For many high school seniors and others hoping to attend college next year, the last few months have become a stress-filled struggle to complete the trouble-plagued, much-maligned FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid.

The rollout of this updated and supposedly simplified form was so delayed, error-ridden and confusing that it has derailed or severely complicated college decisions for millions of students throughout the U.S., especially those from low-income, first-generation and undocumented families.

The bureaucratic mess is also holding up decisions by private scholarship programs and adding to public skepticism about the value of higher education — threatening progress in efforts to get more Americans to and through college.

To see the impact in person, The Hechinger Report sent reporters to schools in four cities — San Francisco, Chicago, Baltimore and Greenville, South Carolina — to hear students’ stories. Because the students were found through schools, most of those interviewed had counselors helping them; for the millions of students who don’t, it’s an even more daunting task.

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Students whose parents are undocumented had special worries, including concern that naming their parents would bring immigration penalties (although the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act forbids FAFSA officials from sharing family information).

To give students more time to weigh options, more than 200 colleges and universities pushed back their traditional May 1 commitment deadlines, some until June 1, according to the American Council on Education, which keeps an updated list.

Despite heroic efforts by counselors and a slew of public FAFSA-signing events, just 40.2% of high school seniors had completed the FAFSA as of May 10, in contrast to 49.6% of last year’s seniors at the same time, according to the National College Attainment Network. The numbers do not bode well for college enrollment, nor for the many high school graduates who will not get the benefits of higher education.

Here is a look at how FAFSA complications are impacting students in Baltimore:

Seniors at the Academy for College and Career Exploration pored over their “College Matriculation Checklist.” It’s an activity in their weekly class run by the nonprofit organization iMentor, which helps juniors and seniors at this school understand their post-secondary options, including college choices and various types of financial aid.

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Counselor LaToia Lyle worries about how the long delays with FAFSA will affect her students. Most are low-income and will be first-generation college students, so they don’t always have someone to help them at home. The semester will be over by the time financial aid packages are announced and that’s the part students need the most help with.

The college application process has been overwhelming to Zion Wilson and Cameron Carter. So while it was frustrating to be constantly trying to log into accounts that froze, both said they were relieved when glitches with the FAFSA forms meant the college admission process was pushed back.

“The last thing I wanted to do was make a fast-paced decision,” said Wilson, an ebullient 17-year-old with a wide smile. “I kept bouncing between different things. I felt the FAFSA delay gave me more of a chance to decide what I actually wanted to do.”

She had applied for computer science programs but was nervous about taking out loans. Even though Baltimore City Community College is free, she worried she wouldn’t have enough money to spend if she wasn’t working. But her family wanted her to go to college, especially because her elder sister had enrolled but dropped out after the first year.

Wilson was admitted to her top three choices — Baltimore City Community College, University of Maryland-Eastern Shore and Coppin State University — but even with scholarships, she decided not to go. Instead, Wilson plans to go straight into the workforce through a program called Grads2Careers, where she will train in information technology.

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“It kind of sounded like I can just do the exact same thing that I would be doing if I went to college. But I can just start now versus waiting two years to start,” Wilson said. After a two-week training period, she will be paid between $15 and $17 an hour, she said, with the possibility of a bonus and promotion later.

In the end, she filled out her portion of the FAFSA, but told her parents not to do theirs. “Why make my parents do this long thing and put in their tax information, if I’m not going anywhere that requires it?”

Wilson’s relieved not to have to think about college anymore. “I think I made the right choice and having some money in my pocket will also be a good push for me to continue to advance up.”

Cameron Carter, who is 18, has never wavered from his childhood decision to study biology. It began, he said, when he was about 4 years old, and his grandmother tuned to the National Geographic channel on TV.

“I was like, ‘stop, stop, stop,’” he said, recalling the video of a lion attacking a zebra. Carter was hooked. He started watching the channel every day. “I fell in love with ants, ecosystems, that just sparked my interest in biology.”

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Carter applied to 14 colleges. He said filling out all the forms was challenging because the delayed release of the FAFSA meant he was doing it at the same time that he was taking a demanding course load, including AP Literature and AP Calculus. “It was really time-consuming and really work-heavy with a lot of essays, a lot of homework,” he said. “It’s pretty tough to do that at the same time while I’m doing college supplemental essays and my personal statement.”

But the delay also meant that his mother had more time to complete the FAFSA, something she had been putting off for months. Because he is the oldest of four children, his mom hadn’t had to complete a form like this before, asking for a lot of personal information, including tax data.

“My mom was just brushing over it,” he said. “But I was like, ‘No, you really have to do this because this is for my future. Like, you don’t do this, I’ll have so much debt.’ So I was just telling her to please do this and please get on it.”

She ended up filling out the form, but Carter said it likely wouldn’t have happened without the delay.

Carter got into his dream school, the University of Maryland-College Park, with a full scholarship, including tuition, meals and accommodation. His second choice, McDaniel College, also offered him a generous scholarship, but he says he still would have ended up paying $6,000 a year, which he didn’t want to do. “Definitely money was a big factor,” he said. He grinned, excited about starting a new chapter in September. “I feel like UMD is the perfect fit for me.”