How going to school affects a Social Security disability benefits case?

I have worked with a number of people who have gone back to school while applying for Social Security disability benefits. This may be going to (or back to) college, trade school, or just getting more training. Generally, Social Security wants to see people getting on with their lives and trying to find a way to make a living. Going back to school is a common part of this.

However, it can sometimes cause problems in a disability case. Social Security cases can be summed up as, “do your conditions keep you from being able to do some kind of work?” That is a bit of a simplification since the standard is whether an individual can engage is a “substantial gainful activity,” but it is a good question to start with.

I’m not trying to work, I’m just going to school. Is this going to be a problem?

That depends on several factors:

Is going to school consistent with your disability?

If you have PTSD, social anxiety disorder, or another condition, how are you managing with the social requirements of going to school?

This is not an insurmountable question, but Social Security will consider it, and you need to have an answer.

I have known people who go back to school, but they take night or online classes to minimize social interaction. I have had other clients with anxiety disorders who have permission from the school and the instructors allowing them to leave the classroom without any penalty if they feel an anxiety attack coming on.

Social Security often looks to the specific accommodations provided by the school to decide this is consistent with the disability.

Is the school activity comparable to work?

If classes, labs, homework and studying take up around 30 to 40 hours per week going to school may be viewed by Social Security as close enough to what is required in the workplace to suggest that the individual is capable to engaging in a substantial gainful activity (aka working).  Put another way, if you can put in 40 hours a week at something which is as hard as work, Social Security may think you can work. And, if you can work, your case may be denied.

So is your going to school similar to going to work? It all depends on the circumstances.

  • How many classes are you taking? Are you going full time, half time, quarter time?
  • How are you scheduling your classes? Some people with chronic fatigue disorder have gone to college half time or less, and set up their schedules to limit time in school to only a few hours a day. Or, have several hours between classes for rest periods.
  • How many hours are you devoting to school? This is the big question. When you add up all the time between classes, studying, homework, labs, etc, how many hours are you devoting to being in school? Is it close to a 40 hour work-week?

Is the degree inconsistent with the disability?

Ask yourself, “what jobs can I do with my degree?” If the jobs are inconsistent with your current disability, how are you going to explain to Social Security why you are pursuing training in that area?

For example, if you have a seizure disorder and are training to be an electrician, Social Security may wonder how you are planning to deal with the possibility of losing consciousness while working around live wires? The result may be that Social Security may infer that the seizure disorder may not be disabling considering your educational goals, and deny your case.

Of course, not every degree program or retraining is inconsistent with a disability claim. For example, I have had several clients go back to school to become therapists and counselors with the goal of working on their own, in an environment where they can set their own schedules, thereby allowing them to manage their disabilities.

Going to school while pursing a Social Security disability case brings a unique set of potential pitfalls for the unwary. Whether this keeps you from winning your case often depends on how well you understand the potential risks and the documentation you have prepared to resolve potential problems.

Disclaimer: This is NOT legal advice. This site provides general information about Social Security disability cases in Colorado. To discuss your particular circumstances, please contact a lawyer in your area. Please review the full disclaimer .

About Tomasz Stasiuk

Tomasz Stasiuk is a Colorado Springs Social Security disability lawyer and the founding attorney of the Stasiuk Firm - a law firm specializing in Social Security disability cases in Colorado. Follow Tomasz Stasiuk on Google and Twitter
  • industrial deafness claims

    Really good advice- I think the key piece of advice to take from it is that forwarned is for-armed and theat preparation is key

  • Pammie_johnson

    Would I lose my benefits if I go to college?

  • TomaszStasiuk

    Hi Pammie. If there was a simple yes or no answer, this would have been a much easier article to write. :) As you read above, there are a number of issues involved. Ultimately though, even after you factor in all of them, it is still just a guess. You may want to sit down with a lawyer in your area to go over how going to college may affect your benefits.

  • Pingback: Can a 18 year old full time student still get Social Security child's benefits? | Colorado Social Security Law()

  • Cherylpoland

    What if you are aready on SSDI and want to go to school full time so you can get a job within your disability and support yourself? Will Soc. Sec. consider this SGA and cut off your checks once your ticket to work program has reached it maximum 9 months time period? Your article mainly mentions someone in the process of starting a case.

  • TomaszStasiuk

    Hi Cheryl.

    Well, most individuals are not paid to go to school. Sure there are loans, grants, etc. However, most people do not receive a salary for going to school. So, it is less of a SGA issue. However, as noted above, the amount of time devoted to going to school may indicate an **ability** to perform a substantial gainful activity. An oversimplification is if an individual is able to spend 40 hours a week on school (between classes, homework and studies), SSA may view that as indicating an ability to perform SGA. And therefore stop benefits — even retroactively stop benefits, resulting in an overpayment.

    Does this mean spending less than 40 hours on school will prevent SSA from stopping benefits? Nope. It is all a judgement call. How close is the activity to SGA? Is the activity inconsistent with the disability? Basically, all the stuff I discuss in the post above.

    Unfortunately, I cannot offer any type of magic formula to follow to prevent SSA from stopping benefits.

  • Lanenayc

    im on ssdi & ss. i have PTSD.  i would like to go back to school for councling but i dont know if this will affect my benifits?

  • Denisepdx97217

    I receive disability insurance from California.  I want to attend college in Portland.  I have applied for financial aid through the school.  I was approved for 2 loans and I PELL grant.  Will I lose my benefits if I go to school and/or accept these funds?

  • TomaszStasiuk

    I can’t answer that. Even if you addressed the issues discussed in the article, I would not be able to give you an answer because I am not the one who will decide this. Only Social Security can tell you how going back to school will affect your benefits. 

  • Cawood_375

    If I want to take a coarse and pay for it myself just to educate myself in a trade that I could periodically use it for my own personal use. I have severe nerve and back damage that limits my time of standing (w/a walker), sitting and even lying down but used to do some field welding and would like to actually educate myself in that area. I know I wouldn’t be able to ever use those skills and would only be able to attend class for a 2hr block once a week. Do you see a problem or implication with that?

  • TomaszStasiuk

    Thanks for your question. Unfortunately, there are too many unknown variables to be able to answer this.

  • Harleighbitch

    so who do you ask to get a better Idea of time you can spend and classes you can take? I have MS,Vertigo,ADHD and am bipolar ,I feel I might be able to attend classes if offered online through college because I can do school work when I am bed ridden or having a good day to get a better education, why would they penalize you by taking away your benefits, and who do you ask for more definitive answers?

  • deb

    I want to take some classes like reading writting and another class Im currently on disability,I dont want to lose my checks,butI want to try to do something,(will I lose my benifits while still attending collage)Or will they wait til Ive finished and grantuated to take them from me.Debbie

  • TomaszStasiuk

    Hi, Deb. I’ve asked other practitioners for best practices when going back to school and wanting to preserve eligibility for benefits. Unfortunately, I have not gotten anything tangible. I discuss some of the issues involved in the post above. However, I cannot provide anything that is guaranteed to preserve eligibility. 

  • Eric Brightwell

    Im already on social security disability and considering going back to college for two years. I suffer from Bi polar, ocd and anxiety attacks, will they take me off ssi? Thanks

  • Rosie

    I have a physical disability that is preventing me from working. I have been pursuing online school, so that I can lie in bed and do school work. I am currently 3 years into the “disability process” and I don’t want to lose my back pay or potential future benefits. Will this effect my disability case if I am doing courses online that cater to my condition?

  • TomaszStasiuk

    Everything effects a disability case. The extent depends on the individual circumstances of the case:

  • lokiflux

    Justf or anyone that comes here and doesn’t know, it’s stated quite clearly on the SS website that tuition, grants, etc that are used for educational expenses are not counted as income and need not be reported.

  • pebs

    I am on disability have been since 2009.God knows I would love to work. when it I tax time being that I am married, I have to it may be best if people can compromise and fig out, cause the gov takes over half of my benefits at the end of the year. i have thought about school, going back to work many different things. government wise I honestly see no point, they will tax you to death take you for all you have. I pray for all the best in life, great futures.

  • Milwaukeebeast

    Ssdi does not care about you going to school the matter Is how did you get to school, how long are you there,are you sitting down the whole time or standing,are you walking to diff classes,u see its (not) your going to school; its how are you going and what physical movements are involved. a nutshell if you you have back problems how can you attend school for 40 hours without triggering pain…oh you can do 40? Well you can work!!!!why give u this check if you can work…ijs

  • Lisawhittington92

    I receive SSI benefits. What if I just wanted to learn one course of math? I would request a ‘slow/special” math class… … But would they Stoll target me as a potential cut off fer SSI?

  • TomaszStasiuk

    Unfortunately, this prompts the typical and unsatisfying answer, “it depends.” Circumstances (like the ones discussed in the post above) are everything. And of course there is the person at Social Security looking at those circumstances.

  • doe

    I have been on ssdi for years and I want to take a couple of courses. will I lose my benefits

  • dynasty

    I’m currently getting benefits for bipolar 1 anxiety and depression and im coming up to my third year review. I just started school but its an extremely small class just 3 of us in total so I’m able to cope cuz I’m not around a lot of interaction…and I only do 24 hours a week…I’m still not stabalized but I’m following my Drs treatment…Does SSA ask about school on the reviews for continued benefits? And can I be affected for trying to move on with my life?

  • dynasty

    Hi…I found the answer to my can I delete this post? Thank You

  • Manny

    My son is receiving SSI because of his autism. We are going to try college for him. How does this effect his SSI benefit if I pay for his college or he receives grant money from the government. Thank you for any help you can provide

  • Arrhya

    I have PTSD, MDD, and Boarderline Personality Disorder, I get disability. Every job I ever had prior to getting disability were high stress jobs. I want to take online classes for massage therapy which seems less stressful. I want to work at my own pace in class and in a job in the end. Will this affect my disability?

  • paula

    I’m on social security I’m Trying For My Ged Will it Hurt me

  • Shanda Johnson

    I want to try college for the first time but how will it affect my benefits.
    I’m on ssi because I have a medical condition called hydrocephalus its when you have too much water on the brain It cause me to have headaches off and on. I’ve been too scared to apply to school because I didn’t want to
    lose my cash and medical benefits. Can someone help me understand.