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IEP vs. 504: What’s the Difference?

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What’s Covered:


If you’re the parent of a child with a disability or special needs, you may well be concerned about your student having access to learning opportunities. Fortunately, there are laws in place to protect their rights. Two of these laws, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, can prove essential in ensuring your child receives education that responds to their needs.


What are IEPs and 504 Plans?


The Individualized Educational Plan (IEP) is made available under IDEA, which grants funding that ensures children with disabilities or health impairments have access to special education. After the child is evaluated by school, school officials will determine whether they qualify for an IEP and convene for a meeting to discuss what will be included. The plan itself will lay out specific, measurable goals for the student, who is expected to meet them by the end of the year. 


A 504 plan is also in place to meet the educational needs of students with disabilities. Students who need assistance but don’t qualify for an IEP may qualify for a 504 plan, which specifies accommodations the school will provide to ensure that the student has access to learning opportunities equivalent to those of their peers without disabilities. 


Can Students Have Both an IEP and 504 Plan?


It’s very rare for a student to require both an IEP and 504 plan because most accommodations covered by a 504 plan will be included in the more comprehensive IEP plan. Still, it’s possible. 


For example, a student might have a medical condition that doesn’t affect their academic progress or learning as significantly as a disability that does. In this case, the school might offer a 504 plan specific to the accommodations they will provide for this condition, along with an IEP that covers learning goals and accommodations.


Similarities between IEPs and 504 Plans


IEPs and 504 plans are similar in that they both facilitate accommodations for students with disabilities. The services they guarantee are available at no cost to your family and are made available by law. In order to qualify for these accommodations, your child will typically undergo an evaluation to assess their needs. 


Additionally, both plans outline the services your child will receive and are reviewed regularly (the timeline varies depending on your state and district).

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Differences between IEPs and 504 Plans


However, the plans diverge on a number of points. As discussed, they are guaranteed by different laws, and the IEP is broader in terms of what it protects. It is intended for students who meet the requirements for specialized instruction (as defined by the Department of Education), while a 504 applies to students who can learn from the general curriculum with accommodations or modifications.


Moreover, while students with 504 plans are placed in general education classrooms, students with IEPs are sometimes in special education classrooms, depending on their needs. 


The process for developing and implementing an IEP is more involved than it is for a 504. An IEP involves measurable goals to be tracked throughout the school year, while a 504 plan states the accommodations to which the student will have access. Additionally, the content of an IEP is more specific than the content of a 504 plan is; an IEP must include:


  1. Your student’s present level of performance
  2. Goals that are measurable and can be met within the school year
  3. The special education, resources, and services your child requires and will be provided


Meanwhile, the content covered in a 504 plan is not regulated by law.


Which One is Right for Your Child?


The plan that’s best for your child depends on their individual needs and the nature of their disability or circumstances. More students qualify for a 504 plan than do for an IEP because it covers more disabilities and conditions; children must have a disability that falls into one of the 14 categories as described by the DoE for an IEP, while this is not necessary for a 504.


For example, if a student has ADHD and is doing reasonably well in school but needs more time on tests, they may well qualify for a 504 plan. However, if the disorder is severely impacting and limiting the child’s ability to learn and they are struggling in school because of it, an IEP could be necessary. (NB: ADHD is considered a health impairment, one of the 13 categories outlined under IDEA that could qualify a student for an IEP.)


If you’re not sure which plan is right for your child, discuss the situation with your school. An evaluation is typically the first step in creating both plans, and sometimes, if the school determines that your student doesn’t meet the criteria for an IEP, they will suggest a 504 plan.

Neither of these plans is available to college students, but there are many institutions that could be the perfect fit for your child. Check out CollegeVine’s free school-search tool to find the schools that will meet your student’s needs and help prepare them for their careers.

Short Bio
Laura Berlinsky-Schine is a freelance writer and editor based in Brooklyn with her demigod/lab mix Hercules. She specializes in education, technology and career development. She also writes satire and humor, which has appeared in Slackjaw, Points in Case, Little Old Lady Comedy, Jane Austen’s Wastebasket, and Funny-ish. View her work and get in touch at: www.lauraberlinskyschine.com.