Disability Question: Why Does My Level of Education Matter?

Disability Question: Why Does My Level of Education Matter?

When applying for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), most people expect to have to prove impairment and inability to work. But it catches many applicants off guard when they receive questions about their literacy and schooling. In fact, “What does my level of education have to do with my SSDI claim?” was a recent reader question. And seeing that inbox query made us realize most people don’t know the multiple factors that determine a successful claim. 

While education isn’t the most important consideration in getting approval for an SSDI case, it can weigh into the decision. Read on to learn more about how level of education and disability intersect.

What is Necessary to Qualify for SSDI?

SSDI benefits are available to adults ages 18-66 with long-term health issues that prevent them from working. 

This type of disability supports individuals who have a qualifying work history that makes them eligible. Generally, an applicant must prove prior employment for about one-fourth of their adult lives. That includes work during five of the last 10 years. And as part of that employment, they must have paid Social Security taxes (which is how the program is funded). 

 Basically, the minimum requirements to qualify for SSDI are:

  1. You must have a serious health issue that keeps you from working for 12 months or more.
  2. Your condition meets the Social Security Administration (SSA) definition of disability
  3. You must have previously worked jobs where you paid Social Security payroll taxes and can show enough work credits

If an applicant meets those criteria, then the SSA will continue to process a claim. And those subsequent steps are where “level of education” comes into play. 

How Does Your Level of Education Factor into an SSDI Determination?

Ultimately the SSA uses a 5-step process to decide if an applicant qualifies for SSDI:

5-step determination process for SSD claim approvals

Above, we explained the first three parts that have to do with disability determination and work status (prior and current). 

Step 4 has to do with the work you did before and if you might ever be capable of returning to that field. The SSA will ask, “Can you do the work you did previously?” They will examine how you did your job and what learned skills were necessary. If it seems you can still perform the job you were doing before, then you will not receive benefits.

However, if the SSA decides you are unable to work in your former profession, they will continue to Step 5. This is where level of education finally enters the equation. During Step 5, the SSA looks closely at age, education, training, and work experience. The purpose of this step is to determine if there is other work you can do despite your health problems. 

What Does the SSA Consider When Reviewing Your Level of Education? 

While the SSA absolutely counts the number of years you spent in school, that is not the only educational component. Other considerations include whether you have any special job training, trade or vocational school, or education outside the “classic” format.

The SSA also recognizes that an absence of formal education doesn’t mean you’re uneducated or that it limits work ability. However, these factors will slot into the SSA’s assessment of whether you can adjust to different types of work. And they will consider how your educational abilities stack up against your last year of completed schooling. Meaning, some people will test higher or lower than any actual grades or degrees they finish.

Also, it’s important to note that the SSA considers illiteracy or inability to communicate in English as an impediment. They cite this as “an educational factor that limits an individual’s ability to adjust to other work.” But a claimant will have to show definitive proof of either of those classifications for SSA consideration. However, when such a disadvantage is present, if an applicant meets all the other SSDI criteria, they’ll likely receive benefits. 

Are People with More Education Less Likely to Get SSDI?

Don’t assume that a high level of education will stop you from getting SSDI benefits. 

There are many factors that go into the determination of how education plays into your ability to transfer those skills to other work. For example, if it’s been a long time since you completed school, any advantage of that training may diminish. Because of that, the SSA considers each claimant’s age along with with any formal education. In general, the SSA assumes anyone aged 50+ may have a harder time adapting to a new line of work.

Statistics do show individuals with limited education (less than a high school diploma) are more likely to receive disability insurance benefits. However, SSDI provides compensation for all socioeconomic groups, including the highly educated (those with a Bachelor’s degree or more).

Case in point: In 2016, the SSA paid SSDI benefits to about 1.1 million people with a Bachelor’s degree. At the same time, there were about 1.8 million disability recipients with less than a high school education. 

Also consider that the SSA bases SSDI compensation on each person’s prior tax contributions and work salary. So, those with Bachelor’s degrees likely paid more into the SSA trust fund while working. Accordingly, if awarded benefits, they’ll also likely receive higher SSDI payments.

To support that assertion, in 2016, the median annual income level for people on SSDI with a Bachelor’s degree was $23,445. For those without a high school education, the number was $12,147. In other words, the system tends to balance itself out. 

When is Education Not Considered in a SSDI Claim? 

There are some cases where the SSA will grant SSDI benefits before even getting to Step 4 or Step 5. 

Typically, these are situations where someone is suffering from a serious disease or condition that receives automatic benefit approval. Certain cancers or being on the heart-transplant waitlist are good examples that the SSA includes on their Compassionate Allowances list. 

These are illnesses that qualify for faster claim processing because of the urgency and potentially fatal diagnosis. Applicants may also waive the required 5-month waiting period that is the norm for standard Social Security disability (SSD) claims.

In these cases, the SSA assumes the claimant cannot work because they’re fighting for their life. So, the SSA won’t consider level of education in any benefit awards where the medical condition warrants immediate approval. 

Applying for SSDI can be a very complicated process with a lot of loopholes. As a result, it’s a wise move to consider a free consultation with a disability attorney. Especially since studies show that individuals who retain counsel are ultimately 3x more likely to get benefits

Let us connect you with a skilled disability lawyer from our vast network today. Because regardless of your level of education, having an attorney to advocate for you is just plain smart.

Want free expert help with your disability claim? Click the button below to start your free online benefits quiz and see if you may qualify:

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Kimberly Dawn Neumann is a multi-published NYC-based magazine and book writer whose work has appeared in a wide variety of publications ranging from Forbes to Cosmopolitan. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Maryland, College of Journalism. For more, visit: www.KDNeumann.com, Instagram @dancerscribe, and Twitter/X @KimberlyNeumann.