Jason White’s parents paid for almost two years of tuition toward a computer science degree. When Jason failed out, they gave him a wake-up call.
“You’re going to have to find another way to [pay for] college if you want to keep doing it,” they told him.
Jason struggled to find aid. His parents’ income made it unlikely he’d receive need-based grants from the state. Plus, he was a “B” student in high school, not a top competitor for merit-based scholarships.
Then, Jason read a footnote in a nondescript handbook about the federal government’s Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) program. It said he could receive financial aid for school if he documented his medical conditions — in his case, allergies and asthma.
At first, VR seemed like a long shot.
But at last count, the program gave Jason $96,000 to put toward not one but two degrees. Here’s how he got VR aid and how — if you qualify — you can, too.
What is the Vocational Rehabilitation program?
Born from the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, VR is funded by both the Department of Education and state governments. Jason, now an attorney for the Department of Justice, thinks the poor name has something to do with the program’s anonymity. He refers to it as “the medical-based financial aid program” in his 2017 self-published book, “The Medical Loophole.”
According to Jason’s research, for each of the past three years about 100,000 students have applied for this aid. That’s a small amount considering that 2.4 million students with qualifying conditions opt to take out student loans annually, he said.
Jason explains the disparity by saying that the FAFSA makes no mention of VR. Students have no way of knowing it exists.
“It was the loophole that helped me avoid a mountain of student loan debt,” says Jason, who estimates that some of his law school peers racked up $200,000 in debt. “Too many students simply fill out a FAFSA and assume the results will inform [them] of all the financial aid options they are entitled to.”
How to determine your eligibility
With self-described “unpleasant” medical conditions, Jason initially didn’t think he’d qualify for aid. But as he confidently declares in his book, you could have any number of ailments — from ADHD and anxiety to back pain and depression — and still qualify for tuition assistance.
More officially, the federal government says qualified applicants “have a physical or mental impairment that presents a substantial barrier to employment.” They must also be able to benefit from VR to achieve employment.
The first step to applying for VR is finding one of your state’s offices. That might be more confusing than it sounds. Some states have hundreds of differently named offices that handle VR or VR-like applications, Jason says.
To find yours, you can try the Department of Education’s clickable map, which includes each state’s contact information.
You’ll file an initial application with your state agency online. Then, you’ll schedule an interview to document your medical condition.
How to apply for medical-based financial aid
At your in-person meeting, a counselor will typically ask for three kinds of documentation:
- Medical proof: An email or letter from your doctor detailing your condition as well as how it was diagnosed and how it’s been treated. Jason’s, for example, mentioned receiving tests to determine his allergies and shots to alleviate them. It was a paragraph long.
- Tax information: If you’re a dependent, you’ll need to gather the necessary documents from your parents.
- Transcripts: Your most recent grade reports, whether you’re a high school senior or an adult returning to campus. Your grades will be judged based on the degree you’re seeking. As Jason says, you might be unsuccessful applying as an aspiring chemistry major if you never achieved success in your high school science classes.
Jason says to have these materials ready for your interview to expedite the process. It can be six weeks before you receive an answer. That’s why he recommends applying at least 90 days before you set foot on campus.
“I’m sure some folks’ eyes will roll, and they’ll just say, ‘Gosh, why don’t I just get a student loan?’” he says.
Sure, applying for VR might be more difficult than filling out the FAFSA, but remember that it’s gift aid. Unlike with loans, you’ll never have to repay it.
The benefits of medical-based aid
Although he took out student loans to afford living expenses while in law school, VR provided Jason with enough assistance to cover both his undergraduate and law degrees.
The data says he’s not alone. In 2015, the most recent year of statistics available from the Rehabilitation Services Administration, California paid 18,107 students a combined $30.1 million. That’s $1,662 per student, whether they were seeking a certificate, attending a professional program, or something in between.
There are other advantages to being a VR recipient, too:
- In school: You could receive “reasonable accommodations,” ranging from a free laptop for school to a private testing room if, say, you suffer from ADHD.
- After school: You could apply for positions with a disability on record, receiving support during your job search.
Avoid the most common applicant mistake
Jason says many VR applicants are denied aid because of a checkbox on application forms. You’re asked whether your ailment will hinder your ability to find a job. Not wanting to admit to a limitation, you might check “No” without realizing that it could disqualify you from the program.
In Jason’s case, he checked “Yes.” His asthma and allergies would rule him out from working around animals, dust, and pollen, for example.
Having received close to six figures in aid, he considers the program a “godsend.”
“If not for [the Vocational Rehabilitation program], I don’t know if I would have been willing to take the risk on law school because it [was] just such an expensive endeavor,” Jason says. “It helped me take that risk to get more education, which is a big factor for a lot of folks. If you take money out of the equation, they may be more willing to do greater and more amazing things.”
If you have a documented medical condition and want to get free money for your education, at least review your state’s benefits. You might be surprised to learn that the VR program could remove the financial burden from your path to a degree.
The little-known program gave Jason nearly $100,000 to use on his education. Imagine what it could do for you and yours.
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