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Coronavirus erodes dreams of college for low-income students

COVID-19 has forced some students to reconsider their college dreams.

Imani Rivera has dreamed her entire life of working in the fashion industry. However, the stark reality of COVID-19 has forced high school students like her to reassess their path toward higher education.

The coronavirus pandemic has left the 17-year-old's parents unable to work. Her mother, an Uber driver, and her father, a maintenance worker, have both been trying for over a month to receive unemployment.

"Every morning I hear them wake up at 7 a.m., and call unemployment right away. The other day, my dad was left on hold for three hours before they hung up on him," Rivera told ABC News. "It's back-to-back disappointment every day, and it's really frustrating when there's literally nothing you can do to help your family."

Rivera, who lives in New York City housing and will be a first-generation college student, has been accepted to the Fashion Institute of Technology, one of the top fashion schools in the country and one she has wanted to attend since fourth grade.

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"I have put everything into this. I just didn't really imagine it would be like this," she added.

In an effort to prevent her from being completely overwhelmed with loans, her parents had planned to help their daughter finance college, however, any additional help from her parents now seems unlikely.

"I am really stressed about everything," she added. "What am I going to do? Am I even going to be able to go?"

If she is unable to gather enough funds to attend, Rivera said she is considering attending a community college before transferring when the economy improves.

As the number of Americans filing for unemployment climbs to more than 26 million, many middle- and lower-income students are now wondering whether their dream of a higher education is out of reach.

Given the years of escalating college costs, the pandemic has greatly affected their ability to pay for their education.

Much like their parents, many students who had been working and saving for college are now also unemployed, further paralyzed by mounting debts and the pandemic.

Jayne Fonash, president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, told ABC News that there are "thousands and thousands of middle class families who thought they had a reasonable plan for their child to get to college with a minimum amount of debt." For those who are currently experiencing unemployment, "that plan goes out the window and now they need to rethink how their students can pursue a college education and still be able to be safe and do it at an affordable cost."

The uncertainty has also left many parents uncertain of how they will pay bills, while keeping their children in school.

"It's taken a lot of stress on us as a family," said Chrisy Neff, who lives in Pittsburgh and has three daughters, two of whom are in college.

Neff and her husband own a construction company, and in an effort to bring in supplemental income, Neff also works at Dave and Buster's on the nights and weekends. It took over a month for her and her husband to get the paperwork necessary to file for unemployment.

The family is now making one-third of its normal income, and is anxiously awaiting for the state to reopen so that construction can resume.

"We are dying here," Neff said. "Our savings have been depleted."

Chrisy worries about helping her daughters finish college. "It's hard," she said. "We have depleted our savings, and we have college payments that we have to make."

Tosha Lewis, vice president of partnerships, DC College Access Program (DC-CAP), a nonprofit that assists first-generation and low-income students through the college process, said "the extent to which our parents may be unemployed now or underemployed as a result of COVID-19, has greatly exacerbated the financial stress of sending a student off to college."

In addition to their academic workload, she said, many of these students have picked up additional work hours to help support their families during the pandemic. A large number are also experiencing anxiety around their own personal health and that of their family members.

High school senior Anaiya Allen, 19, of Washington, D.C., a member of the DC-CAP, has been accepted to attend school in Louisiana, however, the virus has forced her to delay her education for at least a year.

"It's very hard trying to not only do my own classes, but also to not worry about what's going to happen in the next couple months," Allen said. "Coronavirus has messed up my entire plan for my life, and now I have to start all over again."

Allen, who dreams of becoming an attorney so she can start a pro-bono organization for minorities who cannot afford representation, explained that her family cannot justify the cost of what might turn out to be an online education if colleges choose to teach remotely in the fall.

"Taking time off will give me extra leeway, and extra savings in my pocket, and then I can go when I'm really sure it is over," added Allen.

This sentiment is echoed by the family of another member of the DC-CAP. Jewel Smith, a mother of three young children, and the aunt to current college student Kali Thompson, told ABC News that if her niece is not getting the in-person experience, "It's not gonna be worth paying the money."

Lewis' organization seeks to support these students by ensuring that if the family is no longer able to financially contribute to the student's education they "aren't postponing or abandoning college in favor of staying home to help with employment and supporting the family, and that families understand the resources available to them, especially if they faced underemployment or unemployment as a result of COVID-19."

One option, Lewis said, is to reach out to a college's financial aid office to inform them that the financial situation has dramatically changed so that needs can be reassessed and potentially, more aid offered.

Rivera is still fighting for her dream of attending the Fashion Institute of Technology. She has found an unconventional way of seeking funds for school by creating a GoFundMe page, in the hope of garnering enough donations to partially pay her tuition.

"I feel like I would be denied so many opportunities, if I could not attend," she said.

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