In tough economy, RI students stay close to home

Providence, R.I. – As high schools around the state hold graduation ceremonies this month, many students and families are confronting the daunting task of paying for college. In a difficult economy, with rising college costs, a growing number of Rhode Islanders are choosing to state colleges instead of more costly out of state schools.

At the University of Rhode Island, freshman orientation is already underway as part of an effort to give students a taste of what's in store for the fall. Leandra Lee, who graduates from West Warwick High School this week, spent the night in a dorm, and she says she's looking forward to becoming a college student.

"I'm very excited to join the clubs and the groups here because it really does seem like a good community," says Lee. "It seems like I'll learn a lot."

But URI wasn't Leandra Lee's first choice. She seriously considered Drew University, a private college in New Jersey that offered a generous financial aid package, but she would still have had to borrow more than $20,000 a year to afford it.

"The campus is amazing and it really seemed like a good place to go, like I would be taught really well there, and everything," says Lee. "But it was expensive. It was $54,000 a year. They gave me 30,000 year, but that's still 22,000, so it was kinda like I had to be a little mature about it."

At URI, Lee's first year is almost entirely paid for with grants and scholarships, and she says she'll only have to borrow about $8,000 a year after that. In the end, she decided that was better than graduating with nearly $90,000 in student debt.

"I want to go into nursing, so I know the pay is okay," she says. "But I don't want to have loans for 10, 15 years."

Lee is not alone. As Rhode Island families continue to feel the effects of the recession, interest in state colleges and universities is growing. Officials at Rhode Island College reported a record number of applications this year, and URI, the number of in-state students enrolling is on the rise, as well.

"about 100 more Rhode Islanders tell us at this point that they're coming to URI compared to this time last year, so that's a 6.5 percent increase" says Cynthia Bonn, Dean of Admissions at URI. Bonn says the bad economy continues to be a struggle for many of the families she works with, and sometimes even the relatively inexpensive tuition of a state school is a stretch.

"We got a call yesterday from the father of an incoming freshman, who lost his job," explains Bonn. "I mean these are the kinds of calls that we're getting this year. People who are saying is there anything you can do, is there any additional aid, is there any additional scholarship money, or I can't afford to send my child can I get my deposit back."

"The reality of college choice for students saying you can go anywhere you want, there's no longer that reality," says Dave DeBlois, director of the College Planning Center of Rhode Island, a non profit that offers free college counseling. DeBlois says even though colleges are handing out more financial aid than ever before, many families he sees, including middle class families, are struggling to come up with their share of tuition and fees, which can run from roughly $21,000 a year at URI to more than $50,000 for a private college.

"Am I going to borrow $120,000 over four years? Think about that reality," says DeBlois of the situation many families face, adding. "that's for number one child, then there's number two child coming up next, what do I do then?"

DeBlois says parents are increasingly reluctant to take loans out themselves, which places a larger financial burden on the students themselves. Gail Pesapane of Coventry, says she was relieved when her son picked URI over the more expensive Roger Williams University.

"If he really wanted to go there we might have found a way," she says. "But luckily we didn't have to face that."

Dave DeBlois of the College Planning Center says he's also seeing many students do something new in recent years: wonder if their career choice is worth the expense of a bachelors degree.

"If I go to a private school that's going to cost me $150,000 in loans, can I afford that payment on that salary? That's what people have to start thinking about now," says DeBlois. "I don't think other generations ever really worried about that before."

But going without a college degree may not be affordable either, as 20-year-old Brittany Lamb found out when she dropped out of Rhode Island College last year.

"With this economy its like if you're not graduated from college and have your own career its kinda like you're stuck in that whole part time jobs right now cause there's really no full time availability anywhere," Lamb says.

Lamb had a scholarship at RIC, and her mom took out a small loan to help cover the rest of the tuition. Then she lost her job, and Lamb had to start working to help the family put food on the table. She withdrew from classes before the end of the first semester. Now she's hoping community college can help her get back on track -- her dream is to one day own her own dance studio.

"I know the economy is not ready for it right now," says Lamb. "So I was planning on working for someone else and seeing how the whole business aspect of it works and then going out on my own."

At the College Planning Center, DeBlois urged Lamb to go back to community college for two years, then transfer to a 4-year state school. That way, he says, she can get a Bachelor's degree and only pay for two years worth of full college tuition.