Rhode Island has the fifth highest rate of student loan debt in the country and experts say part of the reason is the large number of expensive, private colleges, like Bryant University, Providence College and Salve Regina in Newport. One of the most expensive is the Rhode Island School of Design.
Rhode Island Public Radio’s education reporter, Elisabeth Harrison, met one graduate now staring down hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loans.
Johnny Adimando boards the 99 bus as he heads from his apartment on the artsy west side of Providence to his studio in Pawtucket. The trip is just a few miles, but it can take as long as two hours, and in a cold New England winter, that can be tough.
“So I’ve spent quite a bit of time in the last two winters sometimes waiting 40 minutes to an hour for a bus," says Adimando. "And then sometimes there are the fist fights, yeah, it’s a very colorful crowd at least on the 99.”
Adimando takes the bus because nearly six years after graduating from RISD, he still can’t afford a car. He works as an adjunct professor at RISD, which means his income can vary widely from one semester to the next. On a good year he makes about $30,000. That’s enough to cover his share of the rent on an apartment and pay for the studio in Pawtucket, at least for now, but it pales in comparison to the cost of his student loans.
“So, overall at this point with my original principal loan debt and interest I’m up over $200,000." Adimando said. "You could buy a house in some places.”
But Adimando didn’t buy a house. He got a bachelor’s degree and then a Master of Fine Arts in printmaking from RISD, and now the $200,000 bill for his education is coming due.
“I have officially run out of time in terms of deferment and forbearance. I would probably say that in the amount of time in which we’re doing this interview I’ll get anywhere from 5-7 calls from Sallie Mae.”
Sallie Mae is the leading student loan company in the country, and they keep calling with promises to negotiate, but Adimando says he has spent hours on the phone, only to be told he already makes the lowest possible payment.
He shells out $600 a month just to cover the interest from his student loans. The payments never even touch the principal, so Sallie Mae keeps calling, and the company calls his grandmother, who cosigned his private student loans when his parents couldn’t, because they don’t own their home. Adimando has repeatedly asked Sallie Mae to leave his grandmother alone.
“My grandmother’s kind of on the low end of what’s been an almost two-year battle with Alzheimer's, and I’ve made that clear to Sallie Mae, and they don’t seem to care,” said Adimando.
Adimando says he doesn’t want sympathy for his situation. He borrowed the money, and he wants to pay it back. But he is frustrated to find himself stuck in a labyrinth of student debt.
Every couple of months he has to call Sallie Mae to renegotiate his payment plan, and every month he wonders whether he will be able to afford his studio and whether he will ever breakthrough as an artist, the ambition that brought him to RISD in the first place.
“Signing off on a loan is you basically saying, okay, thank you and then, you know, in a certain amount of time I’ll give it back, and I want to be able to do that," said Adimando. "More than anything, it would make me so happy to be able to say it’s all set. The money’s just gonna get paid every month. They’re happy, I’m happy, I could move on from this.
RISD's Chief Operating Officer Jean Eddy says the cost of a RISD education is steep, but there are programs in place to help graduates like Adimando.
“I would say more times than not students who are facing this alone do not know all of the resources that are available to them,” Eddy said. “There are all kinds of programs out there that allow you to restructure your debt and to really look long term as to what you might be able to do and how you might be able to do it.”
Eddy says Adimando may be an extreme example, but he’s certainly not alone. The average graduate student at RISD finishes with anywhere from 60 to 80 thousand dollars in student loans. That’s because they’re paying for annual tuition and fees of more than $44,000, plus the cost of art supplies and living expenses.
“When they do that then you see costs skyrocket. So its not just a case of paying tuition and fees and supplies, but they’re also trying to pay for their rent, their food those kinds of amenities,” said Eddy.
“Amenities” like a roof over your head and groceries are hard to live without, and even though RISD offers some financial aid and work study positions, students footing the bill on their own are likely to take out large student loans just like Adimando. Even undergraduate students are likely to have loans averaging about $30,000, slightly more than the national average. That means their payments after graduation will probably average about $300 a month.
Eddy says RISD has taken steps to increase financial aid over the last five years, and improve financial counseling. There’s an online system that lets you plug in your dream career and the amount you are borrowing, then it gives you a reality check, telling you how much you are likely to make, and what your monthly loan payments will be. And for the most part, RISD students manage their student loans. Only about four percent are in default, far fewer than the national rate of 14 percent.
In his Pawtucket studio, Johnny Adimando grabs a piece of white paper, then squirts a blob of dark blue
ink out of a tube to make a screen print.
“So the ink goes down into this well at the top and then you use this thing called a squeegee and just apply pressure,” Adimando explains.
This is the printmaking process Adimando fell in love as an undergraduate, and this is what he studied at RISD. He says he feels incredibly lucky to have gone to his dream school and to be the first person in his family to graduate from college, let alone graduate school.
But the burden of living with six-figure student loans has taken a toll. He recently decided he can no longer afford the rent on his studio, and the entire experience has left him wondering whether higher education was the best decision.
“My parents didn’t have those opportunities, so they had a really firm belief that education was the answer, and I think that we’ve been sold that just overall, the idea of higher education as being the path to upward mobility, " Adimando said. "But the reality is, if you start your career in that much debt, where’s the upward mobility? I’m not moving anywhere. I’m stuck in the mud right now.”
Adimando has considered declaring bankruptcy to try and get out of the mud, but he’s hoping to avoid such a drastic step. And even bankruptcy would not completely erase his student loans. So he keeps making the monthly interest payments and hoping that one day he will earn enough money to begin making real payments on the money he borrowed to get his degrees.