Today, Matt Simmons is a successful leader at a higher education institution. He has a masters degree in Teaching, Learning & Leadership. He speaks English as his native language. He’s also 33 years old and still has $60,000 in student loan debts because he wasn’t able to navigate the system to receive as much aid as he was entitled to when he went to college.
Matt was born with cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair. When he went to college, he was not able to live in a dorm because the dorms had limited wheelchair access. Living off-campus would have been a challenge due to transportation issues. So he decided to live in an on-campus apartment, which was more expensive than living in a dorm room.
He grew up in Minnesota and he and his mother had pretty much figured out how to get the assistance Matt needed when he attended schools for kindergarten through high school in Minnesota. Once he graduated from high school, Matt wanted to attend Oklahoma State because they had the teaching program he wanted and because they had a wheelchair basketball team of which he wanted to become a part. If Matt had chosen to attend a post-secondary institution in Minnesota, vocational rehabilitation resources in Minnesota would have paid some of his tuition for school and assisted him with other expenses. Because he was going to school in Oklahoma, however, Minnesota could provide only minimal financial assistance. Matt checked on assistance in Oklahoma, but they had a one-year residency requirement, so he would have to move there and maintain an Oklahoma address for 12 months to become eligible for vocational rehabilitation assistance. Given he already had some assistance from Minnesota, Matt didn’t pursue Oklahoma options much further.
Matt started school in Oklahoma. He was getting a little bit of financial assistance from Minnesota and he was getting supplemental security income (SSI)– definitely not enough to cover school and living expenses. He made up the rest with student loans. Figuring out the benefits to which he was entitled in Oklahoma and then how to access those benefits was difficult, so he continued to get student loans. It wasn’t until mid-sophomore year of college when he heard, through a chance conversation with one of his basketball teammates, that he might be eligible for significant tuition assistance.
He connected with the disability services office on campus, but even they didn’t have much guidance for funding alternatives as they predominantly focused on accessibility and accommodations. Matt finally got in touch with Karen, one of only TWO vocational rehabilitation counselors in a busy office for a large region of Oklahoma. It took time and effort and a number of hoops to jump through to discontinue Minnesota benefits and enroll in Oklahoma vocational rehabilitation benefits ensuring no “double-dipping” was taking place.
For the remainder of his undergraduate program, Oklahoma paid for his apartment, his books and some of his tuition. Then, Karen went ever farther for Matt. Oklahoma does not usually pay for graduate school. Karen, however, knew that Matt was making good use of the funding he was already receiving (unlike some of Karen’s clients who were getting assistance, but not even attending classes), so she investigated programs and found a way to get funding for Matt to attend graduate school.
Matt is extremely grateful to Karen. If he had not had a random conversation with his teammate that led to him getting in touch with Karen, he may not even have been able to complete his undergraduate degree at Oklahoma State. Matt is also grateful for the financial assistance he eventually received from Oklahoma. But that kind of assistance should not be left to chance and it should not be so difficult to access that even the professional counselors who are hired to assist people have difficulty reaching and supporting those in need.
Is there a way we can change the system so that everyone who would qualify for these benefits would be made aware of them and be able to apply?