The Huge Racial Gap in Graduate School Student Debt

The National Science Foundation recently released its annual data on doctoral degree recipients in the United States. Data for the annual Survey of Earned Doctorates shows racial differences in financial support for students who earn doctoral degrees. For instance, 28.0 percent of Whites who earned doctorates in 2019 had served as research assistants. Only 14.5 percent of African American doctoral recipients served as research assistants. Some 21.5 percent of Whites had teaching assistantships while pursuing doctoral studies compared to 12.1 percent of Blacks.

About one out of every five Whites who earned a doctorate paid for their degrees primarily from their own funds or saving. For African Americans who earned doctorates in 2019, 41.8 percent used their own funds or savings as the primary source for paying for their education.

Only 20 percent of all African Americans who earned doctorates in 2019 had no education-related debt when they earned their terminal degree. For Whites, 48.1 percent had no education-related debt. The average graduate education debt for Whites was $31,657. African Americans who earned doctorates in 2019, had an average graduate student debt of $84,050.

A total of 490 of the 2,369 African Americans who earned doctorates in 2019, or 20.7 percent, had graduate student debt of more than $160,000. For Whites, only 4.4 percent of all doctoral recipients had graduate student debt exceeding $160,000.

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  1. As I complete my doctorate, I will have debt over $200.000, but the worst is I am currently unable to find favorable wages while looking for employment. And, I graduated with my masters on the President’s List with honors, while currently holding a 3.8 GPA.

    • Hello Mr. Ruffin,

      I am curious. what school are you attending? Also wondering what personal circumstances contributed to you accruing the 200k debt. I am a student journalist working on a story about student debt for Black grad students.

      • Black students are more likely to go to for-profit schools and attend humanities vs STEM programs. Those aspects are huge contributors to the racial gap in debt.

    • Hey Leewonder,

      You must be getting your doctorate in underwater basket weaving. Seriously, how many publications do you have under your belt? What type of research are you courrently working on? Last, what particular field will your doctorate degree be?

  2. When I earned my doctorate 20+ years ago I had total student debt of about $33k. At the time, it was considered a huge amount of money for someone with degrees in the humanities. My master’s and doctoral programs offered scholarships or tuition remission and even a stipend for the PhD, but loans were a necessary part of the mix. Retiring the debt meant tightening my belt for more than a dozen years. It was not fun, but it was doable. Today when I hear debt levels of $100k, $150k, $200k my heart brakes because managing that debt does not seem doable to me (even at my current compensation). New degree recipients still have to live (rent, food, clothes, etc.) and most will want to do fanciful things like start a family or buy a house; their salaries will not be much more than I was making 20 years ago. When I talk to young people now—especially those in my family—we have ugly conversations about the reality of what they plan to study, what it will cost, and how they will pay for it. Debt can painfully compromise their life choices in the years ahead in ways they cannot yet imagine.

  3. When I was in graduate school many years ago, there were two basic ways to earn a doctorate without burying yourself in debt.

    One way was to prepare carefully for aptitude tests like the GRE, GMAT, LSAT, etc., in order to pull off scores that would be high enough to earn a university fellowship or research/teaching assistantship at a school you would not be embarrassed to attend. The other way was to find a fiance or marry a woman who would support you until graduation.

    If I were thinking about grad school today, I would make sure I had some low-cost IT certifications that would help me make money on the side. Running up huge debts would be out of the question. What if a traffic accident put me in a wheelchair the day after graduation?

  4. I did not go directly into college upon completing high school because I was told by a lot of my elders to avoid student loans. Years later when it was time for my daughter to attend college, I had to take out a parent plus loan of 56k for her to live on campus. After doing that I realize that I should invest in myself and decided to go to college. I was able to obtain a bachelor’s and master’s degree within five years. I learned a lot from the colleges I attended however, obtaining these degrees did not enhance my salary, in fact, I make less now than I did without a degree. It seems like employers have high educational requirements but don’t have merit compensation for the loan debt acquired to earn the degrees. With the unemployment rate at an all-time high, I’m afraid that there is a lot of competition and it may be difficult for individuals to obtain an ROI on their education.

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