Central High School valedictorian struggles to afford college

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Two months after graduation, Central High School's co-valedictorian says she can't afford to go to college.

Jacinda Vertrees was a standout student at the west Louisville school. She graduated in 2018 with a 4.2 GPA, boosted by A grades in Advance Placement classes while staying active in beta club, ambassadors club and the national honor society. 

The 18-year old had her pick of colleges in Kentucky and chose Murray State for its veterinary program, having already earned certification as a veterinary technician from a career magnet program at central. 

So how did a star student end up on the outs financing college?

"I don't get my financial aid because my mom didn't file her taxes in 2016," Vertrees said. "So there's no way for them to verify my financial situation."

Grants, scholarships and government-backed loans have all been frozen until Vertrees and her mother complete the verification process for the Federal Application for Student Aid, better known as the FAFSA.

"The U.S. Department of Education randomly selects approximately 30 percent of FAFSA applicants at most schools to go through a verification process," Murray State Spokesman Shawn Touney said via email.  "The verification process requires students and parents to submit additional documentation before the FAFSA can be completed and financial aid can be awarded." 

"It's upsetting," Vertrees said. "I've cried, and I've tried to find other ways that I could make more money, but it's really hard."

Vertrees works full-time at Kentucky Kingdom this summer and part-time at a Mr. Gatti's pizza location in Louisville, because she said she knew the cost of college would fall on her shoulders. Even in high school, she helped her single mother pay bills. 

"I work all the time," she said. "I work 11-hour days. Last week I worked 54 hours. I help her pay for everything ... I knew I had to pay for college myself." 

Vertrees said her mom recently filed those 2016 taxes, but they won't get verification in time for the start of this semester.

"I have $8,000 left due for the first semester, and it's due by the 5th (of August) or they cancel your schedule, and you can't go to school there," she said.

With a big debt and few options, Vertrees was preparing to let the season pass, stock up on cash and just attend Murray State University in 2019. But her best friend wouldn't have it. Leigh Himes started a GoFundMe page, asking the public to help her friend pay.

"She's always been independent and put others first, so it's kind of hard for me to sit here and watch her struggle the way she is," Himes said.

There's a lesson in this for all students: FASFA recommendations clearly say if you must complete verification, do it as soon as you're notified to avoid delays in financial aid.

Vertrees admits she could have also been more aggressive applying for private scholarships through foundations and non-profits, which would have made the need for federal aid less critical.

"I would say to other students: You need to find the time to do it," she said. "You need to make sure that you push yourself to do everything, because when you're in this situation, it's so hard to get out."

NOTE: To donate to the GoFundMe page for Jacinda Vertrees, CLICK HERE.

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