Post-College Debt Grows


First, a huge thank you to everyone who read and commented on a post I write a few days ago, Do You Really Need a Master’s Degree?. I’ll be back to work at my college in just about a month and what you wrote is good food for thought as I try to think of how best to teach and advise undergraduates, and prepare them for the world after college.

The Chronicle of Higher Education also reported about the growth in the graduate student population in the US and addresses the topic that is often at the top of students’ thoughts: How to pay for graduate school.

More than a few undergraduates I’ve spoken to over the years have been surprised to learn that their funding for college doesn’t just “roll over” when they go to graduate school — that, when they apply to graduate school, the whole process of funding their education starts all over.

Using data on enrollment and financial aid from the 2007-8 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study, the Chronicle of Higher Education notes that the majority of graduate students are “leaning heavily on loans and grants” to finance their education. This is sobering news as so many undergraduates are already graduating with significant debt from having to pay back student loans. Says the Chronicle of Higher Education:

The average annual price of attendance for full-time graduate study ranged from $28,400 for a master’s program at a public institution to $52,200 for a professional-degree program at a private, nonprofit institution. Across all types of degrees and institutions, however, most students received some type of financial aid. Those in professional programs at private, nonprofit institutions received the highest aid, on average, at $36,200 annually.

Aid for graduate students included loans and grants, including employer subsidies, assistantships, and other work-study arrangements. More than three-quarters of professional students borrowed against the cost of their education, while only 42 percent of doctoral students in education and 20 percent of those in other fields did. Ph.D students were the least likely group of graduate students to be dependent on loans, averaging 14 percent of their aid in loans, compared with 80 percent of law students and 82 percent of medical and other health-sciences students.).

These figures are sadly and squarely in keeping with many discussions I’ve had with students. Ph.D. programs do tend to offer the largest amounts of financial aid, in part because doctoral students are making the longest commitment to an institution to further their education. While masters students are sometimes awarded scholarships, they are only considered after funds have been awarded to doctoral students. Students in professional programs — for MBAs, in particular — generally have to pay their way through loans or otherwise. Most students in medical school and law school take out loans to finance their education in anticipation of solid payback once they’ve started careers. Some of my students have gotten scholarships to law school, especially if they are willing to let the financial aid package decide where they’ll study.

As the Chronicle of Higher Education‘s data indicates, many students earning masters degrees in professional fields like education and business are working and attend graduate school through employer subsidies (this is the case for teachers in some New Jersey school districts).Universities offer a limited number of assistant positions in which graduate students in the humanities might teach or do research or work in an administrative office. Not surprisingly, a far higher number of masters degree students works at least part-time:

Master’s students were significantly less likely than either doctoral or professional students to enroll full time, with only 17 percent of those studying education and 32 percent of other master’s students taking a full course load each year. That compares with 60 percent of doctoral students in fields outside education, 79 percent of law students, and 89 percent of medical students with full course loads. More than 70 percent of master’s students in education or business and doctoral students in education continued to work full time while enrolled in graduate study. In contrast, only 43 percent of Ph.D. students, 10 percent of medical students, and 19 percent of law students did so.

Indeed, if one is a Ph.D. student and awarded a fellowship from one’s school, you’re not supposed to be working anything more than part-time, so you can concentrate on your studies and write a dissertation. (“Supposed to.”)

What’s disquieting about these figures is that they suggest that, even though more people are earning masters degrees, graduate school remains out of the reach of many or is only possible with students going into more debt post-college. For students earning a masters in a humanities field such as English or history, what happens afterwards is a bit uncertain: They might apply to a doctoral program to continue their education, although jobs in academia, especially on a tenure-track, are becoming increasingly rare. A graduate degree is not in and of itself a sure step to a job and a career, something that schools don’t emphasize to prospective students but that it pays to know.


Related Care2 Coverage

Do You Really Need a Master’s Degree?

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Photo by skinnylawyer


Tim Cheung
Tim C6 years ago


Dan Holoman
Dan Holoman6 years ago

I still owe...................

Sharon Beth Long
Sharon Beth Long6 years ago

Many students go into the military or military reserves mainly for tuition assistance or because of benefits that include paying off the principal on student loans

Sharon Beth Long
Sharon Beth Long6 years ago

I graduated with a BA in 1980 and then won a competitive fellowship for the next four years. In my day it was unheard of for any doctoral student in a non professional (that is anything but medicine or law) doctoral program to pay his/her own way. They taught undergraduates or were supported by professor's research grants.
In my Conservative Jewish denomination the educational program for rabbinic ordination which was a post BA degree used to be free with the understanding that students would either spend a couple of years in the military or in a "hardship" position (small, poor or isolated synagogue) after graduating. Now our rabbinic seminary costs over $40000 a year in tuition and the seminary insists that its graduates be paid at least $100000 a year including benefits (which admittedly may include a health insurance policy with a market value of of over $30000 a year or free housing again with a market value of perhaps $30000 a year). This is necessary to pay off student loans. However it has the effect of preventing small congregations from affiliating with the United Synagogues which is the Conservative Jewish synagogue federation and forcing them to use rabbinical students (and only if these congregations are close enough to one of our two seminaries) who are there on only a part time basis and who leave after one two or three years. Other small congregations are forced to use volunteer lay leaders for clerical functions or are forced to use clergy who are

Mary M.
Daria M6 years ago

For all the graduates who can't even get an interview, sometimes you must be willing to move to where the jobs are located. Yes, that may mean leaving friends and family, free room & board at parents' house, etc. but that's the sacrifice many have made throughout history. No, it's not fun or easy, requires lots of courage and may mean coping with discomfort, yet, it is reality. You must live in the places where there are jobs available. Plain and simple. And, you must do the research to find out where those places are located. Again, not fun or glamorous...and requires lots of sacrifice and possible discomfort. Welcome to the reality of responsible adulthood.

Mike Chrissie
Mike Chrissie6 years ago

I worked my way through college, not as much party but still did some. I majored in something there was a demand for. Today students choose to borrow money from the tax payer and then major in a field of study which there are few jobs and then whin that it's not fair. Hey, you borrowed my tax money, you made bad choices, learn from them.

Tamara H.
Tamara H6 years ago

For many, it's foolish, even irresponsible to pursue a graduate degree immediately after their bachelors. Certainly for some fields, medical doctor is the obvious one, this isn't so. But for the majority, it is. My advice is exactly what I did. Get a job, find out if that is the career field you REALLY want. Perhaps change career and seek an employer who will subsidize furthering your training/education.

Rachel Beckford
Rachel Beckford6 years ago

The really sad thing to me is that when these students, who are saddled with grad and professional school debt, graduate and are fortunate enough to land a job they often feel they have to own a house and a new vehicle which just adds to their debt. They just don't seem to understand that they are not "entitled" to live the lifestyle their parents enjoy after having worked hard for years.

Carole Dunn
Carole Dunn6 years ago

Students today really have to look long and hard at the job possibilities in the field that they want to study and decide whether going into debt makes any sense. So-called facts you hear politicians and various government entities spout are often not true at all; you have to ask people who are in the field about what kinds of real opportunities there are. For instance, the president said we needed about one million more science and math teachers. However, when my sister, who has years of experience, and certified to teach all high school sciences, applied for three different job openings there were about 200 applicants for each job. We actually have a glut of unemployed math and science teachers.

J C Bro
J C Brou6 years ago

thanks for this.