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Disability Benefits and Education: What Students Should Know

Written by
Jackie Jakab, Disability Attorney
Jackie Jakab
Lead Attorney
June 3, 2024  ·  4 min read
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Eligibility for Social Security disability benefits is primarily based on a person’s inability to work due to a medical condition. Being a student does not disqualify someone from receiving benefits if they meet the eligibility requirements, but it can complicate the Social Security Administration’s evaluation process.

Read on to learn more about what factors higher education students should know when applying for Social Security disability benefits.

Does being a student affect my eligibility for Social Security disability?

No, attending school does not prevent someone from qualifying for disability benefits. The Social Security Administration (SSA) will use the same evaluation process to assess an applicant’s ability to work, whether they’re employed or in school. 

To determine eligibility, the SSA will evaluate any work or school-related income to determine whether you engage in substantial gainful activity (SGA). The SSA will also consider your level of education and ability to work. 

How does the SSA evaluate education?

The Social Security Administration uses information about your education level to assess how your disability might impact your ability to perform work-related tasks. 

The SSA will also consider the relevance of your education to the type of work you can no longer do because of your disability. They’ll also look at whether you have skills from your education or vocational training that you can apply to other fields of work.  

In short, a higher level of education indicates to the SSA you have a broad range of transferable skills and job options. For example, having a GED or a vocational or technical training certificate might limit your employment options, and the SSA might consider your disability application more favorably. 

Levels of education

The SSA classifies education into four levels to assess an individual’s skills and competencies:

  1. High school education and up: The SSA considers individuals who have completed 12th grade and beyond capable of performing semi-skilled and skilled jobs. This includes GEDs and specialized training.

  2. Limited education: A limited education is the completion of 7th through 11th grade, and the SSA sees this education level as being insufficient for most semi-skilled and skilled work.

  3. Marginal education: This level of education is 6th grade or less and equates to unskilled labor.

  4. Illiteracy: Individuals who cannot read or write will have very limited work opportunities.

Levels of education are mostly important for applicants over the age of 50. You can read more about how education and transferable skills come into play here.

SSDI vs. SSI for students

There are two federal disability programs: Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI). There are a few key differences:

  • SSDI is for individuals with 40 work credits, which generally works out to five years of full-time work. SSDI benefits include a monthly payment and Medicare coverage.

  • SSI is a need-based program and provides monthly benefits to people with disability who have low income and limited work history. SSI benefits include monthly payments and Medicaid. 

Because of the work history requirements for SSDI, college-age students are more likely to qualify for SSI benefits. 

SSDI amounts

What should I do if I’m in school and my condition makes it challenging?

If you are a student and face challenges due to a disability, you might be able to get accommodations while in school. Accommodations can include assistance with note-taking, remote learning, or extended time to complete exams. If your educational institution provides special accommodations, list these in your disability application

Can I apply for disability if I’m on medical leave from classes?

Taking medical leave from school because of your medical condition can help demonstrate the severity of your condition and strengthen your disability claim. Medical evidence is a significant factor in your application, so it is important to have up-to-date medical records and receive treatment for your condition.

If I’m a full-time student, should I wait until I finish classes to apply for benefits?

The severity of your medical condition and your ability to participate in your education can help determine when you should apply for disability. But it’s important to note that being in school full-time can signal to the SSA that you’re able to work a full workweek. "The SSA wants to understand why you can’t work,” says Sarah Aitchison, a lawyer at Atticus. “So if you’re actively training or retraining for a job, it'll often be harder to prove that you can't work. They'll essentially ask: ‘Why can you train for work but can't do work?’ This doesn't always mean that you won't be able to get benefits while in school or taking classes, but it will be a hurdle to overcome."

Get personalized advice about your options.

Do I need a disability lawyer to apply?

The SSA does not require applicants to have a disability attorney, but it can be helpful to work with one. A lawyer can help prove to the SSA that even though you are a student, you cannot enter the workforce full-time because of your disability. 

“Start thinking about your limitations at school,” says Olivia Brink, a client advocate at Atticus. “What is causing you pain or trouble every day? If your teachers give you any accommodations for your disability or you frequently miss classes, it is really important to share with your attorney. It can help explain how you're able to attend school while disabled but maybe not hold a full-time job.”

Will Social Security benefits affect financial aid?

No, Social Security disability benefits do not impact your ability to receive federal student aid, including grants or loans to continue your education. This financial support does not count toward the resource limit if you apply for SSI. 

However, if you receive SSDI benefits, any income you earn, including student earnings, can impact your eligibility for need-based financial assistance for school. 

How many classes can I take and still get disability?

There is no rule about how many classes you can take to qualify or maintain eligibility for Social Security disability. The SSA will evaluate how your condition impacts your ability to work, not whether you’re a part or full-time student. But here’s the thing: being enrolled in school full-time or having a heavy course load could raise flags about your ability to work. 

Will I lose SSDI benefits if I go back to school?

Returning to school may jeopardize your ability to maintain disability benefits. This is because the SSA might argue that your ability to attend school suggests an improvement in your condition or that your pursuit of new skills opens you up to more employment possibilities. 

If you are already receiving benefits, the SSA will consider your student status during a Continuing Disability Review. It’s important to follow the SSA’s rules about reporting updates on your medical condition and any income changes.

Pursuing an education is incredibly valuable, and the SSA offers programs such as PASS and Ticket to Work to help people with disabilities earn degrees and enter the workforce.

Will my student loans be forgiven if I get Social Security disability benefits?

If you are totally and permanently disabled, you might qualify for a discharge of your federal student loans. The Total and Permanent Discharge, or TPD discharge for short, also covers students enrolled in the Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) Grant program.

If you qualify for a TPD discharge, you’ll be off the hook for William D. Ford Federal Direct Loan (Direct Loan) Program loans, Federal Family Education Loan (FFEL) Program loans, or Federal Perkins Loans. 

The SSA will automatically flag qualifying Social Security disability recipients, and you should receive a letter in the mail. You can also apply for TPD discharge online through the Federal Student Aid Department. 

Frequently asked questions about qualifying for disability

What conditions qualify for disability benefits?

Any medical condition that leaves you unable to work can qualify for Social Security disability benefits. The SSA has a list of common qualifying conditions in the Blue Book. You can also check our full guide to all the conditions that can qualify for disability.

Does my condition affect my disability benefit?

No, the medical condition you have doesn’t affect how much you get from SSDI or SSI. Where you live also doesn’t impact your check size.

How much do SSDI and SSI pay?

SSDI pays up to $3,822 per month, though the average check is about $1,500 in 2024. SSI can pay up to $943 per month in 2024. Read more about how much you can make on SSDI and SSI.

When should I apply for disability benefits?

We recommend applying for benefits as soon as you know you’ll be unable to work. The application process takes a while — a year or longer for the average person. The sooner you submit your application, the sooner you can get your benefits.

Where do I apply for disability benefits?

Apply for Social Security disability benefits online through the SSA website or in-person at your local SSA office. Get step-by-step help in our breakdown of the disability application process.

Do I need a lawyer to apply for disability?

A lawyer isn’t required and you can win benefits without a lawyer. However, the process is complicated and technical — especially when you get to a court hearing. Working with a good lawyer triples your chances of winning an appeal.

Related resources:

Everything You Should Know About Disability Benefits (SSDI and SSI)

By Sarah Aitchison

An Easy-to-Follow Guide to Applying for Disability Benefits

A hand drawn image of the lead disability lawyer.
By Jackie Jakab

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How long has your condition made it hard to work?

Jackie Jakab, Disability Attorney

Jackie Jakab

Lead Attorney

Jackie Jakab is Atticus’s Legal Director. She’s a licensed attorney, a graduate of the University of Chicago Law School, and has counseled thousands of people seeking disability benefits.
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