Jeffrey Duenas, a 17-year-old senior at Crispus Attucks High School, started trying to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid nearly a month ago. 

But when he tried to fill it out, the website glitched.

Because of those problems, Duenas and his dad spent nearly two hours last week in the Crispus Attucks cafeteria getting help from college counselors on how to complete the form. Even then, he needed to finish the application at home.

This is the first year that Indiana high school seniors are required to fill out the FAFSA or opt out by April 15 to graduate, the same day as Indiana’s priority deadline for state aid. But a federal overhaul of FAFSA — which was supposed to streamline a long and complicated federal aid application process — has caused delays and technical problems. 

“Some days it’ll work, some days it won’t work.”— Jeffrey Duenas, Crispus Attucks High School senior

With the deadline less than three weeks away, college counselors are scrambling to help students and families submit forms before it’s too late.

As of March 15, just 27,587 Indiana high school seniors had submitted the form, according to the National College Attainment Network’s FAFSA tracker — a 20% decrease from last year. 

The state had set a goal of having 60% of Indiana high school seniors complete the FAFSA by April 15. Just 48% of high school seniors completed the application last year.

[Understand how our readers first learned about the new FAFSA process.]

High school seniors who complete FAFSA are 84% more likely to immediately pursue college or another postsecondary program after graduating, according to the National College Attainment Network.

Low FAFSA completion rates are a red flag for higher education leaders working to boost Indiana’s struggling college going rate

“Overall, we’re just anxious,” said Angel McAllister, state director of financial aid for the Indiana Commission for Higher Education. “We’re not sure what’s going to happen by April 15.”

FAFSA whims and woes

Chavon Vann, whose daughter De’Metriua Johnson is a senior at Attucks, tried to fill out the form when it launched in December. But she had trouble accessing it, which was frustrating. 

Anne McCarthy (left), and Chavon Vann work through FAFSA forms Friday, March 22, 2024, at Crispus Attucks High School in Indianapolis.
Anne McCarthy (left), and Chavon Vann work through FAFSA forms Friday, March 22, 2024, at Crispus Attucks High School in Indianapolis. Credit: Claire Rafford/Mirror Indy

Three months later, Vann finally completed her daughter’s FAFSA during the school’s “Parent in Touch” day. She felt a massive sense of relief when it was done.

“It’s like a weight off your shoulders, that you got something important done,” she said.

Anne McCarthy, a counselor with College Advising Corps, has been helping IPS students complete the forms. Things have been rocky, she said, especially for immigrant families. A glitch during the rollout of the new FAFSA blocked parents without Social Security numbers from accessing the form for more than two months. That left some students with immigrant parents stuck in a waiting game.

Sariyah Butler, 18, on Friday, March 22, 2024, at Crispus Attucks High School in Indianapolis.
Sariyah Butler, 18, on Friday, March 22, 2024, at Crispus Attucks High School in Indianapolis. Credit: Claire Rafford/Mirror Indy

“It’s really hard to have to tell a student that you just have to wait,” McCarthy said. “Or, I actually don’t have the answers.”

The federal Department of Education announced a fix earlier this month that will allow parents without Social Security numbers to complete the financial aid application. But because FAFSA came out three months later than its normal launch date of Oct. 1, students and colleges are on a crunched timeline.

[How headaches over FAFSA entered the chat.]

Sariyah Butler, a senior at Crispus Attucks, needed to fill out FAFSA not just to graduate, but to stay eligible for 21st Century Scholars. Her top choice for college right now is Marian University, where she hopes to enter its accelerated bachelor’s of science in nursing program. 

Butler and her mom completed the FAFSA in mid-February with relatively few issues. But now, she’s stuck in the tortuous limbo of waiting to hear back about how much aid she’s qualified for. 

“It’s nerve wracking,” Butler said. “I need to know.”

Looking ahead

Several Indianapolis-area colleges, including Purdue University, Indiana University Bloomington and University of Indianapolis, have altered their enrollment deadlines to account for delays in FAFSA. 

However, the Department of Education just started sending data to colleges earlier this month, so it could be at least a few weeks before students get their offers. 

Meanwhile, counselors and college specialists are working hard to help students complete the form before the April 15 deadline. 

The Indiana Commission for Higher Education has pushed back the deadline for state aid in the past and may do so again this year, said McAllister, the state director of financial aid. But she encouraged families to submit the form as soon as possible, even if it’s difficult.

“There’s so much funding that’s out there for students to gain access to, and completing that form is a way of doing it,” she said. “The end goal is for the students to have resources so they can have funding and go to college and ultimately achieve whatever their goal or dream is.”

For help filing the FAFSA, contact the state’s Marion County outreach coordinators or fill out this form to connect with a local FAFSA expert. 

Families also can seek assistance from education nonprofit INvestEd by emailing Outreach@INvestEdIndiana.org, calling 317-715-9007 or live chatting with someone on the website. The nonprofit also hosts FAFSA completion events across the state.

Claire Rafford covers higher ed for Mirror Indy in partnership with Open Campus.