Black scientists make up a tiny percentage of Ph.D. recipients in STEM fields, yet they carry an inordinate amount of student loan debt compared to their non-Black peers, according to a new analysis of federal data by RTI International, a nonprofit research institute.
The analysis, detailed in a report released today, explores the educational paths of Black and Hispanic Ph.D. recipients in the sciences and reveals a number of discomforting disparities, including longer times to earn degrees and higher enrollment rates at for-profit institutions for Black scientists. The report draws on federal data from a National Science Foundation survey of research doctorates earned in the U.S. each year, a U.S. Department of Education longitudinal study of bachelor’s degree recipients during their senior years and one, four, and 10 years after graduation, and the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, which supports STEM-related research and education efforts, commissioned the report.
“We think about higher education and graduate school as this thing that helps with social inequality,” said Erin Dunlop Velez, director of education research at RTI International and the report’s primary author. But “even if you’re getting a Ph.D. in STEM, the top of the postsecondary totem pole, … if you’re taking on a huge amount of debt, that’s a drag on that social mobility because you’re paying all of that back. And that’s just heartbreaking to see.”
Of the STEM Ph.D.s awarded in the U.S. in 2021, only 5 percent went to Black scientists and 8 percent went to Hispanic scientists, even though the U.S. population is 12 percent Black and 19 percent Hispanic, according to the report.
Almost half of Black Ph.D.s across all disciplines, 49 percent, and 24 percent of Hispanic Ph.D.s borrowed more than $50,000 for their graduate education, compared with only 15 percent and 8 percent of their white and Asian colleagues, respectively, National Science Foundation data showed. The number of Black STEM Ph.D.s in the Education Department longitudinal study data was too small to examine separately, the report notes. But collectively, 81 percent of Black and Hispanic STEM Ph.D.s borrowed more than $40,000 in federal loans to afford their graduate studies, compared to 6 percent of their white counterparts.
Lorelle L. Espinosa, program director for higher education at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, said she keeps up with research related to diversity in STEM higher ed and didn’t expect to be surprised by any of the analysis results. But the levels of debt these Ph.D. recipients were carrying was “astonishing.”
Ebony McGee, professor of innovation and inclusion in the STEM ecosystem at Johns Hopkins University, noted that these debts can have longstanding negative effects on these scientists’ lives after they graduate. She noted that high debt burdens can force them to delay starting families, buying homes or retiring and exacerbate a lack of generational wealth “that’s already at a desperate level—so it further pushes you back.”
Other findings in the report shed light on some of the possible causes of that debt for Black and Hispanic Ph.D. recipients in STEM fields, particularly Black scientists.
National Science Foundation survey data showed that Black scientists took more time to finish their Ph.D.s than their peers. Only 42 percent of Black STEM Ph.D.s finished their doctorates within ten years of completing their bachelor’s degrees, compared to about 70 percent of their Hispanic peers, 68 percent of white peers and 65 percent of Asian peers. Once they started their doctoral programs, about 15 percent of Black STEM Ph.D.s took more than eight years to finish, compared to 10 percent of Asian Ph.D.s, 9 percent of Hispanic Ph.D.s and 8 percent of white Ph.D.s in STEM fields.
Black and Hispanic students also disproportionately earned their doctoral degrees from colleges and universities less likely to have paid research opportunities and teaching assistantships available, typical ways institutions help with the cost of a graduate education. Notably, Black STEM Ph.D.s attended for-profit colleges at higher rates than other groups. Almost a quarter of these scientists earned their Ph.D.s at a for-profit institution, compared to only 3 percent of Asian, Hispanic and white STEM Ph.D.s, according to IPEDS data.
Black Ph.D.s in general were also less likely to have earned their doctorates at an institution with R-1 status, the Carnegie classification for universities with the highest research activity, National Science Foundation data showed. Some 53 percent of Black Ph.D.s did their doctoral studies at these institutions, compared to 81 percent of Asian Ph.D.s, 77 percent of white Ph.D.s and 73 percent of Hispanic Ph.D.s.
Black Ph.D. recipients across disciplines were also more likely to have earned their master’s degree at a different institution before starting a Ph.D. program that otherwise would have included and helped to subsidize a master’s degree. This added to their college costs. More than half of Black Ph.D.s, 53 percent, earned a master’s degree at another institution compared to 34 percent of Asian, White, and Hispanic Ph.D.s.
Black Ph.D. recipients across fields were also more likely than others to have primarily drawn on their own resources, such as job earnings or family support, to pay for their graduate studies. And only 21 percent relied on teaching or research assistantships as their main financial support compared to 49 percent of Asian Ph.D.s, 48 percent of white Ph.D.s and 37 percent of Hispanic Ph.D.s.
Velez said this trend might be because of biases held by academic mentors who might be more likely to advise Black students to try out a master’s program first, which likely contributes to their doctoral degrees taking longer and them taking on more debt. And debts, especially with limited paid research opportunities, might require them to work, which can make those degrees take even longer to earn.
“So many of the findings in the paper kind of explain each other and feed into each other and I think it shows what a complicated thing this is,” Velez said. “… All of these are related and they’re all kind of factoring into [why] these students end up borrowing more.”
Rabi Ann Musah, a professor of chemistry at SUNY Albany, said she’s seen in her own work how all of these factors can layer on top of each other and have a “snowball effect” on Black STEM students. Musah is also associate vice provost for the Learning Commons and Center for Achievement, Retention and Student Success and director of the Driving Change EXCEL in STEM program at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The initiative aims to engage and retain underrepresented students in STEM programs.
She noted that at the undergraduate level at SUNY Albany, she discovered that a sizable percentage of minority students were dropping out of STEM gateway courses because of financial stressors, not because they weren’t academically succeeding.
She also frequently finds that underrepresented students, particularly first generation and low-income students, don’t know which offices on campus to call to get help with the challenges that arise. That’s why incoming STEM students at the university now have a support team that includes a student’s tutoring coordinator, academic adviser, financial aid adviser and others who can coordinate with each other when a student faces an obstacle.
“The assumption for a long time was ‘Oh, they’re just not good at chemistry. That’s why they dropped out,’” when in fact they were wrestling with all sorts of compounded barriers, she said. She suspects that’s true at the graduate level as well.
Espinosa noted that the disparities detailed in the report are bad news for academia. She said Black and Hispanic STEM Ph.D.s shouldering a lot of debt are more likely to opt for industry jobs that pay better rather than becoming academic scientists.
“We won’t see a diverse professoriate until these trends are reversed,” she said. “… If you’re carrying debt, you’re going to want to go to a place where you can pay that debt off quickly and support your family … and that’s not academe.”
McGee said having diverse tenure and tenure-track faculty members is key to recruiting and retaining graduate students of color, but the ripple effects of inequities extend outside of academia as well. She noted that a dearth of diverse scientists can lead to all kinds of problems ranging from companies producing skincare products that don’t work for different racial groups to racial biases in AI to environmental justice issues such as factories built in communities of color releasing toxins disproportionately.
“I think Black and brown STEM-ers have an affinity towards equity, towards racial justice,” she said. “I think they’ll make actually better STEM products …”
Pathways to STEM Ph.D.s
The report also focused on which bachelor’s degree-granting institutions were graduating the most Black and Hispanic students who went on to earn STEM Ph.D.s.
These Ph.D.s holders were more likely to attend smaller colleges and universities compared to their peers, according to Education Department data. Notably, 43 percent of white STEM Ph.D.s earned their bachelor’s degree at an institution with at least 20,000 students, compared to 19 percent of Black or Hispanic STEM Ph.D.s. Meanwhile, 40 percent of Black or Hispanic STEM Ph.D.s attended institutions with 5,000 students or fewer for their undergraduate degrees, compared to 32 percent of white STEM Ph.D.s.
Velez said this finding might indicate that smaller institutions are doing a better job at providing the supports Black and Hispanic students need.
“Whatever white students are getting out of that large school experience doesn’t seem to be working for them …” she said of students of color. She wonders “if being at a smaller school, where you have more one-on-one time with your professors, with smaller classes, and you get to know people better, if that is providing what they need more than the bigger school is.”
The report also found that while historically Black colleges and universities don’t produce a large percentage of STEM Ph.D.s in general, many Black STEM Ph.D. recipients do get their start there. National Science Foundation survey data showed that of the 184,000 STEM Ph.D.s awarded between 2010 and 2020, about 1.5 percent did their undergraduate studies at an HBCU and about 8.9 percent studied at a Hispanic-serving institution. But among Black students who earned a STEM Ph.D. during that period, 31 percent first attended an HBCU; about 41 percent of Hispanic STEM Ph.D.s attended an HSI.
Musah noted that HSIs include major research institutions with R-1 status, while HBCUs, despite graduating a sizable chunk of future Black STEM Ph.D.s, are often underfunded and lack paid research opportunities for graduate students to help stave off their debts. Some HBCUs are working toward the coveted research classification.
“It is essential that they have the resources to become R-1 institutions,” Musah said.
Espinosa said universities interested in bringing more students of color into their Ph.D. programs should be recruiting from the institutions these students are attending for their bachelor’s degrees.
And “we need to be investing in this set of institutions that are doing the hard work of educating future Ph.D. recipients,” she said. “That to me is the bigger message.”