IEPs and 504 plans: Understanding the Difference

High school students sit in a semi-circle in a classroom.
Familiarizing yourself with terminology used in K-12 education can help make the process of arranging accommodations and services for students with disabilities easier.

Youth with disabilities participate in high school exchange programs in the U.S. every year. Although many international students with disabilities will need few, if any, disability-related accommodations in the United States, others will need services and support to participate fully in their host schools. Students may receive services and support informally or through an IEP or 504 plan.

Individualized Education Program (IEP)

In the United States, each public school child who receives special education services must have an Individualized Education Program (IEP). This is mandated by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Special education services are provided at no cost to students and states receive federal funding for each IDEA eligible student.

An IEP creates an opportunity for teachers, parents, school administrators, related professionals, and students (when appropriate) to work together to identify goals and improve outcomes for students with disabilities.

To qualify for an IEP, a child's disability must have an adverse effect on his/her educational progress.

Merely having a disability is not sufficient for eligibility and many students with disabilities do not receive special education services.

MIUSA is often asked if high school exchange students with disabilities can arrive in the United States with an IEP. The answer is no because an IEP is a legal document created by a team of stakeholders in the United States. However, exchange students who require special education services frequently do receive an IEP during their time in the U.S. and those can often be expedited using documentation provided in advance of the student’s arrival (for example, a current audiogram, visual acuity report, etc.).

Note that IEPs are not used at the higher education level.

What’s the difference between an IEP and a 504 plan?

504 plans get their name from Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, a broad civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in any agency, school, or institution receiving federal funds.

Section 504 requires schools to eliminate barriers that would prevent a student from participating fully in the programs and services offered in the general curriculum by providing reasonable accommodations. Those accommodations may be documented in a plan called a 504 plan.

Both IEPs and 504 plans are intended to ensure that students with disabilities have equal access to education.

The difference is: IEPs are developed for students who receive specialized instruction. 504 plans are for students who have accessibility requirements (e.g., extended time for tests and assignments, large print classroom materials, etc.), but do not require specialized instruction, and do not qualify for special education programs under IDEA. For those students, the school district’s 504 coordinator may be an excellent resource throughout the process of placing and supporting a student with a disability in his or her U.S. host school.

Whether an exchange student has an IEP or 504 plan, or receives accommodations more informally, advance planning is key to ensuring that necessary services will be in place as close to the start of the school year as possible.  

See other tips in the Related Resources section when planning for international students with disabilities at U.S. high schools.