Very few students qualify for Social Security benefits after they are 18 and in college. These benefits are mostly reserved for students in elementary or secondary school whose father or mother has died. Social Security benefits for families affected by the death of a parent were established to help give the family a financial cushion after this tragic event. Once out of high school, most students no longer qualify for benefits, and those who do must be severely disabled.
TL;DR (Too Long; Didn't Read)
Social Security benefits are not available for able-bodied college students. However, some disabled students may qualify for Social Security disability insurance or supplemental security income during their college years.
Social Security Student Benefits
Social Security student benefits stop for most young people when they turn 18 or if they are 19 years of age and a full-time high school student. In the latter case, benefits continue until two months after the individual’s 19th birthday or until his high school graduation, whichever is first. If a student marries prior to either of these dates or conditions, he may no longer receive Social Security benefits. The same holds true if he is convicted of a crime, starts attending school on a part-time basis or if his employer is paying him to attend school.
Students and Social Security Disability Insurance
Social Security disability insurance benefits, or SSDI, are available to people who become disabled after reaching the age of 18 but before their 22nd birthday. The Social Security Administration always refers to “child’s” benefits even though the beneficiary has reached legal adulthood in these circumstances.
The young person’s SSDI disability qualification is the same as that for adults. Social Security’s disability criteria include a medical condition that does not permit the person to perform basic work activities such as standing, lifting, sitting or basic memory activities for at least 12 months, or the person must be diagnosed with a condition expected to prove fatal within one year. Less-severe disabilities, with the exception of blindness, don't meet the requirements.
Keep in mind that such payments are not for educational purposes and are a form of financial assistance for a disabled individual. It is simply eligibility for disabled people of college age, not any type of tuition. Depending on the type of disability, the funds are paid to the legal guardian and not the disabled person. Disabled young adults who never worked or who do not have the required number of credits to qualify for SSDI may receive benefits based on their parents’ work record, but a parent must either have died or be currently receiving Social Security or SSDI for their child to qualify. SSDI eligibility is reviewed on a regular basis, with such reviews taking place at least every three years.
With the advent of distance learning, more people are able to attend college via online classes, so a disabled young person may find this a good way to receive an education. Of course, they can also attend in-person classes at an accredited institution of higher education if that is a possibility.
Supplemental Security Income and Work
Supplemental security income, or SSI, differs from SSDI. This program pays benefits to limited-income disabled adults and children. Children of a parent receiving SSI can work and still receive SSI without affecting parental eligibility up to a certain income limit. For 2018, children receiving SSI cannot earn more than $1,180 and qualify for SSI unless they are blind. If their disability consists of visual impairment, they may earn up to $1,970 as of 2018 and still qualify for SSI. The earnings limit changes annually.
Once the child turns 18, she may qualify for SSI based on her own income and resources rather than that of the parents. Medical conditions which generally qualify an adult for SSI include cerebral palsy, total blindness, total deafness, muscular dystrophy, Down’s syndrome and symptomatic HIV infection.
Changing of the Law
When the Social Security Act became law in 1935 during the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration, there was no provision for dependent payments. It was enacted as a way to prevent old age dependency only. That changed within just a few years, and by 1939, a family benefits program was created. Disability benefits were added in 1956.
There are older individuals, now at least in their 50s, who did receive Social Security benefits while in college. Between 1965, when an amendment to the Social Security Act redefined “child” in some situations, and 1981, Social Security survivor benefits lasted until age 22 for all full-time students. Most students who went directly to college out of high school completed their education by that age, and the Social Security Administration made the change based on the assumption that such college students were still dependent until graduation. The benefits were still children’s benefits rather than educational benefits in that sense, as they were predicated on the fact that such full-time students were not financially independent adults. However, in the minds of most parents and children, such benefits constituted a form of student aid even if that’s not technically what they were.
Roughly 900,000 college students received Social Security benefits in 1977, but it wasn’t until a few years later that the highest amount of benefits were paid. In 1981, nearly $2.4 billion went toward paying benefits to college students under age 22.
The program encountered many serious problems, the biggest of which was the full-time student issue. While students weren’t supposed to receive Social Security benefits if they decided to attend college part time or dropped out entirely, back then the SSA was reliant on self-reporting when the full-time status changed. Suffice to say that many students with a status change didn’t bother to notify the SSA that they were no longer eligible for benefits. The overpayment problem became overwhelming, especially at a time when SSA in general was experiencing budget issues.
While the SSA did its best to recoup monies owed, it could never get back more than 75 percent of ineligible payments. A 1978 SSA study showed that $150 million annually was lost due to overpayments and lack of repayment. The end result was that Congress eradicated Social Security benefits for those enrolled full time in college in August 1981 when it passed the Reconciliation Act Repeal of Social Security. Since tens of thousands of students were already enrolled in college at that time, the program was phased out for them, but new students were no longer eligible for benefits.
Benefits for College Students with Deceased Parents
While most college students who have lost one or both parents are ineligible for Social Security benefits while in school, they may qualify for other benefits. There are numerous scholarship and grant opportunities available for children who have lost a parent, although the child must apply for such college payment assistance. Some scholarships are earmarked for the children of parents who died from certain causes, including cancer, a job-related injury or active-duty military service. Many state scholarships are available for students whose late parent was a member of the U.S. armed forces or served as a firefighter or police officer. Often, students are eligible for more than one of these types of scholarships. Search online for these scholarships and grants or contact your college’s financial aid office.
- Social Security Administration: Benefits Planner: Survivors – Planning For Your Survivors
- Social Security Administration: Frequently Asked Questions – Students
- Social Security Administration: Research Note #11: The History of Social Security "Student" Benefits
- Social Security Administration: Disability Benefits
- Disability Benefits Center: When I Turn 18, Will I Still Continue to Receive the Disability Benefits That I Am Receiving Now?
- Social Security Administration: Benefits For Children With Disabilities
A graduate of New York University, Jane Meggitt's work has appeared in dozens of publications, including PocketSense, Zack's, Financial Advisor, nj.com, LegalZoom and The Nest.