Ph.D.'s in Debt

December 8, 2006

So much for the idea that stipends pay for graduate school. As deans gathered in Washington for the annual meeting of the Council of Graduate Schools, one topic of concern buzzing through the air was how much borrowing students must do these days.

“We have seen much more emphasis on borrowing, especially among underrepresented minorities,” said Kenneth Redd, director of research and policy analysis with the Council of Graduate Schools. Redd noted that funding from grants and assistantships has not risen fast enough to cover increasing educational expenses. Underrepresented minorities are affected disproportionately by borrowing to cover costs. And high debts will limit these students' ability to complete their degree in a timely fashion, as many begin to attend part time.

For the 1995-6 academic year, the average price of attendance for a master's program was $9,272 and $13,423 for a doctoral program. By 2003-4, the annual price of attendance had jumped to $14,825 annually for a master’s and $20,803 for a doctoral program – a rise of 60 percent and 56 percent, respectively. Across this same time period, an increasing proportion of students began taking out loans to finance their education. Around 43 percent of minorities took out an average of $19,103 in loans annually to finance a year of doctoral study in 2003-4, while only 34 percent of white doctoral student required a loan, averaging $17,987. The size of these loans, Redd mentioned, is almost double the amount from the mid-'90s.

The difference in debt load between white and minority graduate students can be explained partly by the small number of blacks and Latinos in science and technology, which receive the bulk of federal spending on graduate programs. Of white students who went on to graduate school in 2003 -4, about 19 percent acquired degrees in science and technology, while only 9 percent of African Americans did the same. But even within these fields African American doctoral students were less likely to be awarded assistantships and more apt to need loans than whites.

Upon receiving their doctorate, around 65 percent of minority grad students carried a culmulative debt averaging $51,263. A slightly lower percentage of whites (58 percent) had accumulated $51,648 in debt to earn the same degree.

“The concern is, How long students can continue borrowing at these rates?” Redd asked.

Following Redd's presentation, Lisa Tedesco, dean of the graduate school of arts and sciences at Emory University, acknowledged that loans can create barriers and advised administrators to consider counseling students on debt management. “If it is a fact of life that students will have debt, then how can we lessen the impact?”

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