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Originally published Saturday, June 8, 2013 at 3:59 PM

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Guest: College graduates face a dismal job market

Recent grads may find a university degree less consoling and more burdensome during this period of job uncertainty.

Special to The Times

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AFTER throwing their caps into the air, fresh-faced college graduates will take their diplomas and head out into the real world this June. It’s a time of excitement, but also of anxiety.

Despite national economic upturns, a university degree may be less consoling and more burdensome during this period of job uncertainty.

A four-year degree from the University of Washington going forward bears an estimated $51,800 in-state price tag today. Over the past 10 years, the cost of public higher education has risen more than 104 percent, spawning a generation burdened by student-loan debt, according to The College Board.

In Washington state alone, more than half of university students graduate with $22,244 of average debt, reports The Project on Student Debt.

With rising tuition costs and cutbacks in financial aid, many students and families have balanced multiple jobs and taken out loans. Higher education is touted as a promise of empowerment, but its outstanding price will haunt the majority of college students far into their working lives.

Unemployment rates are high, particularly for young America. Compared with the overall unemployment rate of 7.6 percent in March, the unemployment rate for young people ages 20 to 24 was 13.3 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

While college graduates enjoy higher employment rates and quicker employment stabilization compared with their 21- to 24-year-old counterparts without degrees, good opportunities are sparse.

Only 42 percent of recent college grads are working jobs that require college degrees, the Pew Economic Mobility Project reports. Ten percent of recent university graduates are unemployed and 26 percent are underemployed in high-school-level jobs.

As a recent UW graduate working part-time service jobs, it is sobering to realize that life after college is much like Lena Dunham’s hit TV series “Girls” — without the slightest tinge of Hollywood glamour.

At the university, I maintained a string of valuable but unpaid journalism internships, in addition to a full load of credits and a part-time retail job. I was fortunate to have some family support while juggling schedules, but several of my financially independent classmates maintained full-time jobs.

After graduating in March, my parents and I hoped for returns on our investment in my education. Yet the past few months of restless job searching have been marked with a flood of rejection emails and escalating anxiety.

In the current economic landscape, it is humbling and humiliating to receive only two favorable responses to more than 50 job applications, both of which were food-service positions.

Although working a low-income job following graduation is common and can be rewarding, it is difficult for recent grads not to feel disheartened.

Our frustration has less to do with naive idealism and false sense of entitlement acquired at university, and more to do with the difficulty of living paycheck to paycheck with accumulated student debt.

The financial barriers of such debt involve more than just a few college graduates earning minimum wage and living on Top Ramen-heavy diets. This crisis affects the whole society. It demands a redesign of the federal financial-aid system.

In July, the fixed low interest rate for federally subsidized student loans will expire, and the rate will increase from 3.4 to 6.8 percent. The subsidized Stafford loan is the most common form of federal aid, creating the option of affordable higher education for many students and families.

Last year, Congress voted to extend the low interest rates of the College Cost Reduction and Access Act. If Congress does not take action this year, more than 7 million students will pay $1,000 more per loan per year, according to the nonpartisan U.S. PIRG.

Congress should renew the low interest rate for federally subsidized loans to empower the future of America.

On Thursday, the U.S. Senate blocked Republican and Democratic bills to stop student loan rates from doubling, leaving students in limbo. The House voted in May for a GOP bill to prevent sharp and immediate increases to interest rates, but its plan was a problematic patch-up job for a failing higher-education funding system.

The GOP plans in both houses introduced market-based loan rates, which would result in more uncertainty and vulnerability for students and families.

The Democrats’ Senate proposal was better. It would have ensured subsidized, low-interest rates for two additional years, allowing Congress to develop a long-term plan to increase access to higher education. It was a temporary solution to the increasing unaffordability of higher education, but the proposal signaled a commitment to students and the future.

I graduated with degrees in journalism and international studies in hopes of pursuing a career as a journalist. I am not disillusioned. I don’t believe my degrees will reap an impressive salary in the short term, or even an immediate, full-time position.

Forging my future in an independent, financially sustainable way is like chasing after a unicorn.

Sandi Halimuddin is a recent graduate of the University of Washington and a former editorial intern for The Seattle Times. On Twitter @SandiHalimuddin

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