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Gen Z is burdened by student loan debt, and now many are facing payments for first time

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(NEW YORK) — In the first week of October, Kennedy Quintanilla will do something she has not had to do since graduating from college two years ago: make a student loan payment.

“Reality is setting in,” Quintanilla, a 2021 graduate of the University of Texas at Austin with over $26,000 in student loan debt, told Good Morning America. “It’s extraordinary stressful.”

As someone who graduated college amid the coronavirus pandemic, Quintanilla, 24, will be one of thousands of borrowers making their first-ever student loan payment in October, when payments resume after a three-year pause.

The first-time payments are particularly impacting members of Gen Z, like Quintanilla, who were born after 1996 and who are on track to be the best-educated generation in American history, according to The Pew Research Center.

They are a generation who entered college at a time when tuition rates were at record-highs, and who graduated at a time of economic uncertainty due, in part, to the coronavirus pandemic.

As of this year, nearly seven million borrowers ages 24 and younger owe more than $97 billion in federal student loans, according to government data.

It’s a staggering number that has left many members of the Gen Z generation “disenfranchised,” according to Vivian Tu, a personal finance expert with over two million followers on TikTok, at @Your.RichBFF.

“They’ve never seen an economic system really work,” Tu, author of the forthcoming book “Rich AF,” told GMA of Gen Zers. “Boomers/Gen X could get degrees for relatively little money, get good jobs where families could live comfortably off of one income, and they got to have the 2.5 kids, golden retriever, white picket fence/house with a tire swing dream. But then Millennials did all the right things but lived through significantly more financial hardship such as stagnating wages, 10 times in the price of education, three times in the price of housing, and the housing crisis.”

She continued, “Gen Z is now seeing these two to three generations before them, and are really starting to feel like higher education may no longer be ‘worth it,’ not to mention, graduating into the pandemic likely having not ever made a student loan payment and demonstrating a really different values system than the ones seen in generations before them.”

In June, Gen Z borrowers were dealt another blow when the Supreme Court overturned President Joe Biden’s loan-forgiveness plan that would have canceled $10,000 in student debt for all borrowers who made less than $125,000, and up to $20,000 for borrowers who also received Pell grants.

Had Biden’s plan gone into effect, Quintanilla, who works full-time, said $20,000 of her student loan debt would have been forgiven.

“Pretty much all of my friends had to take out loans in order to be in school,” she said. “We operated the first two years of adulthood, out of college, free from [payments] … Now that most of us are pretty established in our careers, we’re having to go back and evaluate because it’s not like it used to be.”

Erin Confortini, who provides financial advice to Gen Zers on TikTok, said that for this generation in particular, starting monthly student loan payments after a three-year pause is causing financial fallout.

“I think people have been, for the past couple of years, creating their budget under the expectation that they’re not going to have these student loan payments,” Confortini, who herself graduated from college in 2021 with $38,000 in student loan debt, said. “They have things like rent, a car payment, those big fixed expenses that they’ve already locked themselves into, and now they need to also factor a big fixed expense in a student loan payment that they don’t have budget for.”

In Quintanilla’s case, she said she planned ahead and chose an apartment about 20 minutes outside of Austin, where rent is cheaper, so she could save money to pay off her loan. She said she is also finding other ways to cut back on spending — including possibly forgoing a secondary degree — to account for the monthly payments she will now be making for an estimated 10 to 15 years.

“I know a lot of people, myself included, who thought maybe secondary education was going to be the path we took,” she said. “And we have definitely steered clear from that because of this whole situation.”

Kids, parents paying off student loans at the same time

The burden of student loan debt a person carries can affect not just whether they continue their education, but everything from where they live and what job they can take to how many kids they have and whether they can purchase a home and build generational wealth, experts say.

And for many members of Gen Z, those types of choices are a reality they are now facing after watching their parents face them too.

Alex Espinoza Acosta, a 2022 graduate of the University of Texas at Austin, said he is facing $25,000 in student loan debt at the same time as his mom, who graduated college while he was in high school, continues to pay off her remaining $50,000 in student loan debt.

After graduating college, Acosta moved back home to San Antonio to help his family and save money. He said though he knows student loan payments are resuming, he has not yet paid attention to when his first payment is due because he does not have the money.

“With the work I’ve gotten, I can barely make ends meet now,” Acosta, who majored in government and international relations, told GMA. “I got a bartending job to prepare myself for the payments [resuming]. I’ve been trying to find full-time work, but just haven’t been successful.”

He added of his job search, “I’ve had so many interviews and just haven’t landed anything yet.”

Like many others who were college students when the pandemic struck, Acosta said he lived at home his junior year and took classes remotely, while paying the same tuition. Now, as he and his peers try to start their lives post-college, what they are all talking about, he said, is debt.

“My friends, most of them have higher debt and are even more worried,” Acosta said. “A lot of my friends are helping their families because it’s hard for them to make ends meet with rising everything … They’re worried about rent, car payments, car insurance, inflation.”

And with Gen Zers more likely to hold student debt than previous generations, the trajectory is continuing for who is the most impacted, people of color, and particularly, Black women.

Overall, women hold nearly two-thirds of the nearly $2 trillion outstanding student debt in the U.S., and Black women are the most likely of any gender group to have student loans, with around 1 in 4 Black women holding student debt, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau and the American Association of University Women.

It’s a concern for Megan Kane, a 23-year-old Black woman who said she is also still watching her parents, who are in their 50s, pay off their student loan debts too.

Kane, a 2022 graduate of Georgetown University, said she will begin paying off her $28,000 in student loan debt at the end of October, a monthly payment that she estimates she’ll continue to pay until at least 2038.

“In the immediate future, it’s less eating out, careful budgeting and taking very careful track of where my money is going so my payments don’t go into default,” Kane, who now lives and works full-time in Oakland, California, told GMA. “And then in the long-term future, I just really don’t know if I’m ever going to be able to buy a home or what kind of other financial goals I’m going to have to sacrifice for this.”

Kane, a foreign service major, added that those sacrifices could include her future education, saying, “I’ve been studying for the GRE and really hope to go back and get a graduate degree, but I don’t know if that will be a possibility for me because I really can’t afford to take on any more student debt.”

Experts’ tips for first-time, Gen Z borrowers

Kane, Acosta and Quintanilla all noted that when they signed up to take on what ended up being tens of thousands of dollars of debt, they were 17 and 18-year-olds unsure of what student loans really meant or how they would impact their futures.

As they prepare to make their first student loan payments, all three said it is equally confusing trying to figure out how to pay back what they described as an “overwhelming” amount of money.

“There’s so many things that … I think even peers my age now don’t really understand or have a full grasp on,” Quintanilla said. “Things like public service loan forgiveness, income-based repayment, those are all very inaccessible to understand but make a tremendous difference if you operate the system correctly.”

The overwhelm of the amount of money combined with frustration that the higher education and student loan industries have not evolved to better suit students led to some borrowers, especially on social media, to call for a “student debt strike.”

Financial experts though like Confortini and Tu say that though they understand the frustration, the reality of ignoring student loan payments is not something people would want to face.

“I think that speaks to the lack of financial literacy that a lot of our generation does have,” Confortini said. “If you’re saying something like that and being serious, you probably don’t understand things like how credit scores work. You can’t just not pay your debt.”

Similarly, Tu’s top advice for Gen Z borrowers is to “not bury your head in the sand.”

“I get that student loan debt can feel so overwhelming, but whether you’re making the minimum payment or trying to pay your debt off ASAP, just make a plan,” she said. “You’ll feel so much better once you have a roadmap of how you plan on tackling your debt.”

Jaylon Herbin, student loan lead for the Center for Responsible Lending, a nonprofit financial policy organization, said a first step for borrowers is to locate their loan servicer since many servicers have changed over the past three years. Borrowers can check by logging on to studentaid.gov.

From there, according to Herbin, each borrower has to figure out the best repayment plan for them since it’s not a one-size-fits-all system.

“You don’t have to just do a standard repayment,” Herbin said. “You could possibly qualify for income-driven repayment … or if you work for a nonprofit or as a teacher or first responder or for AmeriCorps, you could qualify for the public service loan forgiveness program.”

For Gen Zers, income-driven repayment plans, such as Pay As You Earn and Revised Pay As You Earn, may help make payments more manageable, according to Tu.

“If you’re a Gen Z borrower, you’re likely at the beginning of your career and not making as much as you will in a few years,” she said. “If you qualify for an IDR plan, this could help you significantly lower your monthly payments, and limit how much interest your debt can accrue.”

The Biden administration has also made the terms of IDRs more generous, including cutting in half the amount that qualified borrowers have to pay each month, from 10% to 5% of their discretionary income.

Borrowers may also opt for an on-ramp repayment program where, for 12 months, interest will still accrue on the loan, but the Department of Education will not refer borrowers who miss monthly payments to credit agencies.

For borrowers who cannot keep up with payments, other options like a deferment or forbearance period also exist.

Tu noted that especially for Gen Z borrowers, whose loans are now also accruing interest, a priority should be placed on paying off debt.

“Depending on the interest rate of your federal student loans, it may compound faster or slower than other debt you may have,” she said. “If you want to pay down all of your debt in the fastest and most efficient way, tackle debt with the highest interest rate first. A solid rule of thumb is to make the minimum payment across all your debt, but you may want to pay down any private student loans you have first before aggressively tackling federal student loan debt.”

ABC News’ Alexis Christoforous contributed to this report.

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