Features

College debt weighs on students, sparking national action

R.I. college students cope with debt in a depressed economy

By
Staff Writer

Though Rhode Island is the smallest state in the country, around a dozen colleges call it home, and more than two-thirds of the state’s students will graduate with debt, according to a 2012 study by the Project for Student Debt.

The schools’ financial aid policies vary widely, but their students face the same challenges: rising tuition rates, uncertain job prospects and the pressures of student loan repayment.

 

Cashing out for college

The question of affordability emerges early for prospective college students. Many said it influenced which school they ultimately chose to attend.

Renee Lafond, a junior majoring in theater, said the cost of tuition and the prospect of paying back student debt influenced her decision to attend Rhode Island College, where tuition is $7,602 annually. Lafond said she anticipates being around $8,000 to $10,000 in debt by the time she graduates and took out loans to qualify for a line of credit at the school bookstore.

“I could’ve easily opted to go to a dramatic academy in New York that would’ve cost me ($80,0000) a year,” said Lafond. “I tend to feel almost a little bad, because I decided to stay in-state and not go to an Ivy League, which a lot of my friends go to,” she added.

Marisa Landry, a sophomore at the University of Rhode Island, said her choice to attend the university depended in part on the financial aid package she was offered. She is receiving an athletic scholarship that covers much of her out-of-state tuition.

Tuition hikes often complicate students’ financial plans.

Catherine Cabral, a junior at Salve Regina University, said she remembers being taken aback by a $1,000 increase in tuition at the end of last semester. “(I) didn’t see the need for that,” she said, adding that Salve Regina “(does not) provide enough financial aid.”

Cabral said she is already “around $30,000 to $40,000 in debt” and anticipates staying at Salve Regina for another year. She said she predicts she will be around $80,000 to $100,000 in debt when she graduates.

“Student debt is a concern to all institutions,” said Dan Egan, president of the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of Rhode Island.

“(Students) are very concerned” about financing their education, said Matthew Brady, a sophomore at Salve Regina who took out loans last year to help pay for his education. “If it was stable, I think kids would be okay,” he said, but tuition has continued to increase.

 

Practical pursuits

Some students have also decided what to study in part due to their financial situations.

Cabral said she inititally wanted to study chemistry but ultimately decided to major in social work because she believes she will have more job opportunities after graduation. She has also had to think twice about studying abroad in the summer because it would create more debt, she said.

After graduating, Cabral said she wants a job that will provide her with a comfortable salary and allow her to pay off her loans in a timely fashion, she said.

“I don’t want to be 30 years old and still paying off my debt,” she added.

Alexis Jelenik, a first-year at Salve Regina who is on financial aid and has also taken out loans, said she is majoring in nursing and wants to pursue a career as a nurse anesthetist.

“I chose that because they make a pretty decent salary,” she said.

Some students pursue additional majors to make the most of their college tuition, they said.

Brady said he knows a number of other students double-majoring in education and a subject they want to teach.

Students believe “their education has to be worth it,” Brady said, adding that he plans on double majoring in administration and justice — Salve Regina’s pre-law track — as well as religious and theological studies.

“I’d rather major in both and then figure out what I want to do after, knowing that I have plenty of opportunities,” he said.

 

Finding a field

But other students are gambling that studying subjects they are passionate about will be more fulfilling.

Balancing the desire to pursue one’s passion with the difficulty of obtaining a job in today’s economy is a “Catch-22,” said Bennet Koffa, a senior at URI.

Koffa, who receives financial aid from URI through the university’s Talent Development Program — an initiative geared toward in-state students who demonstrate academic merit and financial need — also takes out around $14,000 in student loans annually, he said. He expects to be about $40,000 to $50,000 in debt by the time he graduates, Koffa added.

Koffa said he chose his majors — communications and journalism — based on his interests rather than potential job prospects.

“We don’t look at price of education, but we look at what we want to do because that’s going to matter — that’s what’s going to pay off after,” he said.

Landry also said she chose a major that aligned with her interests, adding that she would not want to study an unappealing subject that promised to lead to a lucrative career. Landry said her parents support her decision to major in nutrition and have encouraged her to follow her passion rather than a paycheck.

But Landry acknowledged that other students might not make the same choice. “I’m guessing there are people majoring in engineering because they want a higher-paying job,” she said.

“Theater is not a very practical thing to study,” said Lafond, a junior at RIC. “It’s a little bit of a struggle, but for me, I decided I would do what I love rather than do something more practical,” she added. “Not everyone has the luxury of choosing.”

 

When it comes to money, mum’s the word

Though many students rely on loans and financial aid to pay for college, few discuss their financial situations publicly.

Talking about loans “doesn’t translate over to day-to-day conversation,” Brady said. “It’s more something that we worry about with our families.”

But the topic does sometimes come up around dining hall tables, Jelenik said.

“I know that sometimes at dinner, we have a group of friends, and we talk about how much financial aid we got or what our scholarships were,” she said.

“I don’t know anyone who doesn’t have a loan taken out,” added Salve Regina first-year Brooke Hobson.

While he said he believes student debt does not directly impact students’ undergraduate experiences, he added that loan debt is still an important issue.

“There are many efforts underway to focus on costs and make college as affordable as possible for as many as possible,” Egan said.

Both Jelenik and Hobson said they plan on going to graduate school but are wary of the additional debt they would have to assume.

“I think if I want to go to grad school, I would want to find a job that would pay for me to go to grad school,” Hobson said. “It would make it a lot easier, especially with the end of college and having to pay my student loans ­— I don’t want to add more to it.”