Find out why your SSI Disability status is not affected by attending school and learn about special work provisions for SSI recipients who are students.

Going to School Doesn’t Affect Your SSI Disability Status Now

When you are financially eligible and are approved for SSI, your approval depends on your medical condition and, if you are an adult, on your past work history. Accordingly, school attendance itself will not affect your SSI Disability status. Regular school attendance is encouraged for individuals under age twenty-two with the Student Earned Income Exclusion (SEIE), which is discussed below.

How Getting a Degree or Certificate Can Affect SSI Eligibility

If your school attendance earns you a degree or diploma or a trade certificate, you will have the advantages that the new work qualifications (degree, diploma, or trade certificate) give you. Those new qualifications will be considered the next time your claim undergoes a continuing disability review (CDR) to see whether or not you are still disabled. If new occupations become suitable for you because of your new education and you can do those occupations with your physical and/or medical limitations, your benefits could end because you are no longer disabled. This should not scare you off from getting more education if your goal is to re-enter the workforce and have the broader life than being self-supporting can afford.

SSI Student Earned Income Exclusion

SSI law includes several work incentives and earned income exclusions that are available to all disabled people getting SSI. An SSI recipient under age twenty-two who is working and is regularly attending school qualifies for another incentive, the Student Earned Income Exclusion (SEIE). The SEIE is in addition to other earned income exclusions. In 2020, the maximum amount of earned income not counted under the SEIE is $7,670.00 a year with a maximum of $1,900 in any single month.

Definition of Regularly Attending School

The number of hours you must attend to be eligible for the SEIE depends on where you are attending school. Social Security defines regularly attending school as being in class in a college or university at least eight hours weekly or in class in grades seven through twelve for at least twelve hours weekly, or in a home-school situation that meets home-school law for at least twelve hours weekly. It also defines regularly attending as attending a training course that prepares for employment at least twelve hours weekly or fifteen hours weekly if the course involves shop practice.

In some circumstances, a person may be attending for fewer hours and be eligible for the exclusion if the reasons for fewer hours are beyond the student’s control, such as being ill. A home-bound student may qualify if he or she is studying a course given by a school that offers grades seven through twelve, by a college, by a university, or by a government agency and a home visitor or tutor from the school directs the study or training.

With some education, I think I could work full-time and end my SSI Disability eligibility. How can I get money for schooling?

See how a Plan to Achieve Self-Support can lessen your dependence on SSI or achieve financial independence for you and end SSI disability eligibility.

Use a PASS to Meet Your Work Goals

SSI law includes many incentives to help people with SSI Disability eligibility reach vocational goals while getting SSI. 

One of the most valuable work incentives is the Plan to Achieve Self-Support, known as the PASS. A PASS is a written plan of action for getting a certain kind of job or starting a business. You can write the PASS yourself or use a vocational counselor to help you. In either case the PASS must be approved by the Social Security Administration. When approved a PASS allows you to set aside non-SSI income and resources to use to fund expenses related to your PASS. This in turn allows you to become eligible for SSI or to receive a larger amount of SSI than you would without a PASS.

How a PASS Works

A PASS is a written description of how you are going to move toward getting a specific type of job or toward opening a certain type of business. You can use a PASS to newly qualify for SSI or to set aside money while getting SSI to receive a higher SSI payment to cover the income set aside for attaining your vocational goal.

Here’s one example. You may have worked in construction all your life but can no longer do the required heavy lifting. You have always been interested in medicine and would like to become an x-ray tech. The x-ray-tech course takes a year and costs $3,000, plus $450 for books and fees, $75 for a license, and an estimated $300 for transportation to get to school. Your income consists of $400 a month Veteran’s Administration compensation and $403 SSI. You need all your income for daily living expenses.

Here’s where a PASS comes in. If the Social Security Administration approves your PASS, you can set aside $380.00 of your VA benefit toward the $3,825 you need to cover your schooling costs and license. Your $20 remaining VA income will not count against your SSI payment because of the $20 general income exclusion. Your SSI benefit will then be the maximum Federal Amount of $783.00. With the $20 VA you did not set aside, you total income available for non-school needs would be $803, the same as it was before the PASS. And, you will be saving $380 a month toward your work goal!

Getting Help with Your PASS

The first step in getting a PASS is to obtain a PASS application form, which is form number SSA-545-BK. You can get one either from your local Social Security office or online at www.socialsecurity.gov/online/ssa-545.html. The form provides a basic outline of the information you must supply.

If you would like help with developing your plan and with completing the SSI PASS application form, the Social Security Administration can refer you to a vocational counselor. Just call Social Security’s toll-free number 1-800-772-1213 and ask for the PASS specialist’s phone number. You can also ask for the helpful pamphlet “Working While Disabled—A Plan to Achieve Self-Support,” which is Publication 05-11017. The pamphlet is also available at your local Social Security office and online at www.socialsecurity.gov/pubs/11017.html.

Components of a PASS

Your PASS must include your work goal, that is, the job you want to obtain or the business you want to start. It also needs to include the steps you will take and the things you will need to achieve your work goal. These might be education, transportation, child care, vocational services, supplies to start a business, equipment or tools to perform a job, or assistive devices. The PASS also needs to include a timetable to achieve your goal and a list of the resources or non-SSI income you will set aside to pay for the needed items and services.

The Social Security Administration suggests the following steps to help you set your plan.

  • Decide your work goal considering work that interests you and that is within your capabilities. Using a vocational counselor and vocational testing can be helpful in defining your goal.
  • Find out all the steps you will have to take to reach your goal and how long each usually takes.
  • Research what is required to be qualified to work in the occupation you have chosen.
  • Get cost estimates for the services and goods you will need to complete your plan.
  • Figure how much money you will set-aside each month, keeping in mind that SSI will exclude the funds you set aside so your SSI will increase, but only up to the maximum SSI payable, which in 2020 is $783.00 for individuals and $1,175.00 for couples. Social Security will estimate your new SSI amount so you can see if the amount of your set-aside will work with the income you will have for your other expenses.
  • Decide how you will separate your PASS set-aside money from your other money. The simplest is to set up a separate bank account.
  • If you want to start a business, you must also include a detailed business plan. When developing the plan, it is advisable to contact the Small Business Bureau, the Service Corps of Retired Executives, a vocational counselor, or another person who is familiar with helping people start a business.
  • Complete all the questions on the PASS Application Form and deliver or mail it to your local Social Security office.

Social Security’s Evaluation of your PASS

A Social Security plan expert will review your plan to be sure it is complete. If it is then he or she will decide whether your plan will give you a good chance of reaching your goal, whether the expenses you list are necessary to reach the goal and whether they are reasonably priced. Sometimes, the reviewer will identify changes that are needed and will discuss the changes with you. The plan is also evaluated to determine whether your dependence on SSI and Social Security will be decreased if you reach the goal. When the review is complete, you will then be sent a letter telling you whether the PASS was accepted or not.

Your Responsibilities After Your PASS Approval

If your PASS is approved, your next step is to bring Social Security proof of a bank account dedicated to PASS funds and to declare to the first month you will set aside money.

As soon as there is enough money set aside to take the first step of the plan, you must start that step. If you stop working toward the goal listed in the PASS without notifying Social Security, you may be overpaid and subject to a penalty. You must also notify the Social Security Administration before the tenth of the following month, if you change your goal or the planned PASS expenses change.

Your Right to Appeal

Disapproval of your PASS does not affect your SSI disability eligibility. If you think disapproval of your PASS is in error, you have the right to appeal within sixty days. Alternatively, you can revise your plan and submit a new PASS with a different goal or different details on how to achieve the goal.

Ticket to Work

You may be qualified to receive vocational rehabilitation services including funding for education through Social Security’s Ticket to Work. You can learn more about the Ticket and how to get one in our article What is the Ticket to Work Program?

Grants

Having income and assets low enough to qualify for SSI could also qualify you for a government grant, such as a Pell Grant, which you can use to attend college.

Reporting Responsibilities

To avoid overpayments, report your earnings monthly and be sure to let the Social Security Administration know if you change hours of school attendance or schools. And, of course, report any substantial changes in your health that could affect your SSI Disability status.