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Colleges and universities -- not to mention many businesses -- have been pushing for gains in the numbers of black and Latino students who earn doctorates, especially in STEM or social science fields.

A new study may point to one hindrance in making progress toward this goal. Black and Latino graduate students are more likely to borrow and more likely to borrow larger sums to earn a Ph.D. than are white or Asian graduate students. The figures are particularly striking for African Americans and for STEM fields.

The study was released Monday by the American Institutes for Research and is based on data on all U.S. citizens or permanent residents who earned doctorates in 2010. Data were analyzed for STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and for SBE fields (social, behavioral and economic sciences). For each category of disciplines, the study examined whether new Ph.D.s had graduated without debt, with a modest amount of debt (up to $30,000) or with large debt ($30,000) from graduate education.

Here are the results:

STEM Ph.D.s and Debt, by Race

Debt Level White and Asian Black Latino
No debt 73% 51% 64%
$1 to $30,000 17% 24% 22%
More than $30,000 10% 25% 14%

The researchers note that either no debt or minimal debt appears to be the norm for white and Asian Ph.D. recipients, but not other groups. Black Ph.D. recipients in STEM fields are more than twice as likely as are white and Asian Ph.D. recipients to accrue more than $30,000 in debt in graduate school.

Social Science Ph.D.s and Debt, by Race

Debt Level White and Asian Black Latino
No debt 44% 21% 34%
$1 to $30,000 21% 21% 23%
More than $30,000 35% 58% 44%

In the social sciences, where there is less outside support for doctoral education than in the STEM fields, a greater proportion of new Ph.D.s have borrowed than is the case for STEM graduate students. Still, however, racial and ethnic gaps jump out. White and Asian Ph.D.s, for example, are more than twice as likely as black Ph.D.s to earn their doctorates without debt.

The study notes that there are factors -- such as outside support or time to degree -- that could have an impact on debt levels. But when comparing different outcomes (say those who complete under or over the median time to degree, or with or without outside support), the racial and ethnic gaps remain (even if they shift a bit). This suggests that other factors -- such as family commitments -- need to be examined to continue to search for reasons for the racial gap in borrowing patterns. The authors -- Kristina L. Zeiser, Rita J. Kirshstein and Courtney Tanenbaum -- conclude their paper by calling for more study of the impact of graduate tuition rates on attracting and retaining a diverse pool of students. The authors add that it is well-documented that the prospect of debt can discourage graduate enrollments.

"If increasing the numbers of STEM and SBE Ph.D.s, and particularly broadening participation among underrepresented minorities, is to remain a national priority," they write, "the policies and practices that aim to support students in financing their education need to be examined."

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