Graduate Students

As Graduate-Student Population Grows, So Does Its Reliance on Financial Aid

July 26, 2011

The nation's growing number of graduate students, gravitating particularly toward master's-degree programs in business and education, are leaning heavily on loans and grants to pay for their education, says a report released today by the U.S. Department of Education.

The analysis, which used data on enrollment and financial aid from the 2007-8 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study, found that two-thirds of the three million graduate students in the United States were in master's programs, with half of that group studying business or education. Fifteen percent of graduate students were in doctoral programs, and 9 percent were in professional programs, including law, theology, and medicine and health sciences. The balance of graduate students were enrolled in certificate programs.

Over all, the number of graduate students has increased by 57 percent since 1988.

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.

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.).

The study also found that master's and doctoral students delayed graduate education more frequently than professional students did. While 79 percent of medical students and 68 percent of law students enrolled in graduate programs within two years of completing a bachelor's degree, only 39 to 51 percent of master's students (depending on their field of study), and 44 percent of doctoral students in noneducation fields did the same.

The study also noted other patterns in graduate education. For instance, 28 percent of Ph.D. students in noneducation fields came from outside the United States, compared with 12 percent of other graduate students. And students in M.B.A. programs included by far the largest cohort, at 22 percent, to attend for-profit institutions.