Medical-Based Financial Aid: What It Is and How to Get It

 October 8, 2021
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In search of college funding, Jason White remembers reading a footnote in a nondescript handbook about the federal government’s Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) program. It said White could receive medical-based financial aid if he documented his health conditions — in his case, allergies and asthma.

At first, the VR program seemed like a long shot. But the program gave White $96,000 to put toward not one, but two degrees. To see how he did it — and how you too can get medical-based financial aid if you qualify — let’s look at these questions:

What is medical-based financial aid?

Medical-based financial aid is monetary assistance for higher education, awarded to students and families with health conditions that affect their ability to learn or work in their field. Awarded through government funding and private sources, medical-based financial aid can offer hundreds or thousands of dollars of aid for college, graduate school and career training. Eligibility requirements vary by program, but applicants often need to document their condition.

Three common requirements for medical-based financial aid
1. 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. White’s, for example, mentioned receiving tests to determine his allergies and shots to alleviate them. It was a paragraph long.
2. Tax information: If you’re a dependent, you’ll need to gather the necessary documents from your parents.
3. 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 White says, you might be unsuccessful applying as an aspiring chemistry major if you never achieved success in your high school science classes.

With self-described “unpleasant” medical conditions, White initially didn’t think he’d qualify for aid. But as he confidently declares in his book, “The Medical Loophole,” 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 for medical-based financial aid such as the Vocational Rehabilitation program “have a physical or mental impairment that presents a substantial barrier to employment.”

This form of financial assistance could be as impactful for you as it was for White. In his college days, his parents’ income was too high to qualify for need-based financial aid — they pulled their support after he stopped pursuing a computer science degree — and his grades weren’t quite good enough for merit-based scholarships. Until he learned of medical-based financial aid, he thought he would have to borrow his way back to school.

“It was the loophole that helped me avoid a mountain of student loan debt,” says White, 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 do you get medical-based financial aid?

No, there’s no mention of medical-based financial aid when families complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Typically, you have to hunt for it.

Here are four ways to find medical-based financial aid:

  1. Contact your state’s higher education authority.
  2. Reach out to your state’s Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) Agencies.
  3. Talk to schools on your college list and ask about related financial assistance.
  4. Review our list of grant and scholarship programs below.

Of course, finding the right person at the right agency and preparing all the necessary paperwork is easier said than done.

“I’m sure some folks’ eyes will roll, and they’ll just say, ‘Gosh, why don’t I just get a student loan?’” White says.

Sure, applying for the VR program and other medical-based financial aid 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.

Avoid the most common application mistake for medical-based financial aid

White says many Vocational Rehabilitation 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 White’s case, he checked “Yes.” His asthma and allergies would rule him out from working around animals, dust and pollen, for example.

What are opportunities for medical-based financial aid?

The Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) program that White applied to has been around a long time. Born from the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, VR is funded by both the Department of Education and state governments. White, now an attorney for the Federal Bureau of Prisons, thinks the poor name has something to do with the program’s anonymity.

According to White’s research, about 100,000 students annually 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.

Unfortunately, other medical-based financial programs also suffer from a lack of spotlight. Here are some national awards (but be on the lookout for other opportunities specific to your state or region) to know.

Organization Medical eligibility Assistance Resource
AbbVie Inc. Cystic fibrosis $3,000 abbviecfscholarship.com
American Association on Health & Disability Disability Up to $999 aahd.us
Cancer for College Cancer survivors $5,000 cancerforcollege.org
The Center for Reintegration Schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder or bipolar disorder Varies reintegration.com
Diabetes Scholars Foundation Type 1 diabetes Up to $5,000 diabetesscholars.org
The HIV League HIV Up to $7,000 hivleague.org
Karman Healthcare Mobility disability $500 karmanhealthcare.com
National Hemophilia Foundation Hemophilia A or B $1,000 hemophilia.org
Patient Advocate Foundation Chronic or life-threatening illnesses $3,000 (per school year, for four years) patientadvocate.org
Project Sleep Narcolepsy $1,000 project-sleep.com
Students with Heart Foundation Heart disease or deformity Up to $6,000 studentswithheart.org
This Is Me Foundation Alopecia $500 thisismefoundation.com

What are the benefits of medical-based financial aid?

Although he took out student loans to afford living expenses while in law school, medical-based financial aid provided White with enough funding to cover both his undergraduate and law degrees.

The data says he’s not alone. In 2019-2020, the most recent year of statistics available from the Rehabilitation Services Administration, California paid about 24,000 students a combined $53 million. That was $2,166 per student, whether they were seeking a certificate, attending a professional program, or something in between.

There are other advantages to receiving medical-based financial aid. If you’re a Vocational Rehabilitation recipient, for example:

  • 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.

Having received close to six figures in aid, White considers medical-based financial aid 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,” White 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 health condition and want to get money for your education, review your options for how to get medical-based financial aid and, hopefully, reap the rewards.

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