Season 2: Episode 13: The Challenge of College Credit Plus and Dual Enrollment for Students with Disabilities

College Credit Plus, also termed Dual Enrollment in some states, is a program that enables high school, or even middle school students, to take college courses for both college and high school credit. Although these programs are a fantastic way for families to save money and expose students to higher learning opportunities, school districts may be faced with unexpected challenges when students with IEPs or 504 Plans take college classes.

Who is responsible for ensuring 504 accommodations at the university level? Is a dually-enrolled high school student even entitled to IEP services in a college course? What should high school teams and counselors advise students with special education needs who may struggle with the higher demands and expectations of a College Credit Plus course? Lisa and Miriam explore these questions and consider decisions from the Office for Civil Rights that shed light on school districts’ obligations in these changing times.

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Miriam: Welcome back to Class Act: Updates in Education Law. I’m Miriam.

Lisa: I’m Lisa.

Miriam: We’re attorneys at Walter | Haverfield in Cleveland, Ohio. We practice school law. Every so often we get together and we talk about the most recent legal developments in education that are relevant to school boards, administrators, teachers, really anybody who works in education. Today we’re going to talk about college credit plus, or as it’s known in other states, dual enrollment or concurrent enrollment. This is where a high school or middle school student takes college courses for credit at the college and high school. When that happens, schools can face various scenarios and questions relating to students in general education and also relating to students who have disabilities. We wanted to talk about some of those issues today.

Lisa: Yes. Let’s just dive into some of those challenges. I can give you a little more information about what dual enrollment is, or CCP in Ohio. There’s considerable research out there that shows that kids have a better chance of graduating college if they take some courses early, such as while they’re still in high school. Plus, this potentially saves parents money and helps kids get into the workforce earlier.

Miriam: A lot of money, right? If you think about– Obviously, different states have different rules. In Ohio, students who participate in college credit plus, dual enrollment, essentially, those students can have quite a few years of college paid for by the time they’re out of high school.

Lisa: Basically, with this program, depending on how the state sets it up, either the state is picking up some of the tuition for college or the districts might be, or they may be sharing the costs. But generally, the student and parents are not the ones on the hook for the college tuition. Yes, depending on how many classes and courses you decide to take, you may be one, two, three, even really potentially all four years of your college completed–

Miriam: For free.

Lisa: Yes, basically.

Miriam: Basically, no class issue.

Lisa: You can definitely see the financial perks of this type of program. Certainly, there’s perks to not having to take as many classes, say your first year of college, you can see it in different applications.

Miriam: Sure.

Lisa: There are a lot of states that do allow high school students to do this. They’re taking these college classes and, like Miriam said earlier, getting credit both for college but also for some of your high school credits as well, at the same time. These take place in different locations, and maybe the student literally going to the college and university and taking the classes like any other college student, or it may be that the district has worked out with a nearby college to offer a program within the district, at the district’s facility at the district building.

Miriam: Correct.

Lisa: These programs, like we said, really vary a little bit state by state, but there may be different requirements, prerequisites. For example, in Ohio students have to be state residents, they have to meet college requirements for admission, that’s going to include your SAT or a ACT scores or other admission exam requirements. Sometimes situations arise that are related to federal laws which affect duly enrolled students. That’s what we really wanted to dive into and talk about today with our listeners.

Miriam: One example of that is FERPA. FERPA is the Family Education Rights Privacy Act. As you know, Lisa, it’s a privacy law that applies differently to students in K to 12 and those in post-secondary institutions. Generally, school districts cannot release personally identifiable information without consent. In K to 12, that’s typically a parent’s consent. K to 12 districts need a parent’s consent if the student is under 18 to release any personally identifiable information to anybody. But in college, the privacy rights belong to the students regardless of age. An interesting question comes up is, what if a student is, let’s say, just a high school student for the purposes of this example, and they’re taking college credit classes at the local university? Who needs to sign off on the consent? Whose FERPA rights are these?

Lisa: Yes, that really is an interesting question. Does it depend on which institution is being asked to release the records? Or on what records are in question?

Miriam: That’s interesting. It’s, I guess, a little bit of both. The general rule is that if a student is attending any post-secondary institution, regardless of age, FERPA rights have transferred to that student. You can have a young high school student attending college classes, or sometimes you hear about very gifted children obviously have completed their high school degree and they’re just in college at 15 or whatever. In any case, if a student is attending post-secondary institution, FERPA rights have transferred to that student. Both entities would need to ask the student for consent. In a situation where student is enrolled in high school and a post-secondary institution, the two schools may exchange information so the high school is actually allowed to communicate with the college about information for that student. If the student is under 18, the parents still retain their FERPA rights at the high school. The parents would be able to inspect and review any records that the college sent to the high school.

Lisa: Yes, we could see this in a variety of different situations, right? Say the parent is asking for student’s grade at the college credit plus course but the student is reluctant to share that information with their parent. Or if a third party such as a therapist or counselor is requesting information about the child’s progress at both schools, the college would be able to transfer the information to the high school, presumably without needing the release, and then the high school would be able to share this with parents if the child’s under 18. It certainly could get even more complex than that, right?

Miriam: Yes, that’s just a good example, I think.

Lisa: And in talking about therapists and councilors, I think that brings up an interesting question and pretty much what we really want to dive into today, about what happens when a student with special needs may be identified under the IDEA and receiving special education, or identified under Section 504 and receiving accommodations wants to attend a college course through dual enrollment They certainly can but what that looks like, we should look at.

Miriam: Districts are not allowed to discriminate against students because of their disabilities, obviously. If a student meets that state’s dual enrollment criteria, the student would need to be admitted to that program, whether it’s college credit plus or you have a different name for it in your state. That student needs to be admitted just like anybody else, even if they have an IEP or a Section 504 plan.

Lisa: Along the lines of IEP, we now have kind of a new focus on this transition planning for making children, once they graduate, ready for jobs and ready for college. Often, you could see this incorporated into the child’s IEP transition planning, to give them some college exposure and get them ready for going off to college.

Miriam: Sure.

Lisa: Certainly in that situation, it would be tied directly into their IEP, right?

Miriam: Yes, that’s right, Lisa. I think what is really important, and I’m not sure how many of our districts or even students and parents are aware of this, there’s quite a bit of differences between what a college is required to provide and what a high school is required to provide. In terms of services for students with disabilities.

Lisa: Yes, I think we should probably just go into some background to outline those differences so you have that good foundation to get you started with this. Let’s talk about IDEA and Section 504 and what those apply to. For example, like IDEA doesn’t apply to colleges.

Miriam: That’s right. K to 12 schools, a regular school district is bound by the IDEA and also Section 504 subpart D. These federal laws require school districts to identify students who may have a disability and to prepare a program that provides them with a free appropriate public education. Teachers, instructional specialists are required to monitor student progress, to provide supports. Schools also provide therapies, specially designed instruction, assessments, accommodations. They’re even allowed to modify the curriculum as needed.

Lisa: In contrast, colleges, like we said, aren’t bound by IDEA. They are bound by the American with Disabilities Act, in a different part of Section 504 so they do have some obligations there, but they look very different, right?

Miriam: That’s right.

Lisa: Colleges are required to ensure access only, basically level the playing field for a student, eliminate barriers that prevent access and the obligation is on the student then at the college level to identify-

Miriam: Him or herself as a student with a disability.

Lisa: Right, and basically ask for and seek out what they need, right?

Miriam: Right. The obligation falls on the student to ask for what they need, and to monitor his or her own progress. Interestingly, colleges have the legal right to uphold legitimate academic standards and performance expectations. They may deny accommodation requests if those accommodation requests result in a fundamental change to those standards or expectations.

Lisa: Let’s talk about that just for a second, about the standard for accommodation. We know that in K-12 buildings, we provide accommodations and we’re still using that same terminology for college but it’s going to look a lot different as far as what the obligation is to provide. For example, in an elementary building or a high school building, you may be providing modification to curriculum….

Miriam: That’s right.

Lisa: -or to the course objectives in some form or fashion.

Miriam: And that’s not going to happen at the college level at all. Students with disabilities must meet the same academic standards and performance expectations with or without accommodations at the college level.

Lisa: So basically a college could deny an accommodation if it interferes with course objectives, even if that child had received that accommodation….

Miriam: All throughout.

Lisa:  …at the high school, all through middle school, elementary school.

Miriam: Let’s look at some examples. You can see how this might result in some difficult surprises for high school students with disabilities. Let’s say, Suzy, she’s in high school and she takes all of her exams open book, but when she comes to college she is told that taking an exam open book would result in a fundamental change to academic standards and expectations, so she’s denied this request.

Lisa: So the college or university in this situation has that right because their obligations are different to deny this request.

Miriam: Yes. Another example is let’s say a student receives time and a half for all assignments. Not only tests but also homework. In college that young adult might be told that it’s an essential course requirement to participate in class discussion about material, and if he would get time and a half that would limit his ability to participate in the class discussion, because the class might be talking about you know material that he should have read last night. If he’s only going to be ready for the next class for that, he might not be able to participate in the class discussion, and that’s an essential course requirement. So the college might deny even that accommodation. Typically, the process of requesting and receiving accommodations at the college level is much more stringent than it is at the high school level.

Lisa: Yes. They’re definitely going to want to see your K-12 evaluation results in those types of things, but how they analyze them is going to be a little stricter.

Miriam: Absolutely.

Lisa: Again, as we’ve already talked about, what they’re obligated to provide is going to look a little bit different. That certainly poses the question for our IEP kids in Section 504, students who receive accommodations. What does that look like when they’re in these dual enrollment programs because your first assumption would be, “Well, they’re going to get exactly what they get at high school at the college course, and that’s really not going to be the case. There’s going to be different obligations from what the college has to do versus what the high school has to do.” And what is the obligations of the school district in conjunction with the college. Right?

Miriam: Right. Exactly. Colleges are in fact allowed to ask for a physician’s documentation or physician’s explanation of what accommodations you need.

Lisa: I think that’s a pretty good distinction between college and our K-12 school districts, because for our special educators out there you know that you have to be careful with that, that you can’t demand to see a diagnosis in order to provide something if you have other evidence that suggests the child needs that.

Miriam: In colleges, not only are they allowed to ask for a diagnosis, they’re allowed to ask for a detailed form to be completed to explain even how the diagnosis informs the accommodations that you’re requesting. So If Johnny would like time and a half for all assignments, he might be required by the university to provide a detailed explanation from a doctor about what disability he has and why exactly he needs time and a half based on his medical condition, based on his disability. That’s very different like you said, Lisa, from what our K to 12 districts are permitted to do.

Lisa: Definitely. Let’s talk about a little bit about who is responsible for accommodations in what scenarios.

Miriam: Sure. Let’s take a dual enrolled child. Let’s take a child who’s taking college classes and receiving credit both at college and the high school. This question does sometimes come up. Which entity is responsible for those accommodations? Is a school district really responsible to make sure another educational agency is providing some sort of accommodations?

Lisa: Before we give you some factors to think about in this analysis of responsibility, let’s back up and just talk about for a second the US Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights oversees and ensures that school districts, as well as higher education, are providing and implementing their obligations under Section 504. That is going to be largely the entity that would be reviewing any types of challenges that might come up.

Miriam: There’s been a few a few OCR cases, Office for Civil Rights. There’s been a few OCR cases where a student at the high school took a college class, was not doing well, and then the school district said, “You know what? This is your choice, you’re taking this college class, and that’s it. Good luck to you.” Then the students or the student’s parents filed a complaint with the Office for Civil Rights, and then the Office for Civil Rights came in and analyzed the district’s obligation.Typically, what’s happened with these several cases is that the Office for Civil Rights tries to figure out is this really a college class or is it a high school class. That’s the analysis. If the finding is that the course that the student is taking is really practically a college class, then the school district is generally understood, does not have an obligation to go in and make sure that the student is getting his or her IEP accommodations or Section 504 accommodations in that separate facility. But if it’s a high school class, then the district is obligated to do that. Interestingly OCR doesn’t just look at what you call it. The Office for Civil Rights doesn’t just look at what it’s called, if it’s, “Oh, it’s a dual enrollment program, so this is a college class.” OCR look specifically at the physical location of the class, who’s funding the class, who controls admission to the class. For example, in one of the cases, I think this was it was a case out of California, the course was considered a college course, but it took place on a district’s campus. The office for civil rights analyzed these factors ended up saying, “Look, you might be calling this a college course, but for all intents and purposes it’s a high school class,” so the school district the K-12 school district should have met its obligations under Section 504, and not just left this to the student and the university to work out between themselves.”

Lisa: So even though the students in that class were getting college credit for it they were really looking at in practical terms, who’s teaching it, where is it located. I think some of this boils down to how much control does the district have over what’s happening in that classroom. I think that’s a good distinction between if it’s on your campus and even maybe including your staff, you have much more control versus it’s completely at a university, it’s none of your staff, you can’t control what’s happening there.

Miriam: Right.

Lisa: I think that’s an important thing that families and students are understanding before day one of any of these programs. When they’re deciding if they want to take these classes, they need to really understand some of that distinction.

Miriam: It also depends really on the way that your state sets up the dual enrollment program. In the North Carolina case, the office for civil rights emphasized that the school district covered the tuition, the school district was the entity that paid the tuition for the college courses and the student received high school credit in addition to college credits. OCR in that North Carolina case found that the school district was still responsible for the child’s 504 accommodations and making sure that those accommodations were being provided in these classes.

Lisa: In practical terms what does that look like; basically the school district advocating to staff at the college or university? Hey, this student needs a, b and c accommodations and doing some check-ins with that university to make sure that they’re providing those?

Miriam: I think it’s really a fact-specific question what you’re asking, Lisa. It’s going to really depend on the particulars of the way that your dual enrollment program is set up. What we can say, we can give some general takeaways for our audience. I think that it’s really important that school districts understand that they are not allowed to steer IEP or 504 students away from college credit plus or the dual enrollment program. It’s completely inappropriate for a guidance counselor to say, “You have an IEP. You have a learning disability. I don’t think this is for you.”

Lisa: What you’re saying though is different than school counselor or teacher outlining, here is what your options are and here’s what it looks like. Just keep your conversations really fact-specific as to so maybe, “Here’s the courses that are offered. Here’s what it would look like if you take those courses. Here’s what it would look like with your accommodations.” Likely the university would provide a, b and c, but maybe not. D and e. To try to make them have all the information to make an informed decision, but not say, “Oh, you’re on an IEP,” or, “You have a 504 plan, so this isn’t an option for you.”

Miriam: Right. Then just another caution, I think sometimes teams might be tempted to say, “If you meet this goal, or if you meet this objective, or if you meet this additional criteria, then we can talk about college credit plus for you for next year.”

Lisa: Right. You can’t have those additional requirements.

Miriam:  It’s definitely something to talk about with your teams, but in general, your teams should not be telling students with IEPs or 504s is that they can talk about college credit plus or whatever after they meet a certain threshold or a certain objective.

Lisa: How about some proactive things districts can do?

Miriam: First of all, you need to ensure that the students and families understand the difference. Students and families should be very clear on this difference and should understand that colleges do have that legal right to uphold legitimate academic standards and to deny accommodations that would result in a fundamental change to those standards and expectations. Their families should be talking with their guidance counselors about how their accommodations might look different at the college level if they do take that dual enrollment class. They should be making an informed choice and it should not be a surprise to them. School districts should identify potential conflicts in advance, and this is obviously fact-specific, but sometimes teams can use transition plans and goals to prepare the student for CCP courses. A good example, I think, is self-advocacy.

Lisa: Absolutely.

Miriam: If a student is going to be either in college next year or taking a dual enrollment course next year, that child IEP team should start thinking about, “Does this student need to improve in their self-advocacy skills?” Because in a college class, whether it’s after high school, or even in a dual enrollment college class, sometimes that student is going to need to be the one to say, “You know what? I need this accommodation. Here is my letter of accommodations,” and to be able to go up to the professor and say, “This is my letter of accommodations and this is what I’m going to need”.

Lisa: Right. Instead of waiting for a teacher to prompt them, “Hey, you can use this accommodation.” I think, as you are doing your IEP development, especially the transition planning, it’s a perfect place to be working on this types of skill sets.

Miriam: I think all school districts that have dual enrollment programs should assign a liaison to communicate with whoever at the university is responsible for children or students in dual enrollment programs, as well as the office for disabilities.

Lisa: I think that’s a great idea, not only for the district to have that connection, but also for the parent and student to know that they have a point person at both places, that should they have any trouble, you can work through that as a team.

Miriam: That’s right. Of course, this kind of goes without saying, but if the student is not full-time at the college, that means they’re still taking some classes at your district, and you should still be providing the IEP or Section 504 services and accommodations in the high school setting, or wherever the student is. Obviously, school districts should document all conversations and requests and decisions, like we’ve said over and over again in this podcast, make sure that you’re documenting any conversations and decisions that you’re having with the parents or with the rest of the team as well, and definitely consult legal counsel about challenging situations or litigious parents. Sometimes really difficult situations come up where, for example, if you have a student who’s taking all of their classes at a university, and school district has zero control over what the university does, but the parents still want an IEP, let’s say for social emotional challenges that that child might be having, what does that look like? Where does the school district provide the social emotional specially designed instruction? Does the school district need to send somebody to the college campus? Or does the student come back to the high school for that training or that counseling? What does that practically look like? These are all questions that you can talk to your school counsel about.

Lisa: Right And you may need to think outside the box that what you traditionally do to find some solutions for these challenging situations that do arise.

Miriam: Thanks for joining us today, everybody. Next time we’re going to talk about evaluations and talk evaluation, mistakes that teams make. Have a great day. Don’t forget to leave us some feedback and rate us o iTunes or Stitcher.

Lisa: Thanks for listening.

Pre-recorded Voice: The content of this podcast is provided for general information purposes only. The podcast is not legal advice, does not create an attorney-client relationship, and should not be relied upon in making legal decisions. Actions on legal matters should be taken only upon advice of legal counsel. Walter | Haverfield does not guarantee the accuracy of information contained in this podcast.