If you're disabled and receiving Social Security benefits, you already know that if you go back to work, you could lose your disability payments. You can't collect disability benefits if you can work full-time or engage in what Social Security calls "substantial gainful activity" (SGA).
But what about returning to school to finish a degree or earn certification? Here's what you need to know about Social Security's rules on attending classes and how returning to school might affect your disability benefits.
The Social Security Administration (SSA) has no restrictions on attending school while you receive Social Security disability insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits. You're allowed to take classes as a full- or part-time student.
But that's not to say it can't affect your SSDI or SSI benefits. If you're a full-time student, Social Security might suspect your condition has improved, and you're no longer disabled.
When you're receiving disability benefits, Social Security will review your case from time to time to see whether you're still disabled or if your condition has improved enough for you to return to work. Social Security usually conducts these "continuing disability reviews" (CDRs) every three to seven years, depending on factors like:
Going to school, college, or a vocational training program full-time could give Social Security the mistaken impression that you're no longer disabled. If that happens, your disability benefits could be terminated. Taking a class or two, however, is unlikely to affect your benefits.
Individuals with mental impairments often have a harder time getting disability and can face tougher scrutiny than those with obvious physical impairments. For example, you'll likely face a CDR every three years if you were approved for disability benefits based on a mental condition, such as:
Even though there's no Social Security policy barring you from attending school, being a full-time student can work against you during a CDR if you have an impairment that can't be measured using objective tests such as X-rays or blood tests, like:
If you're collecting SSDI or SSI based on a mental condition or another "invisible" impairment, you might find it best not to broadcast the fact that you're going to school full-time during your review. The disability examiner reviewing your case might leap to the conclusion that because you can attend classes, you no longer meet Social Security's definition of disabled.
Being able to go to school doesn't mean you can work enough to support yourself—especially if you have a condition, like a mental impairment, that's worse sometimes and better at other times. This fluctuation can be a response to environmental stressors, such as a demanding work schedule.
By contrast, the requirements of attending school don't usually need to be as demanding or stressful as work. Academic coursework doesn't impose the same type of demands that competitive employment does for several reasons, including the following:
These options generally don't exist with full-time employment. But the claims examiner doing your continuing disability review might not see it that way.
Note that if you're going to school as a part of a Ticket to Work program, Social Security won't review your case for medical improvement (you won't face a CDR) during this time.
If Social Security gets the impression that you can go back to work, whether that's because you're attending school full time or for another reason, your disability benefits might end. Any time your Social Security benefits are terminated or changed, you have the right to appeal the cessation.
You can ask Social Security to continue your SSDI or SSI payments during your appeal if you think your benefits were terminated in error. But be careful with this. If you lose your appeal, you might have to repay those benefits.
For example, let's say your benefits were stopped because you completed a training program or earned a degree or certificate that qualifies you to do work you couldn't do when Social Security determined you were disabled. If your condition has improved and you can now work enough that it's considered SGA—even if you don't have a job yet—you might not win your appeal.
If you think you might be able to return to work, or you want to give it a try, but you're afraid you'll lose your benefits, read our section on Social Security's trial work programs.
Updated June 28, 2023