Can You Go Back To School While Receiving Disability Benefits?

If you've recently been approved for Social Security Disability (SSD) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) at a relatively young age, you may be dismayed at the thought of being relegated to a low monthly income for the rest of your life. You may also believe that retraining in a different, more sedentary career field could allow you to work a well-paying job and decrease your reliance on disability payments. Can you attend college while collecting SSD or SSI benefits? What should you know about enrolling for the first time, and how can you pay tuition and other fees if your check barely stretches to cover your basic expenses? Read on to learn more about attending college while disabled.

Can you enroll in college if you're receiving SSD or SSI? 

In order for your SSD or SSI application to have been approved, you must be unable to perform "substantial gainful activity" — so if the disability that precludes you from working doesn't prevent you from seeking an education, it's possible that the Social Security Administration will take a more careful look at your eligibility. Although online classes are readily available for those who have physical limitations that prevent them from easily leaving the house, those who are receiving SSD due to mental illness or disorders exacerbated by stress may be unable to take a full-time course load without drawing scrutiny, as this activity is likely just as stressful as working an office job.

Before enrolling, you may want to speak with a Social Security attorney who can help evaluate the factors that led to your disability determination and what type of college schedule (and career field) could allow you to succeed without compromising the benefits which you depend on to live.

After you've graduated with your new degree or certification and begun working, you may continue to qualify for SSD or SSI benefits for a certain period of time to ensure that your disability won't soon prevent you from full-time work. Even after your benefits have stopped, if you find that substantial gainful activity continues to be impossible, you'll be able to have your benefits reinstated without going through the application and approval process again.

How can you pay for college while receiving SSD or SSI?

Even if you are able to take a half-time or full-time college course load while continuing to receive SSD or SSI benefits, you'll need some way to help pay tuition costs and other fees associated with college coursework. In most cases, you'll be able to qualify for subsidized or unsubsidized federal student loans. Because the repayment of these loans is guaranteed by the federal government, they are available through private lenders to most students without a criminal record — even those with poor (or no) credit or income. These loans can be used to pay tuition, purchase books, and even help fund living expenses that aren't covered by your SSD or SSI check.

You may also want to investigate grants or scholarships offered by the educational institutions in which you're interested. In many cases, these colleges or universities will offer aid specific to disabled or handicapped prospective students, helping lower the cost of admission (and helping reduce your total loan amount). 

You'll also want to investigate the cost of obtaining needed credits at a local community college before transferring to a major university. In many cases, you'll be able to get most of the prerequisite courses out of the way at community college while paying a fraction of the cost of a 4-year degree, while still obtaining a final diploma that lists the college of your choice.

For more information about your options while receiving Social Security benefits, check out websites like