The average debt among undergraduate students with loans in the class of 2019 is $28,950, according to a new report from the Institute of College Access and Success, a higher-education researcher.

That debt marks a slight decrease from $29,200 for the class of 2018. Sixty-two percent of 2019 graduates took out loans, down from 65% in 2018.

Debbie Cochrane, executive vice president of TICAS, said these shifts align with a general flattening of debt levels in recent years, due in part to increased state investment in higher education. But this trend and that funding could end due to the pandemic.

“These students graduated in 2019,” Cochrane said. “We’re now in the middle of an economic and health crisis that puts all those gains in jeopardy.”

Average student-debt growth has slowed, but indebtedness has increased substantially since TICAS issued its initial report on the subject 15 years ago. In 2004, the average student debt was $18,550 — roughly 56% less than it is for the class of 2019. TICAS says inflation was 36% over the same period of time.

The pandemic will likely accelerate this growth.

Relief is available to most federal loan borrowers, as their payments are suspended interest-free through Dec. 31.

But once payments restart, if you owed the average debt of $28,950, your monthly bills would be roughly $300, assuming an interest rate of 4.5% and a 10-year repayment term.

That may be difficult to afford if you are facing an economic hardship.

You could continue to pause payments, but pay interest for doing so. A better long-term solution is enrolling in an income-driven repayment plan.

“Income-driven plans usually can fit someone’s budget,” says Betsy Mayotte, president and founder of the nonprofit Institute of Student Loan Advisors.

These plans set federal loan payments at a percentage of your discretionary income, typically 10%. Monthly payments can be $0 if you earn below a certain amount.

Roughly 16% of graduates in the class of 2019 have nonfederal loans, according to TICAS. If you are among them, contact your lender immediately if you can’t afford payments.

“I wouldn’t call after your first bill is due,” Mayotte said. “I would call before that and let them know you’re struggling.”

You may be able to pause payments or make interest-only payments temporarily. You could also ask your co-signer for help, if you used one. Another option would be refinancing private loans at a lower rate.

 

Ryan Lane is a writer at NerdWallet. E-mail: rlane@nerdwallet.