Making the Transition to College

For students with disabilities and their families, the transition to college presents unique challenges and opportunities. Students become their own advocates, responsible for arranging their accommodations and communicating their learning needs to faculty and staff while seeking out additional resources as needed. Parents or guardians shift from advocate to mentor as their college-aged student advocate for themselves. This can be a big shift. 

The laws behind the provision of disability accommodations change from the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. The accommodations available in the college setting can be similar to those a student received in high school, but a greater level of independence is expected of college students, and college-based accommodations may not be identical to those offered in the K-12 setting.

One of the most striking changes for family members is the difference in privacy standards related to the student’s education in university settings versus K-12 settings. It’s important for parents and guardians to keep in mind that in order for the university to share any information about a student’s academics, disability accommodations, or other aspects of their college experience, the student will need to give explicit, written permission. The DS team knows that the transition is often a team effort but is mindful that the college-age adult is the one who must direct the accommodation requests and notices.

Learning in the Post-Secondary (College) Environment

Within higher education, the learning environment and professor's expectations differ than in high school. The 80/20; 20/80 Rule is one of the most important concepts students must grasp about the collegiate learning environment.

How learning happens in High School

Roughly 80% of the information students need to know to be successful on their exams comes from their teacher, in class.

How learning happens in College

The information the professor provides in class via lectures, discussions, and study guides is roughly 20% of the content needed to be successful on exams or projects.

In college, students must reverse the 80/20 rule and begin operating according to a 20/80 rule. Students must generate the other 80% by synthesizing, grounding, and expanding on the class information. Unlike the pre-college teacher, the college professor does not expect to provide students information to pass tests. They expect to guide students as the student explores and learns the content. It’s not about working harder; it’s about working smarter and interacting with the material presented, rather than simply memorizing it. 

Adapted from The Well (the LearnWell Project)

Traits That Successful Students Exhibit

Students with disabilities who succeed in college demonstrate the same characteristics as their non-disabled peers. Few students have fully developed these traits on entry but do develop them over time.


Successful Students





Willingness to work

Unsuccessful Students

Few goals or career ideas




Successful Students

Academic background

Knowledge of study and compensatory techniques

Knowledge of learning style

Time-management skills

Unsuccessful Students

Little academic preparation

Protected in high school

Learned helplessness

Undeveloped study and time management



Successful Students



Knowledge of laws, policies, and resources 

Assertiveness skills

Problem-solving skills

Unsuccessful Students

Unrealistic expectations

Denial of disability, embarrassment

Limited Knowledge of legal rights

Low self-esteem and self-confidence

Underdeveloped communication techniques

Few problem-solving skills