Colleges all across Rhode Island hold graduation ceremonies this month, and many of their students will receive diplomas and then face thousands of dollars in student loans.
As we continue our series Paying For It: Rhode Islanders Struggle with Student Debt, Rhode Island Public Radio’s Elisabeth Harrison looked at how mounting student loans are impacting students and the decisions they make about their future.
On a spring afternoon at Bryant University, students walk to and from the dining hall as music plays from a stereo across the green. A pair of students lounge on the grass right outside the office of financial aid. They seem blissfully unaware of what their education might cost them, after they graduate.
“Uh, I don’t know. My mom kinda figures that out for me,” said Victoria Bryan, a sophomore at Bryant majoring in business management.
Whatever the cost of her student loans may be, Bryan chose to study business because she believes she will earn a good salary when she graduates.
“I wouldn’t want to be a history major because I feel like there isn’t a lot of money in that," said Bryan. "So I feel like I would want to have a major that will enable me to leave college right away and start making money."
Making money right away is something students increasingly have to think about as the loans they take on to finance their education go up.
Bryant University had the highest average loan burden of any Rhode Island school that submitted data for the Project on Student Debt, a national report on student loans. The report found that students in Bryant’s class of 2012 took on an average of more than $44,000 in loans.
Bryant freshman Sierra Moore expects to be paying off her loans until she’s at least 30 or 40.
“I guess like the reality of paying student loans after college hasn’t even hit me because its kind of like I know I have to go to school and I know I have to take out loans, so I’m just kind of waiting till I get there, like dealing with it after graduation,” said Moore.
A national survey by the organization American Student Loan Assistance suggests that student debt is causing a large percentage of recent graduates to delay major milestones like buying a house and starting a
family. It can also affect their career choices, and spokeswoman Allessandra Lanza says that’s part of the reason for new federal programs that tie the monthly payment to your income.
“There are a lot of people who want to go into really important fields like teaching and social work and all kinds of things that necessarily don’t have a high income, but are still really important for the community and society, "Lanza said. "So we want to encourage people to still pursue those types of things."
Providence College graduate Nicole Moniz is a student pursuing one of those degrees. She wants to be a school counselor and says financial aid was a major factor in her choice of college.
“For me that was something that was really important cause it’s not like I’d come from a family that had that much money, and we were always worried about finance,” Moniz explained.
Moniz grew up in Pawtucket, where her mother is a factory worker and her father puts together orders in a warehouse. No one in her family had ever gone to college, and the process of applying was pretty confusing. Luckily, her high school got a college counselor during her senior year.
“And she had brought up this thing about oh, percent of need met, you need to look at that, " said Moniz. "And I was just like, I had no clue. I was so confused by what it was she meant by percent of need met."
Percent of need met refers to the average amount of financial aid an institution typically kicks in to help students pay for tuition. The higher the average percent of need met, the better the chances for an applicant to get a significant amount of grants and scholarships.
“I was just like I want to go to a really good school, I have to go to a really good school, I’m not really going to worry about the money, but they really did make me open my eyes and say like you do have to worry about the money,” said Moniz.
Even with a generous scholarship, Moniz still has more than $40,000 in loans, and she’s about to take on more debt to go to graduate school. She spent the last year sharing what she’s learned about financial aid with high school students through a program called the College Advising Program.
Moniz says one of the hardest things she had to do was urge a student to reject college that would have left her saddled by debt.
“When I had said that to her she was so discouraged and was like, 'miss are you trying to shoot my dreams down? And I was like no, I’m not, but we need to think of the reality of the situation.”
Sitting on a bench at Providence College, Junior John Clarke says he chose go there even though he knew it would mean big debt.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a mountain, but it is a steep hill,” Clarke said.
He and his family have already borrowed nearly $80,000 to pay for his tuition, and he still has one year to go.
“There’s no way to actually justify the price tag, but you recognize how much this is costing, and then you can do one of two things. You put yourself into academics or you can check out, and say this is costing so much it’s not worth it,” said Clarke.
Clarke chose to throw himself into academics and get as much for the investment as possible by studying the things he feels passionate about. He’s majoring in philosophy and thinking about a career teaching English in high school. When asked if he would make a different decision today, he admits he's considered that.
“I’ve thought about that a lot, could I have gone somewhere else, and yes, I could have," Clarke said. "But I chose this, I did this, and since I can’t imagine it any other way, I think I’ll take what I got."
There are loan forgiveness programs for people who go into fields like teaching and social work, and there are also programs that help you lower your monthly payments, but in the long run, that also means you pay even more money for the degree.
Even so, some students see a silver lining to all that debt. It’s like an incentive not to slack off, they say, because you can literally see the dollar signs racking up if you even think about skipping class.