When she graduated from Reavis High School in Burbank this past May, Nikki Negrete says she thought she was on the path to fulfilling her own version of the American Dream.
A first-generation student, she finished with an A-B grade average, played both basketball and soccer, and was a member of the National Honor Society.
"I worked really hard to get where I am and to find out I can't go to college, it's just heart-breaking," Nikki told NBC 5 Investigates.
The heart-breaking development that could stand in the way of Nikki attending her dream school, Northern Illinois University, involves an unexplained delay by the Internal Revenue Service in processing the family’s 2014 taxes.
The family’s accountant filed their return almost five months ago, and the Negretes say since then they’ve spent hours on the phone and in an IRS office, trying to get answers.
"The IRS, they won't give me an answer,” Lourdes Negrete told NBC 5 Investigates. “They just said, ‘Sorry. There's nothing we can do, there's nothing.’”
“I tried to get a transcript because that's what the colleges keep asking me for, but because the taxes are not processed, we can't even get a transcript,” she added.
NIU accepted Nikki’s application for enrollment, and surprised her with an offer for a partial scholarship. The rest of the approximately $25,000 bill would be paid with a combination of loans and grants. The “perfect” combination, the family says, until the IRS delay stood in the way of the school finalizing Nikki’s financial aid package.
With no answer from the IRS in sight, the family made a gut-wrenching decision.
They told their daughter her dream would have to wait.
"She will start losing grant money, so of course our debt would be higher, and we didn't know at what point we would have anything,” Lourdes said. “So that's why we had to make a change.”
The family knows tax frustration. Two years ago, Nikki’s father’s identity was stolen. Thieves applied for his tax refund, but Burbank police intervened and stopped the fraudulent check before it was cashed.
The Negretes now wonder if that ID theft is causing the current delay. They say they asked the IRS for its “IP PIN” protection program, a special six-digit number the agency offers victims of ID theft. The family says the agency would not give them the PIN, and now believes that protection could have prevented their current college dilemma.
The Negretes’ only in-person conversation with the IRS did not give them much hope, they say.
"I said to her, well, we need an answer because we need to find out if she'll be able to go to college or not. And her response was, "You're not the only family’," Lourdes told NBC 5 Investigates.
Citing federal law, an IRS spokesperson said he could not comment on the family’s time-sensitive situation. He did offer a “Taxpayer Advocate Hotline” number for the Negretes. Lourdes Negrete says she called and left two messages: three weeks later, she’s still awaiting a return call.
"The IRS is holding us back,” Lourdes said. “I do feel the government forgets about the little people.”
A spokesman for NIU also said the university could not comment on Nikki’s specific situation, due to privacy regulations. But shortly after we shared the family’s dilemma, Lourdes Negrete received a phone call from NIU that gave her hope. She says her daughter’s application for financial aid was filed early and therefore she still has a solid chance at getting the loans and grants involved.
NBC 5 Investigates will continue to follow the family’s story, as the countdown to college continues.