When Ximena Castillo needs to focus on her college coursework, she walks down the hall from her basement apartment in Chicago's Gage Park neighborhood and settles into her new study spot: the laundry room.
No one bothers her there. It's quiet and the temperature is comfortable — until, that is, one of her neighbors needs to wash or dry a load.
But Castillo, a junior at Dominican University in River Forest, still prefers working there than in the small unit she shares with her parents, which is full of distractions. She used to live on campus, but she moved home after the coronavirus pandemic erupted and doesn't have her own bedroom anymore.
"I don't feel comfortable going to a cafe or anything currently," said Castillo, 20, who worries she could expose her relatives to COVID-19. The laundry room is "not the best, but not the worst. I would prefer to be outside with my dogs because I like sitting in nature, but it's way too cold for that right now."
Finding a setting conducive to schoolwork is just one of the myriad challenges low-income college students face as they try to continue their education despite pandemic-related setbacks.
Some students have withdrawn from school because of changing economic circumstances, problems with online learning or difficulty connecting to virtual student services.
According to U.S. census data from August, nearly 7 million people said they canceled college plans for the fall because their income had changed during the pandemic and they could no longer pay.
Overall undergraduate enrollment at U.S. colleges is down about 4.4%, with the greatest declines seen in community colleges and among first-year students, according to the latest data from the National Student Clearinghouse. While the NSC does not break the numbers down by socioeconomic status, nontraditional and low-income students typically favor community colleges.
In Illinois, fewer students have applied for federal and state financial aid since schools closed down in March compared with the same time last year, according to the Illinois Student Assistance Commission, which administers need-based grants to college students. That's a sign low-income students might be abandoning college plans altogether instead of seeking help with tuition.
"For our low-income students, they are obviously struggling with their education and helping out with their families," said Jacqueline Moreno, an executive staff member at ISAC. "It's not entirely different from what low-income students face when they are first-generation college students in any year — it's just exacerbated right now, and people are paying more attention."
Unlike in families where going to university is expected, Moreno said, low-income and first-generation college students often feel guilt for pursuing higher education and not immediately entering the workforce to help with household bills.
Castillo, a graphic design major, is trying her best to stay on track. She's refinanced her student loans, received help from her school's COVID-19 relief fund and taken on extra jobs to put toward her tuition.
Her mom, who works at a Little Caesars, and her father, a construction worker on medical leave prior to the pandemic, don't make enough to cover the cost but have always encouraged her to pursue higher education, though they didn't go to college.
But between picking up shifts as a hostess at a University Village restaurant and trying to complete her coursework, Castillo is often exhausted. She's still more than $2,000 behind on school payments and can't register for spring classes until she puts forward more money, she said.
At the same time, her shifts at the restaurant have dried up as business slows due to the pandemic and the ban on indoor dining. Castillo used to work up to five days a week at Bar Louie but is now lucky if she gets scheduled for one.
"It's a lot on my plate," said Castillo, who went to George Westinghouse College Prep in East Garfield Park, part of Chicago Public Schools. "I feel like either my work suffers or my school suffers, and it's so hard.
"For a while I was juggling two jobs on top of school, and I felt like I was drowning. No sleep. Constantly on energy drinks and coffee just to get by. And it was so unsatisfying because I would do my best at everything and get half done."
'It went downhill this semester'
Taking time off from college was not part of Jony Estrada's plan. Though he was nervous about starting classes this fall at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Estrada had been eager to study economics and wanted to minor in finance.
The 21-year-old, however, began to feel overwhelmed with virtual learning and the amount of coursework. The large class sizes didn't help — Estrada said he grew anxious waiting for professors to reply to emailed questions — and he struggled to connect with UIC tutors when he tried to reach them by phone.
"I never considered taking a gap year until this year, when this whole pandemic started," said Estrada, who lives in the West Elsdon neighborhood, near Midway Airport, with his parents. "It went downhill this semester. I don't know if it's because I'm a new student and I'm not familiar with how things work around here or just because of the work."
Estrada earned his associate degree from Loyola University Chicago over the summer and participates in a program through the nonprofit Bottom Line, which helps low-income and first-generation students reach college and obtain a degree.
While Estrada hoped to continue making progress this semester, he felt staying in school would negatively affect his mental health, so he dropped his four classes just before midterms.
Chris Broughton, executive director of Bottom Line's Chicago operations, said most of the 1,500 students in his programs are sticking with school even though they don't like online classes.
"About 85% or more of our students are staying enrolled in college and trying to persist and navigate this new remote learning environment, even though it's been a challenge," he said. "Students are generally feeling dissatisfied and not enjoying that experience in the way they envisioned."
For now, Estrada hopes to get an internship in a business-related field as he decides whether to return to UIC in the spring. He's not sure if he should wait until next year, when there might be a better chance for in-person learning to resume.
"I will graduate because that's my goal also ― to get a diploma, to get a bachelor's degree ― but I think right now I need a little break," he said. "I just don't think I'm ready for this semester."
While anecdotes of students delaying college abound, the Illinois Board of Higher Education is trying to prevent students from pausing their studies.
As part of a new campaign called "Stay the Course," IBHE is publicizing data that shows "a significant percentage" of students who take gap years never complete college. The trend is especially prevalent for low-income students, rural students and students of color, the campaign says.
"Almost all of the new jobs created since the 2008 recession require some kind of credential beyond high school," the IBHE campaign says in social media posts and online messages.
According to one NSC study, only 10.5% of roughly the 1.6 million students who had dropped out of Illinois colleges returned to school between 2013 and 2018. Across all states, only 13% returned, and fewer graduated.
But today, as the pandemic enters its ninth month and a new wave of infections triggers statewide restrictions, some of the obstacles can seem insurmountable.
Jermaine Lash, who attended City Colleges of Chicago, is also taking this semester off because of problems with his financial aid.
Lash, 21, of Englewood, said he is seven credits away from earning an associate degree in business administration from Richard J. Daley College, one of the community college network's campuses. But complications with his Federal Pell Grant, assistance that goes to undergraduates with exceptional financial need, have prevented him from enrolling in fall classes.
Lash's advisers at One Million Degrees, an organization that helps Illinois community college students, said his predicament is especially difficult because he must deal with virtual student services at CCC during the arduous process of verifying his financial records.
Part of the holdup: Lash's mother recently died from health issues unrelated to the pandemic, and he can't access her tax documents, Lash said.
"I feel like it would be 10 times better if I could just talk to them in person," Lash said. "Then they'll get a better understanding and help guide me to the right path on figuring out a solution."
Until then, Lash is working in the deli at a Jewel-Osco close to downtown. He hopes the paperwork will be sorted out in time for spring classes but worries he might need to skip next semester too.
"I just want to finish this. I like college," he said. "I went ever since I got out of high school. ... Ever since then, I've never taken a break or anything. So now this is something new to me. ... It doesn't really feel right."
As a whole, Illinois community colleges are enduring a major hit from the pandemic, with enrollment plunging nearly 14% this fall, according to data from the Illinois Community College Board.
While IBHE hasn't released fall enrollment figures for the state's public universities, the NSC estimates overall college enrollment in Illinois dropped by 6.4%.
The gap indicates how the pandemic is disproportionately affecting low-income communities of color, said Lisa Castillo Richmond, managing director of the Partnership for College Completion, a Chicago nonprofit. She's concerned the pandemic will further deepen inequities in higher education.
"Our community colleges serve our most vulnerable students," she said. "They serve much greater proportions of low-income students, first-generation students, African American students and Latinx students."
The number of students seeking financial aid through state and federal grants has also dropped off since the pandemic closed schools in March, a sign that college may seem out of reach for some.
As of mid-November, the state's need-based Monetary Award Program had received 8% fewer applications from eligible students compared with the same point last year, according to ISAC.
For the 2021-22 school year, applications from MAP-eligible students have dropped by 9%, though it's still early in the cycle. Submissions only opened Oct. 1.
'Students will work their tails off'
During the pandemic, Dominican University has seen a "dramatic increase" in financial aid appeals, which students can file when there's a change in their economic situation.
For many, that's due to a family member losing a job, health care costs and other unforeseen expenses, said Victoria Spivak, assistant vice president of student enrollment services and director of financial aid.
"Dominican serves a very high-needs population," she said. "We are over 50% Pell eligible. ... We also serve a significant number of undocumented students."
In response to financial aid appeals, Dominican provided additional institutional aid and also distributed money made available to students through the federal coronavirus relief program. Students can use those grants to pay for pandemic-related expenses including food, housing and technology. So far, Dominican had awarded nearly $1.5 million in such grants, a spokeswoman said.
Broughton, of Bottom Line, said his organization also doled out more than $160,000 to help students with groceries and other emergency expenses over the last 10 months through a new fund.
But for students like Castillo, the struggle continues. Her mom lost two weeks of wages, she said, after someone at Little Caesars contracted COVID-19 and she had to quarantine due to the exposure.
Castillo has more time to study since her shifts at Bar Louie have been reduced, but she's anxious she won't have enough money to pay down her balance in time for spring classes.
Students can't register for courses if they owe $1,000 or more in unpaid fees, said Mark Carbonara, Dominican's director of academic advising and first-year experience, who's been helping Castillo look for more scholarships.
"Our students will work their tails off — second and third shift ― in order to pay for college," but those jobs are disappearing because of COVID-19, he said.
While it's nerve-wracking to wait, Castillo said she remains hopeful she'll come up with money to attend next semester. She said the adversity will make her a stronger person in the end.
"I just remind myself how lucky I am to even have the opportunity to go to school," she said. "I know a lot of people in my neighborhood who didn't have the same opportunities as I did."
This article was also featured in the Tyler Morning Telegraph and the Herald & Review.