The Truth About IEP’s and 504 Plans

Many counselors believe students with disabilities or “differences” should have an IEP, or at least a 504 Plan, when transitioning to college. Prior to any further discussion on this topic, we must ask whether the submission of these documents is for admission to college or to receive accommodations.

For admission the simple answer is that no documentation is required, with a few exceptions. Out of approximately 4000 colleges in the US there are only about 250 with specific fee-for-service programs primarily for students with learning disabilities, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or with autism spectrum disorder. Less than a quarter of these colleges evaluate applicants applying to the college and the program simultaneously. These colleges must take the disability into consideration for admission to their special program, thus the college. There are two colleges in the US that are exclusively for students primarily with ASD, LD, ADHD and of course they must consider a student’s disability as detailed in the documentation.

For the vast majority of colleges documentation is not requested or expected at the time of application. In fact, if documentation is sent to an admissions office it is usually returned to the applicant, forwarded to the disability/accommodation office in event the student is accepted, enrolled and requests accommodations, or possibly deleted/shredded. Generally, college admissions counselors are not trained to interpret this information.

Many colleges do not consider disability information at the time of application to avoid potential lawsuits. If a college admissions office considers disability information and then decides to deny the applicant, the college runs the risk of being accused of discrimination. Attorneys representing these colleges advise them NOT to consider an applicant’s disability to avoid a lawsuit based on the claim the applicant was denied because of the disability.

Colleges walk a fine line. It is not illegal to use information about a student’s disability to accept an applicant; however, it is illegal to use the same information for the purpose of a denial.

Other colleges are willing to risk the chance of a lawsuit. As we know, and probably relate to our students and parents, colleges do not look for reasons to deny. They look for reasons to accept. In varying degrees, colleges may use a “holistic approach” when evaluating an applicant. Everything matters. Was there some disaster affecting the applicant’s living arrangements such as a fire, flood or hurricane? Was there a major family disruption such as a divorce or death? During the past couple of years, we have seen many colleges with an essay prompt as to how Covid 19 affected the applicant. These colleges are very interested in how the applicant has dealt with challenges and it is an important piece of making the admissions decision.

A holistic approach would include how a student with a disability handled the challenges of learning. Admissions counselors may want to know whether ACT/SAT scores accurately reflect a student’s academic ability. GPA and rigor of coursework could be considered from a different viewpoint. A student with a reading or language disorder may not have taken a foreign language and the reason should be disclosed to admissions.

Disclosure of a disability would help explain parts of a puzzle that are missing or just don’t fit in well with what a college is looking for. Disclosure can be done by the applicant, in their own words, without submitting an IEP, 504 Plan or reports. Colleges handle applications as they see fit and there are many varieties and exceptions to the preceding information. It is always best to check with each college as to their policies and procedures. However, that being said, my experience has been that not every college is forthright in providing this information. Publicly, a college admissions office may state, “We do not consider disability information in our admissions decision,” when in fact, they could be positively influenced by how a student has done well given their learning, social, sensory or physical challenges.

After a student with a disability is admitted the next step is to receive accommodations, such as extended time for tests. A high school IEP or 504 Plan does not dictate what a college should provide. Colleges (except for a very few) operate under the ADAAA (Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act), formerly and referred to as ADA and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. Section 504 has two sub-sections; one for K-12 and the other for post-secondary education. Therefore, IEPs and high school 504 Plans do not carry over to college. There is no question these documents may be helpful in deciding upon reasonable and justified accommodations and the manner in which they are provided.

As each college admissions office operates in its own fashion, so does the disability/accommodations office. IEPs and 504 Plans add information and credibility but they are far less important than students, parents, special education teachers, school counselors and independent educational consultants think they are.

Receiving accommodations does not depend on a document. It depends upon whether the disability affects a major life activity, such as learning. Here are seven scenarios whereby a college student has no IEP or 504 Plan, and yet receives accommodations:

  • A mature parent and college drop-out sees the same behaviors in her children as she displayed as a child. She realizes she has an undiagnosed learning disability (or ADHD) and returns to college for a second attempt.
  • A high school senior has attended a small private school since kindergarten. With extra support and tutoring she has done satisfactory work. It is suspected that she has a learning disability (or ADHD).  She is tested by a psychologist and is identified as having a disability.
  • An intellectually gifted student does reasonably well in high school, although many feel he should be doing significant superior work. At college he begins to see greater challenges than he did in high school, is not able to manage his time properly, has difficulty passing some subjects and is being placed on probation. He gets tested and discovers he is ADHD and “gifted LD.”
  • A college freshman with a medical issue affecting his eyesight becomes visually impaired during the year and requires accommodations to meet the academic requirements.
  • During the summer a recent high school graduate develops an illness or medical condition, resulting in an acquired brain injury, which will seriously affect her work in college. 
  • A student with epilepsy begins a new medication just prior to attending college. A side effect of the medication is slow processing speed, which will affect her work in college.
  • A college freshman was home-schooled through the 12th grade. While it appeared that she had academic challenges this student’s parents elected not to have her tested by the school district. She began college and experienced significant difficulty. A learning disability was identified after being tested.

All of the students described above are eligible to receive accommodations without having an IEP or 504 Plan. What is needed to obtain accommodations at college? An evaluation by a qualified professional, which states a disability exists and accommodations are needed. The college’s disability or accommodation office will decide if the disability is a substantial limitation of a major life activity (such as learning). It is not the disability, per se, that justifies an accommodation; it is the effect of the disability.

In conclusion, a student’s high school classification or status is not the deciding factor. Having a document such as an IEP or 504 Plan is not required. What is important is whether there is a disability and how the disability limits the student. The college then decides if they can provide accommodations to give the student equal access to an education and if the accommodations are reasonable and justified.


Allen Tinkler is the creator of the database book, “Colleges with Superior Services/Programs for Students with Special Needs.” More information is available about this unique resource by visiting his website,