FAFSA form struggles frustrate Carson High seniors

Austin Long of Western Nevada College, Carson High School senior Jackie Estrada Diaz and CHS counselor Bridget Gordon-Johnson share the struggles students are facing filling out the 2024-25 Free Application for Federal Student Aid.

Austin Long of Western Nevada College, Carson High School senior Jackie Estrada Diaz and CHS counselor Bridget Gordon-Johnson share the struggles students are facing filling out the 2024-25 Free Application for Federal Student Aid.

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Since January, Carson High School senior Jackie Estrada Diaz, a first-generation Latina, has learned she’s been accepted to six colleges and universities and has been waiting to hear from four more.

But she hasn’t been to celebrate these successes yet. A major holdup affecting Estrada is impacting other students at CHS and more across the nation: the student aid form.

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), the form the U.S. Department of Education requires individuals to apply for grants, student loans and work-study assistance for college or career institutions, was meant to offer applicants an easier experience this year. U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona announced changes in February that would make it more efficient for schools to process student records and simplify verification requirements, among other things.

But students nationally are still encountering technical difficulties, delays or hangups that have kept them from submitting their applications.

“The process itself was pretty easy,” Estrada Diaz told the Appeal. “I just had to answer a certain amount of questions. The thing was getting an answer back from FAFSA. I think that’s what I’m still waiting on. I was an independent student, so I didn’t have to put in any tax info from anybody, so right now, I’m still waiting. … That’s been the most frustrating part because I’m looking at really good schools.”

Estrada Diaz began her FAFSA in January and had to prove she’s independent. She was born in the United States, raised in Mexico and moved back to the country during middle school. To complete her form, she sought help from an aunt who lives locally as well as Carson High counselor Bridget Gordon-Johnson.

Rollout of the form usually begins in October but the 2024-25 FAFSA went out Dec. 31 after multiple delays. This created a lag for students who started applying to colleges and universities and have been trying to plan for financial aid, Gordon-Johnson said, including her own son. It pushes back the return for the student aid index, the number that replaces the previous expected family contribution amount and indicates how much financial aid a student is expected to receive.

“Everybody’s in a weird holding pattern,” she said. “All it’ll say is ‘submitted.’ …My son’s college can’t adjust his financial aid yet because they have no idea what his new student aid index will be.”

According to the U.S. Department of Education, about 4 million FAFSA forms had been submitted since it became available on Dec. 31. In February, Cardona announced a FAFSA College Support Strategy to give schools additional personnel, funding and resources to process student records in a timely manner, stating in a conference call with reporters that he understood “these delays can be frustrating.” Cardona announced more than $50 million was distributed for technical assistance to help improve the process. The U.S. Department of Education took steps to reduce verification requirements and eliminate identity fraud, suspend routine program reviews and provide additional flexibility on recertification.

For Carson High senior Linda Anguiano Rojas, there were more frustrations from the start. Having two last names doesn’t agree with the system.

“There were so many errors,” she said. “It would not match my mom’s name. That was the biggest challenge.

“…It was submitted, it was processed, it was still not accepting it,” Anguiano Rojas said. “I worked on it for two months. I cried for two months. It was stressful and irritating. It still didn’t want to take it. I did everything I was supposed to.”

Austin Long, financial aid judgment outreach specialist of Western Nevada College and guidance counselor for CHS, said with names, FAFSA only recognizes up to 12 characters, and if an applicant enters a space or hyphen, most of the time he or she meets or exceeds the limit and it often will not match what already has been entered into the system.

Long said his job since October has been to provide financial aid presentations to the local schools in Carson City, Douglas County and Lyon County to help students understand the process and keep them motivated with their FAFSA.

“These students feel like they’re on their own,” he said. “They’re trying to figure it out, and barriers can cause you to be demotivated. That’s why WNC goes to all these schools. We want to take that barrier away as much as possible.”

Gordon-Johnson said as students work on their FAFSA, they will find it works in time. But what might be relevant to them is another barrier. The form doesn’t address personal issues or provide options for applicants who have lost one or both parents, she said.

“Linda lost her dad,” Gordon-Johnson said. “It didn’t give us an option for deceased family members. And Linda is a kid who doesn’t give up easily. So sometimes I worry about my other students.”

Anguiano Rojas plans to attend WNC. She hopes to become an ultrasound technician and plans to take a phlebotomist class. Filling out the FAFSA was important to attend WNC in the first place, she said.

“I wanted to fill out the FAFSA because it’s a big opportunity for me to succeed using their help to financially support my dream of attending college,” she said.

Gordon-Johnson said whatever the challenge, it’s “super critical” for students to keep working on their FAFSA and to approach their counselor or a trusted adviser if they’re running into issues along the way.

“If you run into barriers, ask questions,” she said. “You can still come talk to us. You should still be completing that FAFSA. All of us are here to help. It will be easier at some point.”

For more information, visit https://studentaid.gov/h/apply-for-aid/fafsa for deadlines and general information.


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