PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) - David Greco grew up in Rhode Island and says he'd like to stay, but he's planning to leave when he finishes law school - because he and his fiancée can't find jobs that will allow them to pay off roughly $400,000 in student loan debt.
Greco, 26, of Johnston, estimates he took out $20,000 in student loans to cover a bachelor's degree from Bryant University in Smithfield, another $45,000 to get a master's from Nova Southeastern University in Florida, and an additional $180,000 for a law degree from Suffolk University in Boston. His fiancée, Shanda, took out roughly $75,000 in loans as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan and about $150,000 more as a law student at Suffolk, where she met Greco.
Greco estimates the couple will spend about $3,000 a month for 15 years paying off their loans. He says he doesn't regret his decisions and is looking forward to becoming a practicing attorney, but he does wonder what he would have done if he'd known more going in.
"I'm a first generation college graduate, so it was always kind of like, 'Do this, it'll be better for you, it'll work out, don't worry about it right now,'" Greco told Target 12. "Part of me wishes I thought about it a little more, but I love what I do. I don't regret the path I took to get where I am now. So it's kind of a catch-22."
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Greco's situation is extreme, but he's far from alone in finishing school with a significant debt burden. More than two-thirds of graduates who received a diploma in Rhode Island in 2011 owed money when they were done, and their average debt of $29,097 was fourth-highest in the country, according to the nonprofit Institute for College Access and Success.
A Target 12 analysis of Southern New England schools reveals Salve Regina University in Newport saddled borrowers with the most debt, averaging $43,237 for members of the Class of 2011, almost 90% of whom took out loans. That's nearly $5,000 more than second-ranked Roger Williams University in Bristol, where the average 2011 graduate left owing $38,365.
"Salve Regina's administration does worry about the debt load of our students and we work closely with students and families on this issue," Laura McPhie Oliveira, the school's vice president for enrollment and planning, said in a statement. The average debt for borrowers at Salve fell to $40,089 in the Class of 2012, she said.
Oliveira suggested the debt level at Salve may have risen in 2011 because the debt statistics only count loans taken out by students directly, leaving out money borrowed by their parents. Since the 2008 financial crisis families have been shifting away from using home-equity and federal PLUS loans, which are in parents' names, and more toward alternative loans with lower rates in students' names, she said.
Brown beefs up aid budget
Perhaps surprisingly considering its elite status as an Ivy League school, graduates of Brown University had the lowest amount of debt in Rhode Island in 2011.
Brown graduates' average debt of $20,455 was even lower than at four-year public colleges Rhode Island College ($21,384 per borrower) and the University of Rhode Island ($25,973 per borrower).
Brown spokeswoman Marisa Quinn the university has taken a series of steps over the past decade to make the school more affordable, instituting need-blind admissions in 2003 and establishing a policy in 2008 that calls for no loans in financial aid packages for freshmen whose families make less than $100,000 a year.
"This is a costly and important program that we are able to offer as a result of the generosity of our donors, as well as because of income provided by the endowment," Brown's Quinn told Target 12. The university will spend $90 million this year on need-based scholarships, and more than 60% of Brown freshmen now take out no loans.
Expert: Look outside Rhode Island
Cristiana Quinn, whose Providence firm advises families on college admissions, said she fears more students are overextending themselves financially to pay for college and thinks most would benefit from doing more research before choosing a school.
"I think in many cases families will do more investigations about how much a car is going to cost and what their loan terms are going to be on a car versus a four-year education, which is a much larger expense," Quinn told Target 12.
Student debt is generally higher in the Northeast because of the region's high cost of living and the higher tuition charged by many institutions in the area, Quinn said. Rhode Island also has fewer public options for higher education compared with other states such has Massachusetts, which has the University of Massachusetts system as well as multiple public four-year and community colleges.
"It's really important to look outside of Rhode Island because when you look at private colleges, in many cases if a student is a good student graduating with a high GPA and relatively good SAT scores, they can graduate with less debt from a private college than they can from their own state university," Quinn said.
RWU moves to freeze tuition
The issue of college debt is receiving growing attention nationally, with the total amount of outstanding student loans now topping $1 trillion for the first time and a stagnant job market making it harder for some graduates to pay off their debts. Most of the loans are given by the federal government and are difficult if not impossible to discharge in bankruptcy.
Quinn said students and their parents should ask questions about a school before they receive a financial aid package: "What is the average student loan debt from each institution they are looking at? What percentage of students graduate in four years? And then what's the average salary for students who have just graduated at that institution?"
Some colleges are taking more aggressive steps to deal with the problem. Last fall, Roger Williams University announced a new Affordable Excellence Initiative that will freeze tuition for the Class of 2017 and try to improve students' readiness for the job market.
"The question that parents have on their mind right now and the biggest concern is, will my child graduate in debt with no job?" Roger Williams President Donald Farish said on myRITV's Executive Suite.
Farish also said he's sympathetic to arguments that higher education could be another bubble along the lines of the housing market during the last decade. "I think we've reached a point where the percentage of families that can afford the list price of what most private schools are charging these days has gotten so small that we're fighting over very small numbers amongst ourselves," he said.
'Flighty for-profit universities'
Brown President Cristina Paxson argues it's important to make a distinction between different institutions.
"The student that is borrowing a lot of money for a not-high-quality education from one of these sort of flighty for-profit universities - they're not all flighty, but there's some bad ones out there - that's a huge problem," Paxson said on WPRI 12's Newsmakers in November.
"When you look at institutions like Brown, where we're really relying on our endowments to provide serious financial aid to our students and it's great that we're able to do that, the issues are very different," she said. "There's no single answer. It depends where you are."
Politicians are also tackling the issue. U.S. Sen. Jack Reed is pushing Congress and the Obama administration to come up with a comprehensive approach to college affordability, including by keeping rates low on federal Stafford loans and making it possible to discharge private student loans in bankruptcy, Reed spokesman Chip Unruh said.
Bridget Terry Long, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, has suggested the federal government could help students gather information by requiring colleges to produce simple fact sheets that disclose their former students' loan default rates, average debt loads, employment rates and job performance.
"There are many negative and far-reaching repercussions due to the complexities of the college investment combined with the lack of clear information," Long wrote in a 2010 paper released by two Washington think-tanks. "Not surprisingly, years of research document the general lack of understanding families have about the college enrollment process and their college options."
Other benefits from college
In Rhode Island's case, Greco said the state's double-digit unemployment can make it difficult for graduates with high loan burdens to stay there after college. "There's no jobs available, and if there are jobs it won't pay as well," he said. "It's a tough place to start a career."
For Greco, though, there's another silver lining: "Long story short, I ended up finding my fiancée in law school. If I didn't end up in each subsequent step to end up at Suffolk and where I was, I wouldn't have the same life I have now, and that out-values the cost any day."
Asked if that story shows he takes a romantic view of his student loans, Greco smiled and said: "You have to when you have that much debt, right?"
Copyright WPRI 12
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