I am a senior in college. I am prepared to graduate this May. I am not prepared to pay off my student debt without a job.

Of course, none of us were prepared for the COVID-19 pandemic. The shutdown it caused in March was unprecedented and put millions out of jobs. Among those were recent college graduates. How are they expected to begin their careers when job opportunities are so scarce?

On top of job anxiety, college graduates are facing another worry: student debt. The average student graduates today at least $30,000 in debt, according to a U.S. News survey. How is that student supposed to begin making those payments without a job? The consumer data company Statista says that 13 percent of recent college graduates in the U.S. were jobless in June — just as they graduated. That was 9 percent higher than in the months before the pandemic.

With the pandemic, college graduates may be searching for jobs longer than they had hoped. For many of them, internships and fieldwork got cut short during the 2020 spring semester and got dropped this fall, and the job market is not forgiving right now. Talent Board, a nonprofit employment research platform, found that 74 percent of companies were reducing hiring in some capacity and 32 percent went into a hiring freeze completely.

College graduates get a six-month grace period before they have to start making loan payments. They can defer loan payments up to three years, but interest will continue to accrue. With the COVID-19 emergency, the U.S. Secretary of Education directed the Federal Student Aid office to suspend loan payments, stop collections on defaulted loans, and set interest rates to 0 percent for 60 days. This went into effect until Sept. 30. It was recently extended to Dec. 31.

Here’s the catch: That act only applies to federal student loans. It does not have anything to do with private student loans, which, according to MeasureOne, a consortium of lenders, make up 7 percent of all student loans. Seven percent is not a huge number, but those former students holding those loans will struggle to make payments in this pandemic. I hold $10,000 in a private student loan, and interest will begin to pile up when I graduate.

In America, 44 million people collectively owe $1.6 trillion in student debt – the most in the world, according to a 2018 report by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Connecticut has the third highest average student debt in the country, at $38,546 at graduation, according to the Institute for College Access & Success. The big question: What is the solution?

When students fill out FAFSA, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, those who qualify are awarded college-aid packages. If they cannot make payments after they graduate, it destroys their credit score, and their debt increases. Graduates need a longer grace period than just six months to repay their loans. They need a break until they can show they have jobs.

Making loan payments should be deferred a year, or until the graduate shows he or she has a job. According to Do It, a Washington University program to help students improve their changes at a career, it can take college graduates three to six months after graduating to find a job — but that estimation was made before the pandemic. The unemployment rate for 20- to 24-year-olds hit nearly 26 percent in April as the pandemic took hold. A year‘s grace period would allow graduates time to obtain a job and put money aside to pay loans.

A college education should not cost you the rest of your life to pay off. If we readjusted the expectation that students make monthly loans payments right after graduation, young adults would have a chance to be financially responsible and successful.

Kiley DeGrand is a senior at Central Connecticut State University.

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