Recent college graduates in Rhode Island have some of the highest loan burdens in the country, according to a national study called the Project on Student Debt. At the same time, Rhode Island faces consistently high unemployment and a sluggish economy.
All that made me wonder what it’s like to finish college with significant debt, so I set out to meet some of the graduates facing this problem and the experts who study it. I’ve been amazed by the response to their stories.
I started out by speaking with Lauren Asher, Director of the Institute for College Access and Success, which authored the Project on Student Debt. She told me part of the problem is the high cost of a college degree, and the large number of expensive, private colleges in this part of the country.
Next, I met a Rhode Island School of Design graduate who owes hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loans. Johnny Adimando’s story may be an extreme example, but it illustrates the paralyzing effect student debt can have on upward mobility.
The third person I spoke with has been out of school for some time but still doesn’t earn enough money to pay back her student loans. Allison Dean uses her personal experience to help other families avoid crippling student debt as a private financial aid counselor.
For current college students, the debt equation poses a real dilemma: even a generous scholarship can leave you with tens of thousands of dollars in student debt. At the same time, many students want to attend the best college they can get into. I asked some current students how their loans affect their lives at college and their visions for the future.
Finally, I spoke with Charlie Kelley, who runs the Rhode Island Student Loan Authority, the agency that originates and services loans for the state's colleges and universities. He said one of his biggest concerns is when students take years to pay off their loans, treating them like a mortgage but without any property to build equity.