Can I Start School Full Time While on Disability?

Question

I'd like to go back to school and finish my degree. Will I risk losing my disability benefits?

Answer

The Social Security Administration (SSA) has no prohibition restricting a person who is receiving Social Security disability insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits from taking classes, full or part time.

However, your case is reviewed by the SSA from time to time to see if your condition has improved, and going to school, college, or a vocational training program full time could reflect on whether you are still totally disabled, especially if you were approved for disability benefits on the basis of a mental impairment, such as depression, bipolar disorder, or a cognitive deficit. If this is the case, you may find it best not to broadcast the fact that you're going to school full time when your case is re-evaluated at a continuing disability review, or CDR.

A disability examiner reviewing such a case might leap to the conclusion that the recipient no longer meets the definition of disability. Of course, this may not be true at all, especially in the case of a mental impairment that becomes exacerbated and then improves. For the individual who is mentally impaired, this fluctuation is often a response to environmental stressors, such as a demanding work schedule. By contrast, the requirements of attending school do not usually need to be as demanding or stressful as work. Academic coursework does not impose the same type of demands that competitive employment does. An individual in school can choose the types of classes they take. They can, depending on the policies of the school and the instructor, miss a certain number of classes and "make the work up." They can drop classes. They can choose a morning, midday, or evening schedule. None of these options exist with competitive employment, but the claims examiner doing a continuing review may not see it that way.

You may want to read our sections on continuing disability reviews and trial work programs. Note that if you are going to school as a part of a Ticket to Work program, Social Security will not review your case for medical improvement (through a CDR) during this time.

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