Despite the fact that I am a special educator, there have been times when I’ve found myself confused about the differences between an IEP (Individualized Education Plan) and a 504 plan. It wasn’t until I began working as an instructor at the college level that I started to understand the subtle distinctions a little bit better.

In teaching at a high school for students with autism, I have written an abundance of IEPs. The basic difference between an IEP and a 504 plan can be summed up in one sentence: both plans provide for accommodations, but only an IEP provides for specialized instruction for students in grades K–12, while a 504 plan can serve students at both the K–12 and college levels.

IEP Overview and Example

An IEP falls under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). This federal act ensures access to special education and related services for eligible children with disabilities. An IEP is a working document that not only allows for necessary accommodations but also requires specialized instruction to achieve goals and objectives in specified deficit areas. These goals are addressed by a special education teacher in the student’s least restrictive environment (LRE) to help the student make progress in areas affected by their disability.

IEPs are valid for students in grades K–12 but are no longer valid once a student earns their high school diploma. A legally binding document, each IEP provides a written plan for intervention and individualized instruction in deficit areas affected by a student’s disability.

For example, I have a student who is enrolled in all advanced content classes but struggles with peer interactions and social skills. His IEP has goals addressing these deficit areas that are a result of his autism. We can service these goals and help this student work toward overcoming his deficits based on the strengths and needs identified in his IEP. Although IEPs must be reviewed annually, goals and short-term objectives may be adjusted earlier than that based on student progress.

504 Plan Overview and Example

A 504 plan is covered under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, which is a federal civil rights law that ensures an individual cannot be discriminated against due to their disability. These plans provide support and accommodations but do not include goals and objectives. They are often granted to students who may have medical needs or a disability that requires support but not specialized instruction. Some students who don’t qualify for special education services through an IEP do qualify for services through a 504 plan.

My daughter, for example, didn’t need academic intervention but did benefit from accommodations, such as extended time, due to her Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). As previously mentioned, a 504 plan is also valid in college and can allow students to have accommodations such as extra time on tests and access to technology or other services to ensure they have equal access to the learning environment.

504 plans are reviewed “periodically” based on need. The rule of thumb for most states is every three years (the only caveat is if the medical condition is no longer “substantially limiting one or more basic life functions or activities”), but parents have the right to request a meeting to discuss the plan more often if they feel it’s necessary.

Choosing the Appropriate Plan

In summary, while both plans are valid for grades K–12 and can provide support through accommodations, only IEPs provide more intensive support and intentional interventions through specialized instructional goals and objectives.

The only applicable plan for a college student who needs support to be successful is a 504 plan. They will need to submit a copy of their most recent Evaluation Team Report (ETR), IEP or 504 plan (if one is already in place) to the school’s Office of Disability Services (ODD) to get started.

Develop high-quality IEPs

Want to learn strategies for developing more targeted IEPs? Download our ebook for tips on mastering each stage of the process.

Download Now
About the Author
Jennifer Schmidt has spent 23 years as a general education teacher, autism consultant, and special educator. She is currently a high school teacher, a college instructor, and an experienced national and international presenter. Jennifer recently published her first book on the use of peer modeling and other evidence-based practices to teach social skills to students with autism. Jennifer earned a Master of Education degree in Special Education from Wright State University.