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New Senate Bill Would Extend Social Security Survivor Benefits to Age 26 for Students

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What You Need to Know

  • Sens. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., and Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., introduced legislation to expand eligibility for Social Security survivor benefits.
  • Expanding benefits would boost college enrollment among recipients, who tend to have low incomes, the senators say.
  • Several Social Security advocates support the bill.

Expanding Social Security survivor benefits to age 26 for qualifying students is the goal of new legislation introduced by Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., on Tuesday.

The expansion would aid students who are survivors, children of disabled workers and eligible grandchildren of retired workers, according to the senators. The current age cutoff for these benefits is 18, or 19 for full-time students in secondary school.

Beneficiaries of this legislation, the Helping Students Successfully Overcome Adversity and Rise (SOAR) with Social Security Act, said Van Hollen, face “unique and challenging hardships — like loss of a parent. For these young people, the financial burdens are real — often requiring them to work in order to compensate for their limited family income — and stand in the way of their continued education.”

The hope is that this legislation would remove these barriers and “provide greater opportunity and access to college for over one million of these young Americans,” he said.

The program currently provides benefits to more than 3 million children ages 19 and younger. From 1965 to 1982, Social Security benefits were allowed for post-secondary students up to age 22. However, the student benefit was eliminated during the Reagan administration. According to the senators, studies have shown that “elimination of the program reduced the probability of a student beneficiary attending college by one-third.”

COVID-19 Effect

Undergraduate college and university enrollment declined nearly 6% as of March 2020 from a year earlier, while community college enrollment dropped 11%, the senators stated. According to the senators, low-income students, those of color and rural white students have had the largest decline in enrollment, with family income loss a key factor in delaying or withdrawing from college.

The legislation “is excellent and important,” Nancy J. Altman, president of Social Security Works, an advocacy group, told ThinkAdvisor in an email. “Dependent benefits are paid through high school, but they used to be paid through post-secondary school. Attaining post-secondary education is even more important now than it was three decades ago, when no one was graduating with crushing debt.

“The concept is that parents generally assist their children, as their dependents, pay those costs, usually out of their wages. Social Security insures against the loss of those wages, and so this should certainly be an insurable risk, as it once was. Restoring and expanding the student benefit, as Senator Van Hollen proposes, should be seen as an investment. It is highly affordable,” Altman said.

Max Richtman, president & CEO, National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, an advocacy group, told ThinkAdvisor in an email, “With the cost of post-secondary education at an all-time high, extending the Social Security student benefit could go a long way toward helping more children access college and vocational school opportunities.”

S.2397 was introduced Tuesday and has been referred to the Senate Finance Committee.