 level versus application at the post-secondary level, as well as virtually any other area of public life, take somewhat different approaches.

This main difference is a reflection of the differing attitudes and expectations of school-aged children as opposed to adults. Here are a few more important distinctions to remember when making the transition from high school 504 services to higher education:

In higher education (as well as in employment, public services and public accommodations):

  • The individual with a disability bears the burden of proof.

    • In public K-12 schools, whether under IDEA or Section 504, the school is responsible for adequate and regular assessments.
    • At the university level, there are no requirements for providing evaluation of individuals with disabilities.
    • The person with a disability must provide documented evidence themselves.

  • Once a student leaves high school and attends a college or university, a 504 Plan (or an IEP) from a high school is no longer binding upon any institution or entity outside of the public K-12 school in which it was developed.

    • There are no requirements for any plan under Section 504 or the ADA with respect to higher education, employment or other areas of public life.
    • There are no more parental meetings each year with counselors, teachers, etc.
    • There is nothing for a parent to sign.

  • "Free and Appropriate Education" (FAPE), the cornerstone of special education legislation in 1975 no longer applies.

    • Though it is still referenced as a requirement for high school under regulations governing Section 504, there are no such references with respect to higher education in any federal regulations for either Section 504 or the ADA.
    • Higher education carries with it necessary costs, and students with disabilities must pay the same as their non-disabled peers.
    • In higher education FAPE is not regarded as a part of 504's nondiscrimination prohibitions.

  • In all areas outside of public schools, nondiscrimination is accomplished by means of barrier removal, including "reasonable accommodations". (Accommodations may not carry with them an additional charge of any kind).
  • The term "otherwise qualified individual with a disability" carries a different connotation than in K-12 public school, and because of that difference there is a greater weight and responsibility on the part of the individual.
  • It means students must meet academic standards.

    • In public K-12 schools, this refers only to the age of the individual as being appropriate for elementary or high school.
    • In higher education, it refers to a student's academic proficiency and ability to demonstrate learning.

  • Integration is the focus of postsecondary accommodations. Terms such as "placement" and "least restrictive environment" are no longer valid.

    • Placement in an environment which is restrictive or protective in any way would be a violation of an individual's civil rights, and counter to the spirit of Section 504 and the ADA.

  • Some services provided to high school students under Section 504 may not be provided in higher education, because they reduce the academic standards of the program of study.

    • For example: Shortening assignments would be viewed as compromising academic standards, and therefore would not "reasonable" to request in college.

  • The most important difference lies in the changes in expectations for students with disabilities.

    • Students with disabilities in the K-12 public school system aren't always expected to perform or achieve at the same levels as their peers in high school.
    • At the postsecondary level, students with disabilities are expected to perform or achieve at the same level as their non-disabled peers.

  • In higher education students with disabilities must possess advanced level proficiencies in all aspects of learning. Their scholastic skills and strategies must be equal to the academic expectations of higher education and, later, of their professional careers.

    • In many cases these often require more sophisticated learning strategies. Reasonable accommodations can create a level playing field, but once achieved, the student must then demonstrate their skills and knowledge adequately.