An unaddressed error on a federal form is preventing American high school students with immigrant parents from accessing financial aid.

These students are entitled to federal help paying for college, and submitting the federal student aid application — or FAFSA — is the only way to get it. But a revamped version of the online form launched this year is inadvertently shutting them out because their parents don’t have Social Security numbers.

Federal officials have known about the problem for weeks and say they are working on it but have yet to implement a fix.

WBEZ heard from three Chicago-area high school seniors who fear the issue may jeopardize their ability to afford college.

Naomi standing in school hallway
Naomi, a senior at Chicago Bulls College Preparatory High School, wants to be the first person in her family to earn a college degree. Lisa Kurian Philip / WBEZ

Naomi is a senior at Chicago Bulls College Preparatory High School on the West Side. She did not want her last name used to protect her mom, who is undocumented. Naomi is determined to be the first person in her family to get a degree.

I think the most important thing right now is just being able to afford [college] … We don’t come from a lot, and then it’s just me and my mom.

You’ll get to the point of the [FAFSA] website where you could fill out information, but then it takes you right back to the beginning to start over again and make you put in the Social Security number. But you already said that you didn’t have one. So the website’s just not helpful.

We’ve tried calling [the U.S. Department of Education] all different times throughout the day, and they still don’t answer.

The first time I ever landed them on the phone, I was talking to this lady and she said, ‘We need your mom to call us because you can’t be creating the account for her.’

I was telling her, “I’m not trying to create the account for her. I’m trying to help her create the account.”

My mom doesn’t really understand this stuff because we’ve never actually had to do it before.

It’s just kind of upsetting because you’ve been doing this for how many years and you still can’t figure out a way to make it work?

We’re just kids trying to get our stuff done so we can go to college and pay for it … the only difference is that our parents don’t have [Social] Security numbers. And I feel like that shouldn’t separate us from getting help.

Joanna Moreno Dimas
Joanna Moreno Dimas is counting on financial aid to afford college. Her parents immigrated from Mexico and are undocumented, but as an American citizen, she is entitled to federal help. Lisa Kurian Philip / WBEZ

Joanna Moreno Dimas is a senior at Bolingbrook High School. She was inspired to become a teacher after mentoring a younger student in elementary school: “I was assigned to this little kid … and after a week, we were supposed to switch. He didn’t want to switch. He stayed with me.” Joanna’s parents immigrated from Mexico and didn’t go to college, so “this process is also new for them,” she said.

My mom works at a hotel. My dad has his own [landscaping] business. But, of course, sometimes there’s not a lot of work to go around, especially in the wintertime.

A lot of it falls on me to make sure that I’m getting the best information and … making sure that all the necessary documents are out so that they don’t have to worry about it. Because I don’t want to put that unnecessary stress on them, too.

I called about seven times before I finally got someone … That was about three weeks ago, four weeks ago now, and I still haven’t gotten any updates back. So I don’t know what to believe anymore.

It kind of diminishes us … I feel like I’m not entirely seen because of this silly little number they use to identify us.

A student, Guadalupe, stands in front of a white board
Guadalupe plans to major in psychology or neuroscience. She said the difficulties submitting her financial aid form have kept her up at night. Lisa Kurian Philip/WBEZ

Guadalupe is a senior at Chicago Bulls College Preparatory High School. She did not want her last name used to protect her parents, who are undocumented. Guadalupe said she has a lot of counselors guiding her through the problems with the FAFSA, but she worries about high schoolers with less support: “This process would be so emotionally debilitating.”

It definitely keeps you up at night, thinking about it.

I would like to major in psychology or something with neuroscience. I’ve always been fascinated with the brain and human behavior.

Being [able] to afford college is a really huge factor for my family. They don’t have a lot of money.

I feel like the [U.S.] Department of Education doesn’t really prioritize kids or high schoolers whose parents don’t have Social Security numbers … They’re just kind of like, ‘Oh, we’ll deal with it, we’ll do it later.’

If any high schoolers are listening, just remind yourself that everything will be okay … We’re still gonna receive money — hopefully — and FAFSA will do their part and we’ll do our part. And that’s out of our control.

Higher education reporter for WBEZ Chicago in partnership with Open Campus.