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.