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Many college graduates are relying on unemployment to pay the bills

Key Points
  • Alex Harring is a CNBC summer 2020 intern from the University of Michigan.
  • He talked to college students across the country and found out that many are relying on unemployment or moving back home to pay the bills.
  • Some students have had jobs offered — and then rescinded due to the economic impact of coronavirus.
  • They're worried about the future and their job outlook.

CNBC's "College Voices 2020" is a series written by CNBC summer interns from universities across the country about coming of age, launching new careers and job hunting during a global pandemic. They're finding their voices during a time of great social change and hope for a better future. What money issues are they facing? How are they navigating their student loans? How are they getting work experience, networking and applying for jobs when so many opportunities have been canceled or postponed? How important is diversity and a company's values to Gen Z job seekers?  

Tommaso79 | Getty Images

Victoria Sheetz, a rising senior at the University of Michigan, spends 40-50 hours a week during the school year working at a job off-campus in addition to her studies.

Then the pandemic happened.

Sheetz hasn't worked since March, when Michigan and other schools across the country transitioned to remote learning, and while she's making enough to live on, she's worried it won't be when the extra $600 in pandemic unemployment assistance ends.

She lives in Ann Arbor, Mich., where the student body skews wealthy and it costs more than $1,000 a month just to live minimally.

"The rent and the cost of living is a lot," Sheetz said. "You have to be making enough to pay for that, especially if you're doing it all on your own. Unemployment is nice, but I don't know what I'll do when it stops."

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Sheetz is worried about fall, when she still may not be working but the tuition will be 1.9% higher than last year. Sheetz hasn't been going out to eat or spending unnecessarily. She's been able to budget so she has money set aside for necessities for the next few months in case an emergency happens — but she knows fall will be difficult.

Sheetz's story is common on college campuses across the country. Four out of five college students surveyed by Student Loan Hero said they are facing financial difficulties due to the coronavirus crisis, with more than 25% reporting food insecurity or trouble paying the bills.

Black and Hispanic students have reported higher levels of food and housing insecurity than their white peers. The survey also found more than one-third of students are taking on debt to cope with losses caused by the pandemic.

Nearly 38% of students at four-year institutions reported food insecurity, according to a new report from the Hope Center, and 15% experienced homelessness. The report also found two-thirds of students who were employed before the pandemic face job insecurity, with one-third losing a job due to the pandemic.

"By and large, students were struggling to afford college before the pandemic, and are now on the brink of survival," Max Lubin, CEO of Rise Inc., an organization that works to ensure money does not hold students back from pursuing higher education, said. "Students are facing evictions, hunger, and trying to stay healthy."

Postponing school amid an uncertain environment

Saving for graduate school is difficult for Anais Baptiste, a 2018 graduate of Purchase College who is deferring enrollment in Smith College. She feels grateful to even be able to afford food and rent considering she had two jobs that were canceled due to the pandemic.

Anais Baptiste is deferring enrollment in graduate school amid uncertainty caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
Source: Skye Baptiste

Unemployment is giving her enough money to afford rent, which is modest given the fact that she has two roommates, but she's also run into issues with the system and has not been receiving payments for two months due to concerns over identity verification, a common issue during the pandemic.

Because her two roommates have income, she said the situation isn't as bad as it could've been, and she feels lucky to have a place to live and have the necessities without an income. But it's difficult to plan and save for the future, she said, when it is already so hard to get by.

"I was already concerned about how I was going to be able to pay for school before the pandemic and now as each month goes by it seems less and less possible," Baptiste said. "I graduated two years ago with financial uncertainty, and now I truly wonder how my generation and I will get out of this."

Students and recent graduates are worried about their job prospects and financial situation, they said in interviews with CNBC. For some, like Sheetz, it's about how she's going to pay for her bills and what she would do if an emergency were to happen. Baptiste is worried about being able to afford graduate school when getting by month to month has been a struggle. And the job prospects mean these students must try to navigate a market with open positions fewer and far between than they expected five months ago.

Trying to find a job in industries that have been hit hard by coronavirus

Take Amy Tullo, a recent graduate of the University of Delaware, whose dream was to work in hospitality, a sector uniquely impacted by a virus that spreads among groups congregating. Tullo had a job lined up but the offer was rescinded due to the effect of coronavirus on the economy.

Amy Tullo, a University of Delaware graduate, had a job lined up -- then coronavirus hit and it was rescinded.
Source: Amy Tullo

Now, she's back to square one – reaching out to alumni of her school and searching for open opportunities to apply to as they arise. She's comfortable right now and she feels pressure to find a job, but she also reminds herself there is a lot out of her control and to do as much as she can with what she has.

"Instead of that being getting the job, a new success for me is reaching out to one person and having a conversation with them," Tullo said. "That's my new definition of success."

Mary Ruddy, a recent elementary education graduate of Illinois State University, needs a job for fall.

She luckily still has her job for summer working at a pool, but the pool opened behind schedule, so she's getting less income than she thought she would from that. She has also been unable to find a job for fall, which worries her – even though she lives at home, she tries to pay for all her food and gas, and she wants to take over her car payment from her parents now that she graduated and move out.

Before the pandemic, she felt like she was on the right track to meet all these goals, and wasn't worried about not being able to get a teaching job in her preferred age range.

Ruddy's now looking at any grade she is certified to teach. She's also looking for substitute or teacher's aide jobs, but many of those are up in the air as schools try to prepare education plans for fall.

She's been saving her money and working babysitting and other gig jobs to try to save up so if fall rolls around and she doesn't land a job, she'll have savings to fall back on. But without the job she thought she would have in March, she knows being able to move out and pay her car payments will be more difficult to do.

"I definitely wasn't worried before the pandemic. I thought it would all work out," Ruddy said. "After the pandemic, with some of my friends getting jobs but a lot of us still not having any, I'm definitely starting to get more worried about how the future's going to look."

A generation disrupted

Colin Enzer, a recent graduate of the University of Colorado Boulder, has money issues on the back of his mind: he'd like to move out of his parents' house, and while he will be OK for the foreseeable future without a job, he knows he needs one within a year.

But Enzer and his counterparts across the country share a willingness to adjust and change course – they're ready to change their expectations and hustle.

Recent college graduates struggle to find work in the wake of the pandemic

It's not that hard to roll with the punches, Enzer said, because young people have been doing it their whole lives. When it comes to the change and disruption the pandemic has caused for him and other young people when it comes to the job market, he feels like it's something they are prepared for.

"I feel like I was always in the guinea pig class in middle school and high school to have to use new technology and try new things," he said. "It seems kind of perfect that we'd be the class who has to come out and immediately learn the new way of interviewing, of getting a job, of working … it's not that hard for us to adapt because we've been doing it our whole lives."

Money advice for the Class of 2020

College graduates are facing one of the toughest job markets in decades. This makes it even more important to manage money wisely. Here is some money advice from the experts for getting through this pandemic and on the path to a financially solid future:

  • Budget. The most important thing young people need to do, says Yanely Espinal, director of educational outreach at Next Gen Personal Finance, is budget. If you're tracking your spending — on a spreadsheet, not just in your head — you can make sure you're covering the bills you need to pay — like student loans and other necessary expenses —and saving as much as you need to fall back on.
  • Cut out unnecessary spending. Realize how much you actually spend, says Espina, and then start to set limits. Maybe walk or take public transit instead of an Uber.
  • Know your options. One type of loan or assistance might work better for one individual but not another. So, it's helpful to know what's out there to find what's right for you. Do your research to find out what financial aid is available to you — and compare to find out what works best for you.
  • Don't be afraid to ask for help. There is support available for any students who feel like they're struggling, Lubin says, whether it's with food, money or just coping. If you need help — ask. Lubin recommends investigating SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), unemployment insurance and emergency financial aid. Lubin's organization, Rise, has student navigators who can help students navigate these services.

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Disclosure: NBCUniversal and Comcast Ventures are investors in Acorns.