Stephani Lopez, a senior at Sam Houston High School in Arlington, likes to get stuff done. 

Lopez has a full-tuition scholarship to Texas Christian University. She plans to study business management. The night the revamped Free Application for Federal Student Aid portal opened, she created an account. But months later, that application is incomplete. All that’s needed is submitting her mother’s signature — and that’s not going through.

“We clicked on the form, and we clicked it multiple times, but the form didn’t want to open,” she said. “So now we’re stuck in that dilemma of having to see what we can do.” 

Lopez isn’t alone. As of April 19, 43.5% of Arlington ISD seniors had completed the FAFSA, according to the U.S. Department of Education data compiled by the National College Attainment Network. That’s a 32% decrease from the previous year. Sam Houston has the second-highest rate of decline in completed applications in Arlington ISD compared with last year.

Staff at Sam Houston check the portal or call the FAFSA support line every day. Cynthia Carter, a counselor at the school, said she calls the FAFSA hotline and follows multiple automated system prompts. Once the phone starts ringing, she gets hopeful.

“Then the phone just completely hangs up,” Carter said. “As Jesus lives and walks the earth, that’s what happens. It hangs up on you. You don’t get a person — you never do.”

She recalled a day when the portal opened and successfully processed one student’s application. But when her team tried with other students’ applications, they had no luck. 

Graduating high school seniors statewide have had difficulties navigating technical glitches with the new application. As of April 19, 2024, only 38.5% of Texas seniors had completed their FAFSA. Compared to last academic year, that’s a 30% decrease — more than 65,000 completions. 

At the University of Texas at Arlington, the numbers aren’t so stark. At the beginning of April, its financial aid office saw a 37% gap in completed FAFSA applications compared to last year. 

Since then, the gap has shrunk to 7%.

“This is the biggest change in federal financial aid awarding in 30 years,” said Karen Krause, executive director of financial aid and scholarships at UTA. Krause has worked in the university’s financial aid office for more than two decades. 

“It truly is an overhaul of every piece of (the FAFSA application). Not only is the formula different, the platform that it’s being calculated on is new,” she said. 

However, while many students face hurdles, Krause said, most students have found the new FAFSA process easier and less time-consuming. 

Carter’s students in nontraditional family settings are encountering obstacles, she said. They live with their grandparents, with just one parent, or similar to Lopez’s family, they’re in a mixed-immigration status household. The new application typically requires signatures from both parents. 

Last year, by mid-April, more than 300 students at Sam Houston had completed their FAFSA applications. So far, only 139 have gone through this year. The school has about 650 graduating seniors. 

Carter doesn’t want her students to give up, she said. 

She knows her top students will persist and get the application done. But she’s concerned for students who she’s talked to about expanding their future opportunities by going to community college. If their financial support is uncertain, they may opt to work instead of attending college.

“They get a hiccup, they’re out,” Carter said.

“This is the biggest change in federal financial aid awarding in 30 years.”

Karen Krause, executive director of financial aid and scholarships at UTA

UTA is doing outreach with area high schools and has been in touch with accepted students who have yet to submit their FAFSA applications, Krause said. The university is doing a campaign to extend the financial aid deadline for students yet to complete their FAFSA applications.

“I would just tell students, ‘Please apply, please hang in there.’ The worst thing they can do in many cases is just sit out and do nothing,” she said. 

Lopez is hanging in there. She’s checking the portal every day. Her teacher and staff are, too. She’s also working with a TCU admission adviser on the process. 

“I want to move forward and focus on my senior year because it’s so important,” she said. “But I’m over here worried about my FAFSA.”

Higher education reporter at Fort Worth Report in partnership with Open Campus.